The Dean Is Done: 59 Years Will Be Enough for the Cunning and Complex John Dingell
Posted at 5:53 p.m. on Feb. 24, 2014
Efforts by his colleague to so much as chip away at that jurisdiction were repelled with merciless force and a watchful eye ever after. He once said he’d adopted as his own the aphorism the Corleone family made famous in “The Godfather, Part II”: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
And whatever legislative sway he lacked, he made up for with imperious investigatory zeal that inspired fear in Democratic as well as Republican administrations. With as many as 100 aides working for the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee he also chaired, Dingell would send a seemingly constant stream of letters demanding explanations and information from agencies big and small. When the answers to these “Dingell-grams” were not fast or thorough enough to suit his needs as chairman, he’d quickly dispatch subpoenas and schedule a hearing.
The breadth and persistence of these inquiries continued between 1995 and 2006, when he was ranking minority member, prompting President George W. Bush to once describe Dingell to his face as the “biggest pain in the ass” on Capitol Hill.
Adding to his mystique as a merciless competitor is his collection of stuffed fish and game trophies on the walls of his Rayburn Building office, including that of a 500-pound boar he reportedly felled with only a pistol.
“He will be remembered as one of the most influential members of Congress not to have served as president,” said Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, who was ranking Energy and Commerce Republican during Dingell’s final term as chairman, in 2007 and 2008.
Dingell’s unsurpassed presence on Capitol Hill is an essential part of his story, in part because it began when he moved into the neighborhood as a small boy. Since his namesake father was a New Dealer elected to represent Detroit in the 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt landslide, young Dingell was first allowed on the House floor at age 6. He served as a House page at 12 and was in the chamber for FDR’s “Date of Infamy” speech after Pearl Harbor.
Dingell was an assistant county prosecutor in Dearborn when his father died in 1955 during a routine physical. He secured organized labor’s backing in a 12-person primary and then took 76 percent in the subsequent special election for his dad’s seat. At 29, Dingell was the youngest member of the House. (Roll Call was founded the same year.)
He became the longest-serving House member ever in February 2009 (surpassing the record Mississippi Democrat Jamie L. Whitten set in the early 1990s) and the longest-tenured member in the history of Congress on June 7, 2013 (surpassing Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who died in office in 2010).
That endurance means Dingell has been a member for 27 percent of the time the U.S. Congress has existed and has shaped policy with or without the help of a quarter of all the nation’s presidents.
He is now in his 20th year as the House dean — during which time, seven out of eight of the current members have begun their time at the Capitol. Such is the nature of Dingell’s career that his successor in the longevity title stands to be one of his former Hill aides — John Conyers Jr. Conyers, of note, says he plans to run for a 21st term in a neighboring Michigan district. The Democrat, now 84, joined Dingell’s staff as legislative aide fresh out of law school in 1958.