John Dingell Jr., who’s represented many-times-redrawn pieces of Michigan in the U.S. House since winning a special election in 1955, announced this week that he won’t run for another term this fall.
“I’m not going to be carried out feet first,” said the 87-year-old Democrat, according to the Detroit News. “I don’t want people to say I stayed too long.”
All joking aside, Dingell made it clear that he would have stayed longer if not for the “acrimony and bitterness” that has consumed Congress — acrimony that he did not specifically date to 2010, when his party lost control of the House and Dingell lost his chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee.* “This is not the Congress I know and love,” he says. “It’s hard for me to accept, but it’s time to cash it in.”
*If you ever hear it mentioned on the radio with its omnipresent adjective, remember that it’s a “powerful” committee, not that its jurisdiction is limited to “powerful energy.”
Dingell was first elected to replace John Dingell Sr., his father, who had died after serving in Congress for 20 years. Dingell’s replacement could be his wife, Debbie Dingell, a former General Motors executive who may be willing to put in a couple of decades filling the Dingell seat. (“She’s been my guide, my counsel, my friend and my closest adviser,” the current congressman told the News.) Allahpundit points out, “if she can’t serve 19 years, no worries. Christopher Dingell, John’s son, was elected to the state senate at the tender age of 30 and now serves as a judge. He’s a few years younger than Debbie and is right in line behind her.”
The Dingell seat in Michigan is already about to hit the average U.S. life expectancy of 79 years, with John Jr. outlasting most of the voters who became old enough to vote during his first term. This is OK with political scientist Norm Ornstein, whose book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism suggests some sympathy with Dingell’s disenchantment with Washington since the rise of the Tea Party.
Ornstein writes in the Atlantic:
Some may view Dingell’s longevity as a good reason for term limits. I view it as the opposite. Dingell has had a hand — a hugely constructive hand — in nearly every major advance in social policy over the past five-plus decades, including civil and voting rights, health, and the environment. He has always had strong views — not always in sync with mine, I should add — but he brought intellectual depth and honesty to the table and found ways to build bonds of trust and affection with his Republican adversaries and counterparts that helped make many of the policy advances work better because they had bipartisan leadership support.
Ornstein notes that 2014 is “a tough year for Michigan,” since U.S. Sen. Carl Levin is also retiring — but “if we are fortunate,” Levin’s younger brother, Sandy Levin, will continue in the U.S. House seat he first won in 1982.
Coming from the state of Too Many Kennedys,* I’m not so sanguine about political dynasties. Dingell’s “hugely constructive hand” in social policy is not proof that social justice would have been retarded had a couple of other generations got their turn at his congressional seat. And The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis pushes back against the accolades by noting that the power accumulated after several decades in Congress can also be used to block progress: “There is simply no overstating how destructive Dingell was to the prospects for sensible gun regulation in this country.”
*One of the cleverest things three-year U.S. Sen. Scott Brown ever did was mock political reporters’ frequent references to “the Kennedy seat” that had been held by John, then Teddy Kennedy for decades.
Jonathan Bernstein is not a term-limits guy, and he reassured voters in 2012 that dynasty politics may be on the wane. Bernstein offers praise for Dingell without encouraging others to try matching his tenure:
That Dingell happens to have the record for longevity is basically luck and circumstance, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see a House in which everyone sticks around for 25 terms and more. Robert Byrd wasn’t a greater senator than Bob Dole or Ted Kennedy or Pete Domenici or Ed Muskie, even though he outlasted them in office. But Dingell has had a highly productive career. That has to do with the fact that he dedicated basically his entire working life to it. That’s public service to the nation, and it absolutely is worth celebrating.
Photo of John Dingell Jr. from Wikipedia.