Dingell took a seat in the House in 1955 before the 34th president of United States had finished his first term. Before 80 percent of Americans now alive were born. Before Hawai`i and Alaska were states. But that wasn't his introduction to the House. He had been a page there from 1938 to 1943, and he was on the floor that day in December 1941 to see the 32nd president deliver his "Day of Infamy" speech live.
Dingell wasn't the first of that name to serve that Michigan seat; his father, John Dingell Sr. represented the 15th district from 1933 to 1955 when he died. Together they have represented the several times renumbered and redrawn district for 80 years, more than a third of the time Congress has existed.
At 18, in 1944, Dingell joined the U.S. Army, rose to the rank of lieutenant and was slated to join the invasion of the Japanese homeland until the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended those plans.
Although far too young to be considered an actual New Deal Democrat, that, in fact, was for a long time a fair description of his position on many issues although he became more liberal over time. His father joined the Democratic landslide in 1932 and was in Congress to see all the signature New Deal legislation signed, including the Social Security Act of 1935 that he had been a driving force to get passed. The younger Dingell was presiding over the House the day Medicare passed in 1965 and was invited to Lyndon Johnson's signing of that legislation. He's opposed recent efforts to privatize both.
in 1955 to fill out the term of his father,
who died that year after 22 years in the House.
Dingell voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, something he thought might cost him his seat. But he was less courageous when it came to supporting desegregation efforts in Michigan schools. Like many Democrats of his era, he was a Cold War liberal and backed the Vietnam War until 1971, years after a majority of Americans had turned against it.
Based in a district that once included most of Detroit, Dingell is an old friend of organized labor and the automotive industry from when both were robust. But his close personal connection to the industry—his wife, Debbie, continues to be a GM executive—and his unwillingness to pressure it put him on the outs with environmental advocates because of his opposition to the CAFE standards designed to force automakers to build more efficient vehicles. On most environmetal issues, Dingell had been a leader in the '70s and '80s. But his opposition to anything the auto industry opposed or that he thought would hurt autoworkers, plus his slowness to take climate change seriously would eventually cost him his chairmanship the Energy and Commerce committee.
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Dingell had first become chairman there in 1981 and served in that post or, when Republicans were in power, as the ranking member, until 2008, when California's Henry Waxman, a strong environmentalist and himself no slouch in the seniority department, engineered a coup against him. Dingell remains "chairman emeritus," but it's said Waxman's move initially hurt him personally. Gone with the chairmanship was some of the political clout as well.
He had used it with toughness. He was known for calling in members of the executive branch and giving them the third degree for hours, under oath and the threat of perjury, over their actions. The committee's efforts under his hand uncovered corruption in various government agencies as well as the Pentagon and forced the resignations of several officials.
“He was no-nonsense, tough-minded, tough-spoken, hard-bitten, and he was feared,” said Bill Ballenger, the publisher of Inside Michigan Politics. “A lot of people thought he was the ultimate Congressional scourge, the ultimate irascible, aggressive chairman who would make you pay if you crossed him or lied to him.”Dingell has yet to decide if he will run for an unprecedented 30th term.
He became famous for his “Dingell-grams”—long written requests for information from people or agencies he planned to investigate. “I found that questions are probably one of the most effective instruments for oversight,” Mr. Dingell said, relishing the word “effective” and seeming to suck it through his teeth. “You’d be surprised how a bureaucrat who’s engaged in questionable practices all of a sudden realizes, ‘Boy I might be up there talking to him.’ “
Lawmakers remember Mr. Dingell pointing to a map of the Earth when asked what his jurisdiction was. “ ‘If it moves it’s energy, and if it doesn’t, it’s commerce,’ ” Representative Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan who now leads the committee, recalled Mr. Dingell explaining.