Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) already knows how he will spend Valentine’s Day 2009.
If everything proceeds according to plan, that is the day he will celebrate becoming the longest-serving House Member in history.
“We’re working on it,” Dingell said, adding, “We’re not working on the amount of time; we’re working on the quality of work.”
Anita Dunn, the Democratic media consultant who has worked with Dingell on his re-election campaigns for the past decade, said it is exactly that kind of work ethic that has gotten Dingell to where he is today — 49 years, 7 months, 22 days and counting.
“A huge part of his strength as a Member is he’s never forgotten who he’s here to serve,” Dunn said. “His fundamental reasons why he’s here have not changed. That’s an extraordinary asset.”
Dingell came to the House Dec. 13, 1955, at age 29. He won a special election to succeed his father, who died in office.
John Dingell Sr. arrived in Washington in 1933. Together the Dingells have a 72-year hold on what is now Michigan’s 15th district — the longest for a continuously held Congressional seat within one family, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Dingell almost literally grew up in the House. He served as a page from 1938 to 1943 and worked as a Capitol elevator operator to pay for his undergraduate and law degrees at Georgetown University.
“It’s different,” Dingell said about the House, of which he is now the dean, some 70 years later. “When Dad came here, he had one room on the fifth floor of [the] Cannon [House Office Building], one secretary, one typewriter and no air-conditioning.
“When I came in, I had four staffers. If you wanted more typewriters or anything, you had to buy it yourself,” he said. His salary was $22,000 a year.
“It seemed like a good number when I came down here, but not once I was here,” he joked.
Members now make $162,100, a figure that will soon rise to $165,200.
Air conditioning arrived in 1936, followed by bigger staffs, more equipment, more trips home and year-round sessions, he said.
While he does not mind many of those improvements, he still does not like the decision on March 19, 1979, to bring C-SPAN cameras to the House floor.
“I wasn’t in favor of it,” he said. “And very frankly I maintain that view. When we considered legislation, we’d have a hearing. We’d close the door after, take off our coats, roll up our sleeves, fight like hell, and after a long, bitter fight, we’d come up with an agreement,” Dingell recalled. “Republicans and Democrats worked together to get a bill through, and it would pass easily [on the floor] and we remained good friends before, during and after the fight.”
Not anymore — not since television came into the hearing rooms and House and Senate galleries and Members started mugging for the cameras and playing to the audience at home, he said.
Lawmaking should be “collegial, intelligent, cooperative and coordinated. We see very little of it today,” the one-time chairman lamented.
Dingell chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee (before Republicans stripped its jurisdiction over financial services) from 1981 to 1995.
“Even Republicans still call him Mr. Chairman,” noted his colleague, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).
Dingell oversaw the breakup of AT&T, helped develop the Clean Air Act, authored the Endangered Species Act, pushed for a “patient’s bill of rights” and tackled corporate accountability “before it was cool,” according to Dunn.
“The term ‘powerful Congressman’ so aptly applies to him,” Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) observed.
That power, and the way he wields it, is what has kept him in office so long, said pollster Fred Yang, who has worked for Dingell since 1992.
“From the voters’ perspective, they know he’s a powerful Congressman with a lot of seniority, but the reason he keeps winning re-election is the sense that he is someone who cares about them and hasn’t lost touch with them,” Yang said.
In one campaign ad, Dingell used a phrase that went something like “America’s most powerful Congressman is your Congressman,” Yang said.
It was exactly that pitch that saved his seat in 2002, Dunn said.
Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature redrew the state’s Congressional lines with an eye toward diminishing Democrats’ power in the delegation in general and toward removing Dingell specifically.
They placed Dingell and then-Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-Mich.) in the new 15th district.
Rivers, who was first elected in 1994, opted to challenge Dingell to a primary rather than run in the neighboring 11th district.
“He never doubted he’d win the primary,” Dunn recalled. “He put together one of the best campaigns in the country. There were some people who thought he hadn’t had to run a tough, contested race since 1964 … and doubted that he could put together the kind of modern campaign” needed to win.
“People should never have doubted it,” she said. “He was thinking, ‘OK, they’re trying to get rid of me and it’s not going to work.’”
The only current Congressman who’s even close to Dingell in years of service is fellow Michigan Rep. John Conyers (D). He has put in 40 years and change.
“Can anyone do it again?” Yang asked. “Yes. A lot of it is good genes and good health.”
But Yang doubts a hypothetical record-breaker down the road will share Dingell’s reverence for the House as an institution and his “single-minded focus on wanting to make things work.”
Yang called Dingell a “historical figure who lives in the present.”
Dingell himself does not want to talk about the election after 2006.
“I have never announced my candidacy until I was ready to do so,” he said. Nonetheless, when Feb. 14, 2009, rolls around, Dingell said he wants to welcome it with little fanfare.
“I think the lovely Deborah [Dingell, his wife] has some plans, but my idea is that I get up and do the best job I can and then go home and spend the evening with the most beautiful woman in the world,” he said.
Dingell said maybe he would consider retiring if he finally secured the achievement that has eluded him, and his father, ever since he came to Congress: national health insurance.
Every year, Dingell introduces the national health insurance plan his father first dropped in the hopper in 1943 and assigns it the number H.R. 15, for his district.
Even if it passes, he probably would want to stay around to “make sure that it was properly administered and worked,” he said.
What it takes to serve as long as he has is a lot of time, “a lot of work, a lot of luck and a lot of friends and a lot of help from the good Lord,” he said.
Dingell echoed Mark Twain, who wanted his gravestone to say “he tried his damnedest” in saying how he would want to be remembered.
“I’d like [people] to say I did my best for the people I serve,” he said.