Skip to content

Another variety-pack column today, with several points worthy of re-examination at greater length another time.

First on the agenda is Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), whose 50 years of service in the House will be celebrated tonight, by what I am sure will be a stunning array of figures from both sides of the aisle and from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.[IMGCAP(1)]

Fifty years of service in the House is, of course, remarkable and rare. That John Dingell was preceded by his father and grew up as a child of the House is even more so. He in every way, shape and form is a man of the House, fiercely protective of its special place in our constitutional system, capable of outrage when its prerogatives are ignored or overridden, and a lion when he was in a position to do oversight, regardless of who the president was or which party he came from. When the Democrats lost the House, I heard from many Hill watchers that Dingell would be lost without his gavel and would soon retire. I laughed. They clearly did not know him very well.

I have been on the receiving end of Dingell’s wrath, especially when Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution and I suggested rearranging the jurisdictions of committees in the early 1990s, a proposal that would have taken some areas away from his precious Energy and Commerce Committee. I am very glad I was not a witness during some of his oversight campaigns as an avenging angel. Sometimes it was hard not to cringe.

But I have also been on the receiving end of Dingell’s kindness. Many years ago, I shared a plane with John and Debbie Dingell to a weekend conference in West Virginia. I barely knew John at the time, and was not yet writing regularly for Roll Call. I was in a walking cast, having absolutely wrecked my ankle on the tennis courts a few days earlier — and I was barely a week from taking a trip to China. John noticed the cast, asked about it, and talked at length about his own experiences, after many hip and other leg problems, navigating around without full motor capabilities.

It was a nice conversation. On Monday morning, my receptionist called to say there was a visitor upstairs with something to give me. I went up and found John Dingell, proffering a magnificent mahogany Irish walking stick, a shillelagh, that he explained had belonged to his father. He said it would be just the thing to make my way up and around the Great Wall.

John Dingell had no need to curry favor with me. It was just a warm, human gesture. I have seen him do many other favors over the years for colleagues and friends that belie the image of a fearsome man. Admittedly, he can be a fearsome man — but he also has very cleverly used that reputation, along with occasional tactical explosions of temper, to further his legislative goals. It should be noted that he was genuinely more fearsome before his wife, Debbie — herself a Woman of the House, a mainstay of civility, warmth and decency around the institution — tempered some of his tougher instincts. They are quite a team.

My second topic is a variation of one of my ongoing themes: the decline in respect for the regular order in the House. The issue in this case is an amendment to end the slaughter of horses for human consumption in the United States. My guess is most Americans have no idea that there are three facilities in the United States that do so. All are foreign-owned, with two in Illinois and one in Texas. These facilities send horse meat overseas, where in several countries it is a popular dish. I remember being stunned last year to see several horse-meat dishes on the menu in an upscale restaurant outside Geneva.

A bill to ban the practice in the United States was bottled up in the House Agriculture Committee in the 108th Congress but was successfully attached this year as an amendment, offered by Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), to the Agriculture appropriations bill, which passed the House, 269-158. An identical amendment was offered in the Senate by John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and passed in that chamber 69-28.

Standard Congressional practice for provisions in bills that have reached a conference committee is that they are accepted intact if they were adopted in identical form by both chambers. It only makes sense to do so, especially for provisions passed by overwhelming margins in both houses. But it appears that the Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, rural development, Food and Drug Administration and related agencies Chairman Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) is going to strip the provision out of the bill unilaterally.

This may not technically be a violation of the rules. But if it happens, it’s still an affront to regular order and fairness. In this case, it may be the high-handed action of a chairman who wants to protect an interest in his state. But it is a bad precedent — a kind of bait-and-switch approach to legislating, in which Members cast votes on the floor to go on record for something popular, then make sure that the provisions are scuttled, quietly, at a later stage.

Of course, this approach would be nothing new. But it reflects a regrettable course by the majority, in which Members elected by their chambers to conferences are shut out from deliberations, new provisions that were never considered in either chamber are added to bills, and late-night up-or-down votes on huge omnibus bills that no one has read are necessitated, with consideration detached from any reasonable deliberative process. In this case, one does not have to be an animal rights advocate to see Bonilla’s expected course as an affront to Congress’ mission of legislating in the public interest.

Finally, a comment on Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who is filling in for the indicted House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Burson Taylor, Blunt’s communications director, wrote a letter to Roll Call on Monday to clarify some information cited in one of my earlier columns. Blunt, he noted, has contributed generously to the Missouri Republican Party for many years, not just when his son was a candidate, and that Missouri law, unlike Texas law, allows corporate contributions to state candidates.

Taylor’s points are well taken. Nothing that was reported in The Associated Press story that I relied upon in writing the column — especially the exchanges between the ROYB fund controlled by Blunt and the ARMPAC fund controlled by DeLay — seems illegal. And it is true that, even if the exchanges made by ARMPAC to TRMPAC to the Republican National Committee seem on their face designed to evade Texas law, the situation involving Blunt and Missouri are different.

After writing only two weeks ago that Blunt is not like DeLay in his approach to campaign laws or the institution, I do not want to leave the implication that I have changed my view. I remain a Roy Blunt fan. But I think he needs to be doubly and triply careful about fundraising, fund-exchanging, and the delicate relationships he must maintain when family members are also in the public eye, whether in elected office or as lobbyists. And he should be careful as well about keeping company with colleagues who have been not very careful at all.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Recent Stories

Kim launches primary challenge after Menendez refuses to quit

Four spending bills readied for House floor amid stopgap uncertainty

Menendez rejects New Jersey Democrats’ calls to resign after indictment

Photos of the week ending September 22, 2023

Dressing down — Congressional Hits and Misses

Menendez indictment comes with Democrats playing 2024 defense