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‘We Got Along’ — Big John Dingell Remembers

The editors of Roll Call asked Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) to share some of his perspectives on the House to mark this day, when he has become the longest-serving Member in the history of the House of Representatives. Here are his thoughts — in his own words.

Most Members of the current Congress wouldn’t remember this time, and for many people who follow Capitol Hill, this may seem hard to believe, but we used to pass bipartisan bills — frequently. It wasn’t uncommon for an important bill to get 400-plus votes.

This also may seem remarkable, but Republicans and Democrats not only worked well together, but they socialized together, too. Republicans’ daughters dated Democrats’ sons. Our spouses all knew each other and spent time together. I used to play paddleball with Republican colleagues on the House courts — with frequent challenges from friends like my Congressional colleagues George H.W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.

We got along. We did good work. It wasn’t perfect, and we certainly fought a lot, but we weren’t paralyzed by partisanship either.

Passing legislation was a much different process — we frequently started from the center and reached out to each side of the political spectrum, and we didn’t stop just because we had 218 votes. In the 21st century, we seem to be locked into this system of starting from the far left or the far right and then doing just enough to get a bill passed. It works in getting a bill done, but it’s not a system designed to produce the best bill that does the most good for all Americans.

President Barack Obama has taken a bold step promising to lead us into a post-partisanship era. I applaud this because I believe that increasingly ideological bickering has seriously damaged not just our ability to act on behalf of the American people, but also further threatens our standing with those people whom we are supposed to govern.

And we can’t afford to govern in this manner any longer. Right now, Wall Street’s former financial titans are like zombie companies — more dead than alive. Our health care system is broken, failing more people than it helps despite the fact that our doctors can provide the finest medical care in the world. We’re too scared to spend, even though we know many businesses are facing bankruptcy. We won’t shop for homes because we know banks won’t give us the loans to pay for them and home values continue to plummet. We won’t buy cars because we worry about the future of the people who make them and service their warranties.

America is looking to Congress and the president to do something about it.

Our president has asked us to put aside our past divisions for the good of the nation — and I cannot put it in any way more eloquently or gracefully than he has. But what I can tell you after 19,420 days of service in the House of Representatives is that bipartisanship can work and does work better than what we have now.

When I lost the battle to stay chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, some of the first Members to come to visit me were Rep. Chet Edwards, a conservative Democrat from Texas, and Republican Reps. Joe Barton (Texas) and Fred Upton (Mich.) — two men who have been a part of tremendous work on the committee, even when we’ve had disagreements.

I was fortunate to work with my friend, former Chairman Billy Tauzin (La.), on the legislation creating the Do Not Call list, which now protects Americans from intolerable telemarketer harassment.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) and I agree on very little when it comes to gun rights. However, after the horrendous shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, we worked together to pass a bill that will help keep guns out of the hands of madmen, while protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens. It’s a good law, and I’m glad we were able to get it done together.

And starting from the middle, in the 110th Congress, we passed a consumer product safety bill with final vote in the full House of 424-1. This bill was not perfect, but as Obama said last week, “We can’t afford to make perfect the enemy of the absolutely necessary,” and a strong bill to protect our children’s toys was absolutely necessary last year.

If you have any doubt that the majority of Americans want that kind of cooperation, then you have forgotten the lessons that Obama taught us in November. He is just the right leader for this time in our history.

I also think that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has been as successful a Speaker as any in our recent history, can be the leader who reaches across the aisle and builds consensus with Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) on the major policy issues before us. And last but not least, the new chairman of Energy and Commerce, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), has been gracious by creating an opportunity for me to work on one of the most important issues of our time — health care.

I look forward to taking ideas from the president and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and building consensus on a bill that will provide health care coverage for all Americans. With Waxman’s support, I plan to lead the committee’s efforts in passing that bill, and I invite my Republican colleagues to be a part of legislation that will provide relief and comfort to millions of Americans, as well as salvation for American businesses going broke paying the cost of health care.

What I have come to believe after 53 years here is that we have much better chance of success with both sides working for solutions than we do working against each other. We cannot afford to let the rivalries of the past prevent us from acting in a way that will better the future of our nation.

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