September 21st, 2020


John Dingell Is Gone --- And So Too House Dems' Common Sense

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published Feb.12, 2019

Overlooked in a week of political news dominated by a presidential State of the Union Address and scandal-plagued Virginians: the passing of former Michigan Rep. John Dingell.

For those unfamiliar with congressional history, here's why John Dingell matters:

  • He was the longest serving member of Congress (59 years, 21 days before retiring in 2015);
  • In an institution averse to dynastic rule, his family is the opposite (a Dingell has sat in the House of Representative since 1933);
  • Historians will long study Dingell's chairmanship of the House Energy & Commerce for his accumulation of policy clout and his mortal combat with former California Rep. Henry Waxman over environmental regulation;
  • Few members of Congress have been as parochially fierce (Dingell's defense of Detroit's automotive industry earned him such sobriquets as "Dirty Dingell", "Tailpipe Johnny" — plus,"The Truck" for mowing down Motown critics).

But one other reason why John Dingell's death deserves mention: his departure from Capitol Hill points to the lack of stature — historical significance — in today's Congress.

Figure it this way: the National Statuary consists of 100 statues — two apiece, for the 50 states representing an individual notable in his or her state's history (fitting for an ever-growing federal government, the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall would suffer from overcrowding).

Ask yourself: what current members of Congress are on a path to be cast in bronze or marble for Capitol Hill eternity?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi? She's historically significant as the chamber's first woman to wield the gavel. Does she matter more than Ronald Reagan and Father Junipero Serra, California's two current choices (actually, one can see Father Serra getting the boot now that Jerry Brown is in office to defend him)?

How about Georgia Rep. John Lewis, for his involvement in the civil rights movement? Should he get the nod over Crawford W. Long (responsible for discovering the use of ether in surgery) or Alexander Hamilton Stephens (the Confederate vice president who opposed secession)?

And there's New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, coming off her successful rollout of the "Green New Deal" (I'm being sarcastic). Would you put her ahead of George Clinton (New York's first governor) and Robert Livingston (one of the five drafters of the Declaration of Independence.

Then again, over a half-dozen U.S. presidents have hailed from New York. Anyone willing to wager that TR, FDR or Trump will get a statue?

To be fair, it's not as if Congress has been running low on historically significant members only recently. You could make an argument that Kansan Bob Dole maybe deserves a statue, as might the late Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye and the more recently deceased John McCain.

Otherwise, it's been slim pickings of late.

But there's another problem with today's Congress — not so much historical significance, as it the ability to work beyond rigid ideological constraints.

John Dingell is a good example of the difference then and now. Fewer Democrats were more dogged in the pursuit of national health insurance.

On the other hand, Dingell clashed with Speaker Pelosi over the liberal green agenda — a difference of opinion that illustrated the migration of Democratic power from the Rust Belt to the two coasts.

Think of this as House Democrats flex their newfound muscle. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, wants to subpoena Trump's tax returns. House Oversight Chair Elijah Cummings,  Maryland Democrat, thinks Trump is making "a lot of money" while working in the Oval Office. California Rep. Maxine Waters, chair of the House Financial Services Committee, didn't watch last week's State of the Union Address because Trump "is not worthy of being listened to." House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, seems poised for a long string of contentious hearings with Trump Administration officials.   

A quick glimpse at the 20 non-select House committees shows only four of those bodies chaired by Democrats who hail from non-coastal states. And judging by the words and actions of the aforementioned chairs, they seem fueled in large by personal animus toward Trump.

Perhaps John Dingell, were he still serving in Congress, might be one of those aggrieved Democrats. His posthumous "last words for America" included a dig a Trump: "In our modern political age, the presidential bully pulpit seems dedicated to sowing division and denigrating, often in the most irrelevant and infantile personal terms, the political opposition."

But Dingell likely would have erupted after reading the specific of the vaunted "Green New Deal" — and, most likely, would not have shied away from publicly expressing his displeasure.

Good luck finding a prominent House Democrat willing to throw down with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In that regard, it's not just John Dingell who perished.

So too has his party's common sense.

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he studies and writes on current events and political trends. In citing Whalen as one of its "top-ten" political reporters, The 1992 Media Guide said of his work: "The New York Times could trade six of its political writers for Whalen and still get a bargain." During those years, Whalen also appeared frequently on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CNBC.