Dingell, longest-serving member, retires

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A living legend has seen enough.

Rep. John Dingell Jr. (D-Mich.), the longest-serving congressman, announced Monday that he’ll retire at the end of this year, marking the end of a career that shaped some of the most consequential legislation in modern history.

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First elected in 1955 — before the advent of the birth-control pill, the snooze button and the states of Alaska and Hawaii — Dingell has kept a front-row seat as the country grappled with civil rights, saw a president assassinated, fought a string of divisive wars and launched men into space. 

But the current political environment, where entrenched partisanship and legislative stalemates are almost the rule, was what did him in, Dingell suggested this week.

“This Congress has been a great disappointment to everyone — members, media, citizens and our country,” he said Monday in a speech to a local chapter of the Chamber of Commerce. “There will be much blaming and finger pointing back and forth, but the members share fault, much fault, [and] the people share much fault, for encouraging a disregard of our country, our Congress and our governmental system.”

In an interview with The Detroit News, he was even more blunt.

“I find serving in the House to be obnoxious,” Dingell said. “It’s become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness.”

With that, Dingell became the latest in a growing list of Old Bull Democrats who will retire next year, following closely on the heels of Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.), Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Jim Moran (D-Va.).

He’ll leave a vacant seat in a safe Democratic district near Detroit, where his wife Debbie, a Democratic National Committee member and former General Motors Foundation executive, is expected to enter the race.

In his speech Monday, Dingell called his wife “tireless, devoted, and [someone who] worked just as hard — if not harder — for this district throughout the years.”

The 87-year-old lawmaker, who is fond of saying he serves “with” presidents, not “under” them, will also leave enormous shoes to fill.

The son of Rep. John Dingell Sr., a veteran Democrat and liberal champion of the social safety net, Dingell replaced his father when the elder Dingell died in office in 1955. He’s won 29 reelection contests since then, most by a wide margin.

Dingell’s tenure is such that he can claim 25-term Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the second-longest-serving active member, as a former staffer.

Never officially in leadership, Dingell’s influence came from his position on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, which he chaired from 1981 to 1995, and again from 2007 to 2008.

From that perch, he helped sway some of the most significant reforms of the last century, including the creation of Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Affordable Care Act.

Dingell was fully aware of the significance of heading the Energy and Commerce panel. He was known to point to a map of the world in the panel’s private chambers and remark, “That is the jurisdiction of this committee.”

He built a reputation as a fierce interrogator who took a no-holds-barred approach to his oversight duties, often to the dread of those on the receiving end of his questions.

Richard Hall, a political scientist at the University of Michigan and a former Capitol Hill staffer, said he’s never seen anyone else approach the oversight role so vigorously.

“It’s not very sexy politically, and Dingell did it with a vengeance,” Hall said by phone Monday.

Despite an extensive record fighting for environmental causes, Dingell’s fierce defense of Detroit’s famously regional automobile industry often put him at odds with fellow liberal Democrats over certain issues like fuel efficiency standards.

After redistricting, Dingell squared off against the more liberal Rep. Lynn Rivers (D) in a 2002 primary contest. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) backed Rivers, but Dingell prevailed.

Six years later, Waxman toppled Dingell from the top spot on Energy and Commerce. The ouster was seen as a move to put a more reliably liberal voice on climate change atop the panel ahead of President Obama’s tenure in the White House. 

On Monday, however, there was no hint of lingering friction, as Waxman praised Dingell’s “legendary career” and Pelosi lauded “a treasured mentor” and “a cherished colleague and friend.”

“His experience, his leadership, his partnership and passion will be sorely missed by all who had the honor to serve along his side,” Pelosi said in a statement. 

Obama and Vice President Biden also issued statements lauding the dean of the House.

In June, Dingell surpassed the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) as the longest-tenured member of Congress in U.S. history. It was a milestone that prompted Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to name the Energy and Commerce Committee room in the Rayburn Office building in honor of the 30-term Democrat. 

“A legacy is not something you can conjure up or acquire,” Boehner said at the time. “A legacy is something that you make.”