By Mike Lillis - 06/03/13 09:00 AM EDT
He came to Capitol Hill before the advent of Velcro, NASA and remote control TV; he had a hand in some of the most significant legislative achievements of the last century, including the creation of Medicare; and this week, Rep. John Dingell Jr. will become the longest-serving member in the history of Congress.
The Michigan Democrat on Friday will notch his 20,996th day on Capitol Hill, surpassing the late-Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) as the most durable lawmaker in the country's history.
First elected during the Eisenhower administration, Dingell has watched from Congress as the civil rights movement unfolded, JFK was assassinated, Richard Nixon resigned, wars divided the country and men walked on the moon.
He replaced his father, John Dingell Sr., who died in office in 1955 after more than 20 years representing Michigan in the House. Since then, he's been reelected 29 times, almost always with overwhelming support. Last November, he took 68 percent of the vote.
The elder Dingell was a driving force behind the creation of Social Security and a leading sponsor of the first proposal to create a national healthcare plan – efforts the son has not forgotten. Indeed, in every Congress since 1957, the younger Dingell has introduced a universal healthcare bill as his first act of business.
Though never in leadership, the imposing Dingell – nicknamed "Big John," not least for his 6-foot-4-inch frame – rose to chair the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee while championing some of the most consequential laws of any generation, including the Clean Air Act; the Civil Rights Act; the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and ObamaCare.
Along the way, he built a reputation as a tireless advocate for Michigan interests and a fierce watchdog over the executive branch – characteristics being celebrated by leaders on both sides of the aisle this month as Dingell moves closer to his date with history.
“For more than 57 years, from gaveling down Medicare to enacting the Affordable Care Act, from advancing civil rights to fighting for the people of Michigan, Congressman Dingell has not only witnessed history – he has made it," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in an email. "His legacy is found in our nation’s laws, and he continues to inspire us today with his fierce commitment to public service."
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who's served with Dingell on the Energy and Commerce panel for almost 30 years, characterized the Michigan Democrat as "very affable, very honest and … as effective as one can be."
"You'd have to say that he's the most powerful [non-Speaker] in the history of the House, and I'd say one of the most influential," Barton said in a phone interview. "If John Dingell's not at the top of the list, there are not too many people ahead of him."
That influence has not been without its limits, however. In 2008, after decades atop the Energy and Commerce panel, Dingell was dethroned by Democrats wary that his historic defense of Detroit's famously regional auto industry would undermine their efforts to tackle climate change and other environmental issues – things liberal leaders wanted to prioritize under the incoming President Obama.
The demotion was a blow to Dingell's image as a gavel-wielding power broker – not to mention his ego – but he remained an influential voice on the committee, as was quickly made clear during the healthcare reform battle of 2009 and 2010.
Richard Hall, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, said he's interviewed dozens of healthcare lobbyists who played a role in the ObamaCare debate. In their eyes, Hall said, Dingell was a vital force behind the bill's success, even despite the demotion.
"It does testify that he still has stature," Hall said.
The 86-year-old Dingell is not as spry as he once was, shuffling around the Capitol these days with the aid of a cane or, alternatively, zipping through the halls on a motorized scooter that features a signature license plate announcing "The Dean." But few are questioning his tenacity or sense of purpose.
"Mentally, he's as sharp as he ever was and as argumentative in questioning," Barton said. "If you want to see the Congress at its best – or worst, depending on your point of view – go listen to John Dingell at one of the [Energy and Commerce] Oversight hearings question a witness that he's upset with. That's as good as it gets.
"Even when you don't agree what his points are, it's an art form to watch him in action, even today," Barton added. "He's the best that there ever has been, I think, at doing that stuff."
Indeed, in recent weeks, Dingell has used his perch on the Oversight subpanel to hammer an Environmental Protection Agency official over the agency's efforts to eradicate algae blooms in the Great Lakes and bash a GOP proposal to expedite approval of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. Although Dingell supports that pipeline, he's accused Republicans of rushing the project without assurances it won't violate federal laws, many of which he helped to craft.
"I repeatedly said that I support the building of this pipeline – I believe it's in the national interest. It is also in the national interest that we should comply with the law, should know the facts and should see that the permits are properly issued and that they reflect the need for us to address the public interest," Dingell roared in an April 10 hearing. "That's why we passed the Clean Water Act, why we passed the Endangered Species, and why we passed the National Environmental Policy Act."
Rep. John Conyers Jr., whose 48-year tenure on Capitol Hill stands as the second-longest among active members, has had a unique opportunity to follow Dingell's historic career. Not only is Conyers a fellow Michigan Democrat, he was once a Dingell staffer.
In an email, Conyers praised his former boss for having "long served as a mentor to his colleagues and staff."
"I was fortunate enough to experience this firsthand," Conyers said.
Dingell will be honored in a June 13 ceremony in Statuary Hall at the Capitol.