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John Dingell: A giant, in more ways than one
Over the course of my 40 years in the House, I worked closely with many fine legislators. But one towered over us all, both literally and figuratively: John D. Dingell Jr. (D-Mich.), who died last Thursday at age 92.
It was an extraordinary privilege to serve with this larger-than-life public servant, who chaired the House Energy & Commerce Committee for 16 years and was ranking member for another 12 years.
John was a proud progressive Democrat who believed in government regulation to protect the public, make markets work, offer a break to those who needed it, and empower people to improve their lives. This philosophy drove everything he did, which ranged from introducing a universal health care bill in every Congress to saving the U.S. auto industry from extinction to passing landmark environmental and civil rights legislation.
I worked with John most closely on health and environmental issues because I chaired the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee overseeing them for 16 years. On health care, John may well be the most influential and impactful member of the House in history. Though he supported single-payer coverage, he never let the perfect be the enemy of the good, championing the Clinton administration's health care and getting the Affordable Care Act enacted in 2010.
But that's the tip of the iceberg. John presided over the House when Medicare was passed in 1965, strongly supported the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control, passed legislation requiring hospitals to provide charitable care, enacted nutrition labeling laws, and expanded and modernized Medicare and Medicaid. Virtually all health care laws enacted over the past half-century have his fingerprints on them - and were the better for it.
On the environment, John and I were often erroneously characterized as adversaries. In fact, he was a dedicated conservationist who played a central role in passing the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts. A lifelong hunter, he loved the land and nature, and believed in preserving public land for the public good and for future generations. He also recognized that you couldn't have good public health without a clean environment.
When we disagreed, it was usually around environmental policies that impacted the auto industry, such as vehicle emission standards. I understood his position and respected his sense of obligation to the tens of thousands of auto workers he represented. He was a formidable, passionate adversary who came to every argument armed with the best facts and reasoning for his position. But he also was a pragmatist and skilled practitioner of the legislative arts who looked to find common ground. More often than not, we were able to bridge our differences, compromise, and wind up on the same side, which was where you always wanted to be.
For me, John represented the pinnacle of who a legislator and committee chair should be - a public servant single-mindedly devoted to solving the problems and improving the lives of the American people. He was from "the old school," and I say that as high praise.
He was old-school because he believed in the primacy of the committee process. He made Energy & Commerce a home for policy experts who knew how the government was run and hired the best staff on Capitol Hill. He adroitly used committee deliberations to carefully craft legislation and iron out compromises so that, once a bill was sent to the House floor, it was in proper shape to be passed without amendment. Not once was legislation rushed through without the time and space for analysis, input, debate and negotiation. Not least, John made sure his committee reflected the full diversity of the House, thus ensuring that the bills he shaped were fully vetted and worthy of support by a majority.
He was also old-school because no one took oversight responsibility more seriously, no matter what administration was in office. Every executive branch official lived in fear of receiving "Dingell-grams" demanding information or answers to questions involving the public interest. He never hesitated to assert congressional power, but always for the sake of transparency and accountability.
John was the best committee chair I've ever seen, and everyone who served with John has stories to tell. Like the times when he would come up close, put his arm on your shoulder and tower over you - at least for those of us who are vertically-challenged - to cajole, persuade and remind you he was "The Chairman." Or the giant photograph of planet Earth taken from outer space that he placed on the wall of the committee anteroom where members gathered before committee hearings to remind us what our jurisdiction really was. Or his razor-sharp wit, which the rest of the country discovered when he took to Twitter.
John was a gentleman, a man of character and principle, and a leader who will always stand among the giants of congressional history. I am honored to have served with him, and I extend my deepest condolences to his wife Debbie, his children, and all his friends and family.
Henry A. Waxman served as chairman and ranking Democratic member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in his role as U.S. representative for California's 33rd District from 1975 to 2015. He is chairman of Waxman Strategies, a public interest-focused policy and public relations firm.