Friday, June 7, 2013
JOHN DINGELL, TOO LONG IN CONGRESS
JOHN DINGELL A RAVENOUS BIRD OF PREY?
“Without (limits on terms) every man in power becomes a ravenous bird of prey.” John Adams.
In a laudatory piece on the “longevity” of our representatives in Congress, the NY Times (June 5, 2013) highlighted the career of Representative, John D. Dingell, of Michigan, who if he serves out his present term will become the longest serving member of Congress in history. Why the Times author seems to suggest that this is something our nation, the State of Michigan, and the 15th (12th) District voters should be proud of is what puzzles me. Dingell, is by all accounts a fine gentleman, patriot and a competent politician who served honorably in WWII, and has devoted his long life to Washington politics. But Dingle is also an example of one of the things wrong with politics in Washington. Representative Dingle, a Democrat born in Colorado Springs in 1926 is an octenagenarian who has served nearly sixty consecutive years representing the 15th (later 12) District in Michigan, a district formerly represented by his father, John Dingell Sr. The elder Dingell served twenty-two years as the representative of that district and upon his death in 1955 his seat was taken over by his son. A classic case of Washington nepotism which is so common now that no one seems to notice or comment. Thus, the people of the 15th (and its subsequent permutations by redistricting) have been represented by the same family of Dingells since 1933! For the last eighty years the 15th CD has has kept Mr. Dingell in his office at the Capitol. Like octenagenarian Mr. Dingell, now in his 87th year, the Congress is an old, creaky, hide-bound institution which can not get out of its own way to meet the needs of a vibrant 21st Century nation. Our present state of affairs in Washington where little of the people's business gets done, and where grandstanding,name calling, and politicking all underscore the charge that it is a vessel of old and rotted wood. Change and new ideas are desperately needed. But how can they ever arise if congressmen have a sinecure on their jobs, and we must wait until they die in office?
The Times seemingly without realizing it, published a story underlining the sad state of affairs in Congress which the Founders established to represent and further the will of the people. The Founders, who envisioned a Congress of "citizen legislators" not “career politicians” must be spinning in their respective graves, aghast at what successive generations have done with their finely tuned and carefully written plans for representative government. (James Madison in Federal Paper #39, stated that for best government office holders should “hold their offices... for a limited period”. While George Washington opined that: “The people must be ever vigilant against tyrants masquerading as public servants”. Thomas Jefferson stated that he favored “fixing (office holders) in a term of office, rather than for life” so that they must eventually return to the mass of the people to become part of the “governed instead of the governors”. John Adams’ opinion is found at the head of this essay.)
Mr. Dingell who the NY Times characterizes as a “Child of the House” was indeed a youngster of only six or seven years when his father was first elected to Congress and the family journeyed east to Washington in 1933. When the younger Dingell was sixteen in 1943 he first appeared on the floor of the House in Washington DC as a Page. In effect, he never left, except for those years he served in the US Army during WW II and attended college on the GI Bill earning a law degree. At the tender age of 29, upon the death of his father, Dingell won a special election for the 15th CD and has been there ever since. He is now an elderly man of 86 years.
Corruption in Congress is the result of entrenched interests. It is a truism that the longer a politician serves in Congress the more that person begins to serve their own interests rather than those of the nation and of the district they represent. Although this may not be applicable to Mr.Dingell, just his near sixty years in office and cozy relations with the industries in his district do make one suspect.
When a politician has a “safe seat” (and most of them do when 94% of all incumbents are reelected every cycle) he or she is more likely to have close financial and personal ties with big corporations, specials interests and other powerful and wealthy donors. In the case of Mr. Dingell, though I suggest no improprieties here, it is well known that he maintained a close relationship with and been an avid supporter of the motor industry in Detroit, and in turn they have provided strong financial support for all of his many reelection campaigns. Whether that relationship has been good over the long haul for the nation as a whole or for the motor industry itself, is a question frequently asked. Would Mr. Dingell’s tenacious opposition to CAFE standards (those federal rules that would control automobile gasoline consumption) and so hated by the car industry, would they have been good for that industry? Or would it have been better that the industry faced the facts early on and built cars which could better compete with more efficient imports? Perhaps had not Mr. Dingell been in office so long, and has such close relationships with this industry other voices and ideas would have been heard and we may have not had to pump the billions of Federal dollars into the faltering auto makers as we did to save that industry.
Because of name recognition and the advantage of money raised from cozy relations with special interests, incumbent members of congress find it easy to remain in office once elected, as noted above. In 1933 when the 15th CD was first created (as well as three others) and the when the senior Dingell was elected to the open 15th, that was a one-time event. That circumstance is unlikely to happen again. Today seats open when an incumbent dies. But without legitimate competition among office seekers, what incentive is there for the incumbent to serve the nation and the public, rather than his or her own interests? The answer is: there is little incentive. And the result is the nature of Congress we have now.
So perhaps if the Times had reminded us, of the commendable good attendance and longevity of Mr. Dingell, as well as the perceptive warnings of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and others that a man in power too long becomes a “ravenous bird of prey” we would have been better served by the great gray lady.
Caution---voters of the 15th! There is a grandson lurking out there in the hustings named Christopher Dingell. Please don't make a laughingstock of yourselves by permitting the 15th to become permanent property of the Dingell family by electing this kid next, and putting your district in the Guinness Book of World Records! Give someone else a chance as Adams, Jefferson and Madison would have wanted.
Get the picture?