The U.S. lost an important one on Thursday. “Master legislator” John Dingell, who served in Congress longer than anyone and was a key player in countless pieces of important legislation, has died.
An oddity of American public life is that we just don’t like Congress very much. We’re about to celebrate the birth of the first president later this month, and whether the holiday is called “Washington’s Birthday,” “Presidents’ Day” or some other variation, we think it’s perfectly normal to commemorate the chief executives. But it’s hard to imagine a “Members of Congress Day.” Nor do the great legislators really receive much appreciation (unless, as with Senator John McCain, they were famous for something else).
I doubt if 5 percent of the country had any clue who John Dingell was. And that’s a shame. Members of Congress – and especially the House – have always had the closest connection to ordinary voters. They’re the ones who do a lot of the serious work of democracy.
Dingell was first elected in 1955, beginning a record-breaking tenure that lasted through the start of 2015. As the long-time chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he had a hand in bill after bill after bill, whether on the environment, industry, health care or innumerable other important issues.
His fights over jurisdiction were famous and, most often, successful; he was widely admired as a master of getting things done. Many of us who have taught courses on Congress have asked our students to reflect on a quote of his: “I'll let you write the substance … you let me write the procedure, and I'll screw you every time.”
The best tribute to Dingell would be if the current House successfully completes the round of internal reforms it’s considering, thereby restoring resources and influence to the committees and subcommittees that have eroded badly since Dingell’s peak years. John Dingell was a hero of the republic. One of the true greats.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.