Published: December 13, 2005
John Dingell (D-MI) marks 50 years in the House on Tuesday. Only two others in history have served longer.
Dingell came to Congress in December 1955, when he won a special election to replace his late father. Dingell speaks fondly of working on massive, important legislation he helped shepherd through Congress, including Medicare, food stamps, student loans, consumer product protection and the Endangered Species Act.
There are a few disappointments, Dingell says. In every single Congress for the last 50 years, he has introduced a bill to create a national health care system -- and it has never passed. The Patient's Bill of Rights he championed in the 1990s also failed. And now, with Republicans in control of the House, Senate and White House, Dingell worries they're dismantling the earlier work of his career.
"But you have your choice between sitting back and being depressed and letting it go forward, or standing and fighting," he says. "I choose the second course." [Copyright 2013 NPR]
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Today is a milestone for a congressman who's seen many scandals come and go. Democrat John Dingell of Michigan completes 50 years in the House of Representatives. Only two members in history have served longer. At age 79, he's known for his prickly demeanor and blunt words, which have earned him respect. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.
ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:
Dingell is feared, and loved, for his curmudgeonly attitude by Republicans and Democrats alike. At a roast of the congressman in October, no less than Speaker Dennis Hastert said he'd learned a lot from watching Dingell, like one time when a maverick lawmaker brought an amendment to one of Dingell's environmental bills.
(Soundbite of roast)
Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Speaker of the House): You could tell he wasn't amused. And, finally, in classic John Dingell fashion, his glasses came down over his nose and he looked over his glasses. He said the gentleman would be well-advised to withdraw his amendment so that he could live to fight another day.
SEABROOK: Dingell came to Congress in December 1955. He won a special election to replace his late father. He speaks fondly of working on massive important legislation he helped shepherd through Congress: Medicare, food stamps, student loans, consumer product protection, the Endangered Species Act.
Representative JOHN DINGELL (Democrat, Michigan): And we, literally, remade the country. The number of poor fell, senior citizens could get health care for the first time under Medicare, and, finally, the country began to move after the trauma of World War II and the Depression.
SEABROOK: `There are a few disappointments,' Dingell says. In every single Congress, for the last 50 years, Dingell has introduced a bill to create a national health care system, and it has never passed. The Patients Bill of Rights he championed in the 1990s also failed. And now, with Republicans in control of the House, the Senate and the White House, Dingell worries they're dismantling the earlier work of his career. `It's depressing,' Dingell says.
Rep. DINGELL: But you have your choice between sitting back and being depressed and letting it go forward, or standing and fighting. I choose the second course.
SEABROOK: But just because Dingell is in the minority now doesn't mean he's an outsider to discussions of important legislation. Listen to Texas Republican Joe Barton, the current chairman of Energy and Commerce, once Dingell's committee, describing his talks with Dingell before bringing the contentious energy bill to the House floor.
(Soundbite of roast)
Representative JOE BARTON (Chair, Energy and Commerce Committee): And so when we got ready to try to move a bill this year, I went to him and I said, `Are you willing to work with me?,' and he said, `Yes.' And I said, `Are you willing to vote for the bill?' And he said, `Probably not.' And I said, `Well, why should I work with you if you're not willing to vote for the bill?' And he said, `Well, I'm gonna tell you what Lyndon Johnson used to say about that. It's better to have me in the tent urinating out than outside the tent urinating in.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
SEABROOK: Dingell says his reputation as the meanest man in Congress has served him well over the years. Few are likely to try to cow him or renege on deals but former President Bill Clinton says Dingell's taught Washington more than just tough politics.
(Soundbite of roast)
Former President BILL CLINTON: John Dingell has taught us the secret of living a full life and staying young. Figure out what you believe in and fight for it. When you lose, don't give up. When you win, raise the bar, and rear back and do something else. And that's what he has done for 50 long years.
SEABROOK: For those who fear Dingell's sharp tongue, there's no relief in sight. He has no plans to retire. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.
INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.