WASHINGTON – In the arc of Rep. John Dingell’s storied legislative career, it is easy to discern the fading trajectory of power in Washington over the past six decades.
He was the last of the true committee barons, one who muscled for legislative turf and who had been known to pound his gavel so hard it shattered.
But this is a city where no one seems to have the clout to make things happen anymore, and where even the most junior members of Congress have the ability to stop those who try.
Which is why it is no longer John Dingell’s Washington. And why he has decided to hang it up.
Dingell is still up to the job, he insisted, though he is a frail 87 years old. The problem, he said, is Congress itself.
I find serving in the House to be obnoxious, he told the Detroit News, which on Monday broke the story that Dingell plans to retire. It’s become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness, both in Congress and in the streets.
Is it fixable? Dingell said in an interview with The Washington Post. There’s only one person that can fix it, and there’s only one group of people that can answer that question, and that’s the voters. If they want it to change, it will change.
Having served 59 years – longer than anyone in the history of Congress – Dingell, D-Mich., left his imprint on legislation that included the establishment of Medicare, environmental laws and civil rights legislation.
In the 1980s, the prospect of a subpoena from his headline-grabbing investigative subcommittee was so terrifying that some Washington law firms built a specialty practice that the newspaper American Lawyer dubbed the Dingell bar.
Dingell’s is the latest in a series of high-profile departures from the House, marking both a generational shift and the vanishing of a breed of master legislators.
Among those who have recently announced that they will be leaving when Dingell does is his longtime adversary Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who in 2008 unseated him as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Dingell was shoved aside because a new wave of liberal, activist lawmakers, elected in 2006 and 2008, viewed him as an obstacle to climate-change legislation and other measures that he opposed on behalf of his constituents – and the industries that employ them – in the Midwest.
He also found himself increasingly out of step with many of his Democratic colleagues in other areas, including gun control. Dingell was once a National Rifle Association board member.
Yet on other issues, Dingell is an ardently old-style liberal. His most cherished cause was expanding health care, which came to fruition with the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
For decades, at the start of each congressional session, Dingell would introduce national health insurance legislation nearly identical to a bill that his father and congressional predecessor, Rep. John Dingell Sr., first offered in 1943.
The younger Dingell won election to the House after his father’s death in 1955; between them, father and son had represented their Michigan congressional district since the start of the New Deal in 1933.
Last June, Dingell surpassed the record of the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., to become the longest-serving member of Congress ever.
And Dingell’s retirement may not mean the end of the family dynasty.
His wife, Deborah, an executive and a powerful force in Democratic circles, is considering a run for the seat; she would be a favorite if she does.
The district leans heavily Democratic; President Barack Obama beat GOP nominee Mitt Romney there by 34 points in 2012.