It's been quite a run for John Dingell, who became the longest-serving member of House in American history Wednesday. "I never thought I'd last this long," says the 82-year-old Michigan Democrat, leaning forward on his couch, an arm draped over the crutches that get him around. Moments earlier, Dingell had cast the 24,340th vote of his 54-year career.
Moments later, Dingell heads to a Capitol party in his honor, attended by former President Bill Clinton. But first, he's reminiscing in his well-appointed Capitol hideaway with the Huffington Post -- an outlet published on a medium that wouldn't exist for decades after he was first elected on December 13th, 1955. It's 19,420 days later and Dingell is in his 28th term, according to the House Historian's office.
Asked about the legislative highlights of his career, Dingell ponders for a moment. "Presiding over Medicare, getting it through," he answers, and then adds his involvement in the 1957 and 1964 Civil Rights Acts, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Protection Act. He also cites $16 billion for an annual grant program funding clean water.
Dingell came to office in a special election to replace his father, the New Deal warrior John Dingell Sr. -- who himself served more than 20 years and was born in 1894.
"I have two great days in my memory," says Dingell. "The first was when I came on the floor with Dad the first time when he was sworn in. The second was when I was sworn in, but on the same day they had a memorial service for my Dad."
Dingell says he has sought to carry the torch of his father's New Deal politics. "Dad and I think very much alike. I have his picture in the office, not to tell me what to do, but to reflect on what dad would have done," says Dingell.
For one thing, dad never would have deregulated the banking industry. Dingell, who lived through the first Great Depression, is nervous about what he's seeing now. "There are a lot of similarities and a lot of parallels, but they're not the same. Both actually started with essentially a huge bank problem. In '29 it was a bank collapse that triggered then the collapse of the stock market, because the stock market was heavily leveraged 10 to one," he says. "One thing triggered another. Fortunately, we did a lot of things to stop the kind of leveraging they did then to cause that problem. But we repealed then, just a few years ago, Glass Steagall and that allowed all the things that caused the big trouble in the late '20s and '30s."
Dingell's not Monday-morning quarterbacking. When Congress was pushing to repeal major parts of the Glass-Steagall Act a decade ago, Dingell took to the House floor with a prescient warning.
"[W]hat we are creating now is a group of institutions which are too big to fail," he said then. "Not only are they going to be big banks, but they are going to be big everything, because they are going to be in securities and insurance, in issuance of stocks and bonds and underwriting, and they are also going to be in banks. And under this legislation, the whole of the regulatory structure is so obfuscated and so confused that liability in one area is going to fall over into liability in the next. Taxpayers are going to be called upon to cure the failures we are creating tonight, and it is going to cost a lot of money, and it is coming. Just be prepared for those events."
Dingell only persuaded a handful of his colleagues to oppose the repeal. "At the time, I was a voice in the wilderness," says Dingell. But when the events he predicted came to pass, "They said, 'By golly, Dingell. You were right.'"
It's not all gloom for Dingell. At the Capitol reception, Dingell was feted by a line of colleagues and one reporter, Sam Donaldson, who covered him in the '60s. "People say he was a tyrant," says Donaldson. "But I thought he was just right."
When Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD), who recently gave birth and is married to former Rep. Max Sandlin (D-TX), greets Dingell, he jokes, "I hope he gets his looks from his mother."
On Wednesday, the House passed a resolution honoring his service 423-0. Dingell voted present.