Transcript: Rep. John Dingell 2006

John Dingell: Very quickly, you are in the commerce committee room. This is a committee I have been on for a long time; you will see my picture up there. I had the privilege of being chairman of this committee for fourteen years, when the house changed I lost that privilege. It is one of the great privileges you can get, this is the committee that was run by Sam Rayburn, it has the broadest kind of jurisdiction over the commerce clause, which means that almost everything that moves is properly considered here as a matter of legislative action by the congress.

I represent an area in the southeast corner of Michigan, which moves around every time we have a redistricting. This means some rather nasty results in terms of primaries, generally, in which I am in district with another member of Congress. It’s happened twice since I came here, and it’s quite an unpleasant experience. We have always won, and we never doubted that we would, so that has all been to the good. I’ve had the privilege, as Ward did, of having a father who was a member of Congress, a very distinguished one. As was his dad, with whom I served and who was a very fine and decent and able human being, and a very, very fine, indeed outstanding, member of the House of Representatives.

We served on a committee no longer existing called the Committee on Merchant, Marine, and Fisheries, which had broad jurisdiction in the area of conservation of fisheries, maritime matters, and things of that kind. He and I, and others, wrote some great pieces of legislation. Marine Mammals, Protective Act, The National Environmental Policy Act, ocean dumping legislation, and a lot of other legislation to create and protect the fish and wildlife refuge system, which is a great national treasure which amounts to some 100 million acres or more of wild lands, which are devoted to the protection of fish and wildlife. They are also there to provide recreation for human beings, so it’s a very valuable entity. I think I’ve talked enough, you have questions, and I think I want to be respectful of your concerns. Fire Away.

Sadanand Maillard: Congressman Dingell before they start, when I was about thirteen or fourteen I used to come and watch you and my dad in the Merchant Machine and Fisheries Committee, and Congressman Boehner was also an important part of that.

John Dingell: He was a great chairman, a very able man.

Sadanand Maillard: I kind of went to school in the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee hearings, so I learned a lot there.

John Dingell: Well your dad was a great man, and a great friend of mine, which is one of the reasons I am here.

Sadanand Maillard: Thank you.

John Dingell: You can indeed be proud of him, he was a superb human being and he was a gentleman in every particular, something which seems to be rather missing around here today. So fire away, kids. What have you got?

Seychelle deVries: I’m Seychelle, and I’d like to know with your father having served and represented for 22 years in your district before you, and then your grandfather also,

John Dingell: No grandfather not, grandfather was a blacksmith.

Seychelle deVries: I was wondering if that influenced you to always want to be, and did you always plan to be a Congressman?

John Dingell: Well you’re asking a question that deals with the subjective. Frankly, I’d just ask my number two son, who is a circuit judge back at home, whether he would run for Congress when I quit. He said, “No dad, I don’t want to. You work to hard.” That doesn’t mean I have any, If I had I wouldn’t have stayed here this long. But, I also saw how hard my dad worked, so I really, at an early age, had no intention of running for Congress.

Well, when dad passed on, all of his friends began to push, and say, “John, we hope you will run.” I did, I figured I would try it for a few years and see how it worked. Well, as you can note, those few years have grown into more then fifty, and with the next coming election it will be more then fifty two. You can obviously see that I not only have enjoyed, I’ve been grateful for it, and the people of Southeast Michigan are very good to me. Who’s next?

Daniel Nanas: I am thank you. Hi, I’m Daniel. Can you talk a little about how Congress has changed during your time here?

John Dingell: Before I do, tell me why you asked the question.

Daniel Nanas: Because I’m curious, I read Tip O’Neil’s book and I want to know a little bit about the inside, what it’s been like working here for you.

John Dingell: Well if you’ve got a couple, or three weeks we can address the matter. Let me tell you a little about the mechanical changes in this place. Let me tell you then about the other changes, which I’m sure you’re really more interested in. My dad came here with Roosevelt in 1932. At the time he had one room, one secretary, one typewriter, and one electric fan, no air conditioning, and one round trip ticket between Michigan and Washington.  This meant that the entire family drove down in the family car and stayed here.

The session went on about two months. It started in April, the 20th, although it moved up to March 20th, and it ended punctually the first of June. That first year went a little longer because that was the hundred days, as you will recall and hear spoken of, when the country was in the midst of a hideous depression. When I came here I had four staff members, four type writers, air conditioning, no electric fans, and had two rooms whereas pop had one.  I had two committee assignments, Merchant Marine being one, and then Public Works, which is now Transportation and Infrastructure.

The sessions went from the first of January, because we eliminated the Lame Duck provisions of the Constitution, and sessions started January one.  The Lame Duck provisions were put in because it took so long for people to get from wherever they were, in their districts, down here to Washington. They finally did away with that because it led to some very mischievous legislative consequences. Today, we’re in session practically year-round. When Dad came there was a budget of around six or seven billion dollars a year, when I came the budget was about 280 billion dollars, today it’s about a trillion.

There is a national debt now that equals the national debt of the first 41 Presidents of the United States. It is regrettable, that this place probably has the most poisonous climate that it has had during the time that I have served, and it has done, and this is not a Partisan speech, it is calculated plan on the part of my Republican colleagues, that they will run this place to satisfy the far right. Clearly that is not going to satisfy me, and so I am excluded from the discussions.  I have a rather good relationship with Joe Parton, who is the chairman of this committee, so we do talk about things, and we are able to, from time to time, actually work together on legislation.

There is a lot of, in my view, unnecessary partisan fighting. When I came the Rules Committee would write a rule and we would ask open rules, whereby if Congress had a chance to mend a bill any way they wanted, we would pass the bill if we could. Today the Rules Committee issues these straight jacket rules, which prevent virtually no amendments, particularly those which the Democrats would want, and particularly where the leadership would have a chance at loosing. The Conference Committees, when Ward’s dad was here, was used to be honest meetings conducted in closed sessions. They were conducted in a very fair and even handed way, and now they are matters in which Democrats are totally excluded, they don’t even talk to us.

When Ward’s dad was we had a very bipartisan approach, with great friendships across the isle. His dad I had enormous respect for, he was one of my mentors, and he was a great human being. And, like a said, a very decent gentleman, which I mean as a high compliment. The Conference Committees were open, rather were closed, but they were conducted in a very open fashion. Today we have open session, but when you see people talking, you will observe them talking to audience from up there, and you will not see them talking to each other.

We wrote legislation in conference or in sub-committee when I was a young member. We would take off coats, roll up our sleeves, fight like hell, and say some appalling bad things to each other, and when it was all done we would get up, shake hands, and walk out with our arms around each other as good friends. We had a bill we defend against all comers, both Democrats and Republicans. That doesn’t happen anymore, and you find, if you look at the votes, that the votes will be straight party line votes, absolutely straight party line votes. That is the wrong way for the nation’s business to be done.

And some peculiar quirks in the rules. When we, for example, had Medicare part D up, the vote went on for about three hours. You could hear the bones breaking all over the room, and they started frisking the arms of my Republican colleagues to vote for that legislation, finally passed by one vote. That kind of situation has occurred on a number of other occasions, which would relate to budget and things of that kind. Again, this is not the way the Congress should be run, because it is not what they do for John Dingell, but rather it is what they do for the people that I serve. Remember I am a servant of seven hundred thousand people, and they’re entitled, as citizens, to have their voices heard here. I have the privilege of being their surrogate, and representatives who serves here.

So the situation has deteriorated significantly, I think one of the worries I have is, and one of the things my old-timer Democratic friends have, is that when we take the place over, which we could very well do come fall, that you will see this kind of thing being accepted, as the paradigm under which the Congress works. I intend to try and avoid that, because I don’t believe that it is in the interest of the country, or indeed in your interests. Alright, fire away, next one.

John-Nuri Vissell: I was wondering if you could tell us about your first day in Congress.

John Dingell: I came in during the middle of session; I was elected on December the 13th. My classmates all had been elected the November previous to that, not December of 55, but November of 54. So I came, and one of the first things that they did was to swear me in as the newest member, I was also the youngest member. They then did housekeeping business of adopting the rules, and all that sort of thing. I had a bunch of friends and family who came down do see me get sworn, because that was a very important event in the family and friends. Then the House had a, what it is called, a Special Order in which the members discuss extraneous business.

That Special Order was to praise my dad for his service, and was quite an emotional experience for me, as I gather you can tell. I also had to get my committee assignments, I got Merchant, Marine, and Fisheries which I didn’t even know existed, but which turned out to be one of the great things that I did because, as I mentioned, we wrote great legislation there, major conservation legislation. I got Public Works committee, which was a very important committee, in terms of doing things that were important in my district, because I come from the Detroit River and the Great Lakes area, and Public Works is very important to me. Then we had some parties, and all that sort of stuff, and then the day ended, and I started to go to work. I was fortunate in that I was able to hire my dad’s staff, which was one of the best staff’s on the Hill, and they contrived to make me, really just a blockhead kid, look like a pretty good member of Congress. So, who’s got the next question?

Casey Lightner: My name is Casey, as someone who has served through some of America’s greatest and most dramatic transitions and events, is there any single event that stands out as having the most impact on you?

John Dingell: There are so many things which happen here that that is very hard to give you an answer. I was a pageboy, and I was on the floor of the house when President Roosevelt declared war on the Japanese. Two days later when he declared war on the Germans, because they didn’t declare war on us at the same time. I presided over Medicare, when we passed that into law, which was something I desperately wanted.  I’ve handled more a fair amount of legislation, conducted a number of investigations, I’ve had the opportunity to attend the inauguration of every President since I came here. I’ve had the privilege of working on some extraordinary pieces of legislation, some of which I have mentioned to you.

I think there are moments of extraordinary drama and importance, and I’ve been, since 1955, in the midst of almost every one that has occurred here. Death of Kennedy, assassination of Martin Luther King, The Vietnamese war which was a dirty mess, the fight which we had over whether or not we would go into Iraq or not, and the question of whether we would go the second time into Iraq. First time I voted for it, second time I voted against it. First time because it was necessary, second time because it was an act of the greatest folly. We didn’t need to do it. I’ve seen a lot of great men here; I arranged to have Lech Kaczyński, the first President of Poland after the communists to speak here. I have seen a lot of others of that quality, this life of mine are a mixture between dealing with wonderful people, extraordinary people, taking care of people who have no other way of addressing their business. Then I deal with a fair number of scoundrels and boobs. That’s part of the game, too.

Mark Hansen: Hi my name is Mark. In your years of service in the Congress you have seen many people come and go. Were there any that stood out as great leaders or legislators?

John Dingell: Well, if you get here you’re pretty good. Most of the time. I’ve seen some people that, frankly, I didn’t think should have been here, either because of intellect or because of character. But for the most part those people don’t show, and they don’t stay very long. So, I’ve served with a lot of great people. My dad, a guy by the name of Warren Harris, Bill Maillard, my mentors Sam Rayburn, John McCormick, and people like Warren Harris and Tip O’Neil. A lot of these names you won’t recall, and I can’t hold that against you or fault you for it, because the House is not a place where we attract a lot of attention.

We do the nations business, and there is 435 of us, so you don’t hear a lot about most of us. But I’ve served, I’ve shaken the hand of Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, almost, well every President. I had a chance to form some pretty good opinions of them, because not just because what I saw them do or read about in the papers, or saw they did in government documents, but I saw what they did in terms of their behavior as human beings, which is something where you learn.

This is a place which has better then a thousand years of tradition in it. It goes back to the Magna Carta, it actually goes back to what the Norwegians used to call The Thing, which was their system of Democratic government. A lot of very wise men have learned a lot about this place, and the wisdom they showed has gone into it. The system, if it is permitted to work as it should, and I will say this as non-partisan, they have not permitted it to do so for the last 14 years. It will produce extraordinary good results from the stand point of representing the people. That, to me, was always important.

When I became a committee chairman, I was very much concerned because this is a very big job, you have huge responsibilities. I went over to the parliamentarian, who is the guy that tells us what the rules are, how we behave, I sat down, we closed the door, and I talked to him. I said, “What am I going to do, to do this job right?” He said “John, you’re going to have to do two things. One, you’re going to have to be fair. And two, you’re going to have to appear fair.” Those seemed like the same thing, but take my word. They are very different. Who’s got the next question?

Edison Dudoit: I do, my name is Eddy. There is a saying, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Given your life experience in politics, and from the research we’ve done on you, it seems you’ve accumulated a lot of respect and power within Congress. What is the responsibility of a man in your position?

John Dingell: Well, first to remember that I am a public servant. People don’t work for me, I work for them. Second to remember that I have a public trust of the highest order. Third, to remember that I have been given probably the greatest honor that can be given directly to a man by the voters. Remember the House, when the Constitution was adopted, was the highest directly elected body in the government. The resident was not directly elected, Senate was not directly elected. We really are, were, and should be, closest to the people.

And so, bearing that trust, which integrity, and decency, and working hard, is the real responsibility that I have as a member. And others do, and when those trusts are breached, it’s a very serious event. When we have scandals involving misbehavior by members, or something of another kind. That’s an intolerable situation, and it brings shame on this institution, which is a great institution, and which is a part of, I think, the greatest government of the greatest country in world. Its functions are set out in the greatest governing document in the world; I’m talking about the US constitution. I hold the public trust, and people who have offices, in government, at any level, hold a public trust. Remember I am called a representative in Congress, I’m here to do what’s rights, and I’m here to do what I think is right, but I also always have to remember that I’m supposed to serve the people. That’s the important thing. Who wants to be next?

Jeremy Thweat: I’m Jeremy, and I was wondering if there was any time in your period of being in Congress if you ever thought of giving up, if it was just too hard.

John Dingell: It’s not too hard; God is very good to me. He gave me a lot of good health, I’m on crutches because I had a hip replaced, but my health is good and I’ve been physically active all my life, and my health is good. So physically, it has not been hard. At times it has been distasteful, and I have seen almost every one of my colleagues, with whom I have been close, suffer considerable disappointment or distress, about the way the House goes. It most instances you get over it. Now some members just up and quit. They don’t usually resign, they serve out their term.

But, they do for good reason, quit because they get discouraged, or they get fed up, or they’ve had enough, or they’re tired, or something like that. I’m uniquely fortunate in the family traditions, and the fact that I’ve had an extraordinary district to represent. My people are extraordinarily good to me. But, also that I’ve had an extraordinarily fine wife, who has been a wonderful support and help. She’s an absolutely fabulous woman, and not many members of Congress are so blessed. I’ve done very well, but I’ve gotten disgusted, I do fairly frequently, but I also get out of it, and I also remember that this is a great place, and we can do good, and we do do good here. Rather less lately then we’re used to. Next question.

Madeline Weston-Miles: Hi, I’m Madeline. What kind of advice would you give to a new Congress person starting out?

John Dingell: I’ll tell you the advice that I got, and the thing that I learned from those who are my betters, when I was a young member. And that is service. Look after your people, and take care of your people. If you do that, you will be astonished at how they will take care of you. I still receive letters from people who I helped when I first game through the door, or whose parents or grandparents I helped when I came through here. I even still hear from some people my dad helped. People don’t forget that.

One of my smart colleagues the other day said, “When somebody brings me a problem, I don’t regard it as a problem, I regard it as an opportunity.” We’re here to serve, and to help, and we work for people. That’s, If I were to tell any young member, I would say that. Get around and talk to your people, answer your mail, see that you communicate with people. This doesn’t mean that you don’t do what you think is right if there is a political swell underneath you. When you get home you should look, there’s a great article by an English parliamentarian by the name of Burk, who describes the responsibilities of an elected member of the British parliament. This dates from 1750’s, or something like that. It’s a very old very old document, but it shows that they did. It describes that his duty was to use his best judgment as a representative, and then to go home and justify and defend what he had done for the people and why. He stayed around the parliament for a long time.

Jonji Barber: I’m Jonji, and I was wondering what achievement as a Congressman has made you the most proud, and what do you most regret?

John Dingell: Again, you do so much, and so much happens to you and around you that it’s pretty hard. I presided over the house when we passed Medicare, that was a big thing to me, and it still is. I authored the National Environmental Policy act, which was a very important thing. I conducted an investigation that made the blood supply of the country safe, and saw to it that things like AIDS didn’t get into the blood supply. In France they weren’t so careful, and they had a hideous epidemic of AIDS, good part from the blood supply. We got on it early and fixed it.

A lot of consumer legislation, things which were important. I’ve in the process of building a fish and wildlife refuge on the Detroit River, and we’re working with fish and wildlife and we’ve got about twenty-two hundred acres, and if God is good, and everything goes well, we’ll have it up to forty-two, forty-three, forty-four hundred acres. Now this is peanuts in terms of what really happens, but we saved the last open mile on the Detroit River, the last undeveloped. It’s a beautiful; they’ve trees there that almost as big across as that table. I have no right to brag, I’ve been lucky and accomplished a lot, and in part it’s because I’ve been smart enough to know how the system works and to make the system function.

We’ve done a lot of things; in the old days when this committee used to have jurisdiction over railroads we soled a railroad strike in eighteen hours. Turned out to be one of the worst mistakes we ever made, because we did it so fast nobody had known we’d done anything, and the next thing I knew they didn’t think we were doing anything about railroads, so they took jurisdiction away from us. I’m a little more careful about things like that today. What else do you want to tell me?

Andrea Schmitt: Hi, I’m Andrea.

John Dingell: Hello Andrea.

Andrea Schmitt: If there was anything you could get the American public to understand about Congress, that they don’t already know, what would it be?

John Dingell: The American people get the kind of government they want, and they get the kind of government they vote for. Until they are more greatly involved in their government, they are going to continue to have a legitimate right to complain about the government and how it functions. One of the legitimate complaints they are going to have is the way they’re judging what the Congress should do, and who they elect, or how they’re not voting and not participating which has a serious adverse impact on government. That would be my advice. Who’s got another question?

Emily Crubaugh: What piece of advice do you have for our generation?

John Dingell: Keep the idealism I see here. This is a country which will only function if there is idealism. I would say involve yourself and participate, you don’t have to run for Congress, or run for President, or anything like that, all you gotta do is to participate. There’s plenty of places where you can participate, whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, or some other party, there’s plenty of offices that off-times go begging, school boards, city councils, and township offices, and Congress, non-partisan affairs that go on locally that are government units but are not elected, there’s all kinds of things that you can do, and you really should.

The Greeks had a word, which they used which I find to be very interesting, they used the word idiot. You might wonder what idiot means, but to the Greeks it meant somebody who didn’t know, or who didn’t care, and more specifically it meant somebody who didn’t participate in his government. You will remember the Greeks were amongst the first people who had democratic societies and democratic governments, at least the Athenians did, and Spartans did not, but Athenians did. One more question and then you got to go, and one more question then I got to go. Who wants to be next?

Devin Bhattacharya: After all these years of public service, are there still things that surprise you, and what sorts of things?

John Dingell: Oh sure, I wish I could give you an answer but the world is full of surprises. This business is full of surprises. I can’t think of any, but I would ask you to take my word. And I’m sure that as you read the paper you will find that somebody got surprised, whether it’s an election that goes sour, or whether its bill that fails that everyone thought would pass, or a bill that passes that nobody thought would come up, or whether it’s some kind of un toured event like December 7 when we had Pearl Harbor, or 9/11 when we saw that terrible event in New York and over at the Pentagon. The world is full of surprises, we should just anticipate that they’re going to be there and that you are going to have many, and this country is going to have many, and you have to learn to have intellectual flexibility to address them as they rise. I want to thank you, for a delightful bunch of young people, I hope you enjoyed it.