It is difficult to convey just how powerful John Dingell was in his prime. The Democrats controlled the House from 1955 until the Gingrich Revolution in 1994 and had assumed it would be forever. Committee chairmen were demigods. When Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL) headed Ways and Means, almost everything came through his fiefdom. Similarly, Dingell’s jurisdiction was almost everything and anything. There was almost nothing that was not under the aegis of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
To understand how powerful committees were in the old Congress, Robert Byrd (D-WV) stepped down as Senate Majority Leader to become the head of the Appropriations Committee and it was not really a demotion.
In those days, I had a role as a lobbyist in various coalitions of trade groups as part of my legal practice. Lots of people in Washington had really wonderful jobs as lobbyists for several decades because liberals would faithfully introduce bad bills with enormous potential harm to business, the lobbyists would report that threat back to their employers and clients, trade associations and large firms would then pay them to defeat this threat. Then Dingell or some other titan would simply kill it anyway and the lobbyists could rack up another “victory,” steer contributions to the right people and stay flush. Clean Air amendment legislation routinely died in each Congress because Dingell faithfully represented the automakers and Byrd the coal industry. But anybody ‘working’ the issue could claim results.
Senior Democrats like Dingell racked up large contributions from business because by the 1980s Congress was largely designed to be an extortion racket. “Pay us to either kill what you don’t like or to insert protections for you in the bad bill we are about to pass or else.” Before 1986, high tax rates were part of a code festooned with countless arcane provisions to lessen the blow but only for paying customers. Enormous regulatory assaults were legislated but with hundreds of arcane provisions to protect those who stepped up and paid up.
If you were paying for protection, this was not a one time fee. Once your protections were enshrined in a paragraph or a sentence in legislation, there was the eternal threat of repeal or amendment so the payments had to continue.
Once I recall that all the reps in one coalition I worked with got a letter from Dingell’s AA which said: “The Chairman may lose interest in your issue if your support is not more forthcoming.” If you think of it as an invoice, it makes more sense.
In 1995 the GOP took the House in a shock that rivaled the election of Trump. In the first meeting of the revamped and weakened Energy & Commerce Committee, Dingell complained that as ranking member he was getting only about 40% of the committee staff positions. The Republican members took turns berating him (it was safe to do so now) for brazen hypocrisy. He had routinely staffed in a ratio of 20-1, routinely depriving the GOP committee minority of resources but who were you gonna call? Who had authority over Chairman Dingell?
In defense of Dingell and the Democratic Party of that recent era, they were not nuts. They were close to small businesses and workers in their home districts, not rich white liberals in Malibu and Manhattan. They delivered. They were not impractical. John Dingell and his ilk knew not to kill the Golden Goose. They knew how to compromise and get things done when it was important–not always what one would prefer they do but it got done. Patriotism was bi-partisan. They were not ideologues and the other party was not evil, just wrong. And frankly, I would rather have a Congress that I could bribe rather than a majority of AOC-type ideologues.
That era is not coming back. Politics has changed. And there is no role for a Chairman Dingell in the new order. In part, that is sad.