The John Dingell Era

 

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.

There are 14 comments.

  1. tigerlily Member

    Thanks for an informative review of John Dingell’s political career OB. Talk about a political dynasty! A Dingell has been a member of the Michigan congressional delegation from 1933 to the present (his father from 1933-55, then John Jr. from 1955-2007 and then his wife Debbie from 2007 to the present) although the District they represented has changed several times over that span. I honor him for his service to this country as a soldier in the U. S. Army during World War II and for his patriotism.

    • #1
    • February 8, 2019, at 8:41 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  2. EJHill Podcaster

    Decades of a corrupt Democratic majority and a compliant Republican minority vs decades of an inept and timid Republican Majority and a duplicitous Democratic minority vs what we have now. 

    Cripes. It’s amazing we’ve lasted this long.

    • #2
    • February 8, 2019, at 8:49 AM PDT
    • 16 likes
  3. Jimmy Carter Member

    Old Bathos: the Democratic Party

     

    • #3
    • February 8, 2019, at 9:04 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  4. Arahant Member

    Old Bathos: And frankly, I would rather have a Congress that I could bribe rather than a majority of AOC-type ideologues. 

    Nothing worse than a politician who won’t stay bought.

    • #4
    • February 8, 2019, at 9:07 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  5. Arahant Member

    EJHill (View Comment):
    It’s amazing we’ve lasted this long.

    Have we lasted? I think the Republic fell a long time ago, and we just haven’t figured it out yet.

    • #5
    • February 8, 2019, at 9:09 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  6. Jim McConnell Member

    So, it seems that the system functioned/functions much like the Mafia’s protection rackets; just on a much larger scale.

    • #6
    • February 8, 2019, at 11:42 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. Arahant Member

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    So, it seems that the system functioned/functions much like the Mafia’s protection rackets; just on a much larger scale.

    Yeah, but now they are getting greedy, and they’ve been infiltrated by the Red Brigades.

    • #7
    • February 8, 2019, at 12:31 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  8. Blondie Thatcher

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    So, it seems that the system functioned/functions much like the Mafia’s protection rackets; just on a much larger scale.

    I thought the same thing. 

    • #8
    • February 10, 2019, at 5:18 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. Ansonia Member

    Fantastic post. I’m completely ignorant of, and fascinated by, all of this.

    Old Bathos, I wish you would write a book on it.

    • #9
    • February 10, 2019, at 6:03 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  10. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos Post author

    Ansonia (View Comment):

    Fantastic post. I’m completely ignorant of, and fascinated by, all of this.

    Old Bathos, I wish you would write a book on it.

    This is not news. And I was never a front-line insider by any stretch.

    Much has already been written about how campaign finance reform made things worse. Instead of big chunks of cash from a few largely hidden donors, Congress is in full-time fundraising mode.

    When running for Majority Leader, Senator George Mitchell and his staff were pretty explicit with industry lobbyists: we are probably not going to give you what you want but if you want to tell your clients you had enough clout to get a meeting with the Senator you need to generate contributions to these five Democrats and tell them you’re doing it at Mitchell’s request. It always bothered me that a hardball hyper-partisan slimeball like Mitchell always got the ‘statesman’ image treatment from the MSM.

    My preferred law would be (a) you can take as much as you want from any US source; (b) it has to be fully disclosed, no cute layers or screens; (c) no donations or loans or in-kind help of value within 2 weeks of the election (to provide time to analyze donor sources); (d) any funds unspent 90 days after the election go to US Treasurt—no incumbent war chests; (e) no fund-raising more than one yeat before election.

     

     

    • #10
    • February 10, 2019, at 7:30 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  11. The Reticulator Member

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    My preferred law would be (a) you can take as much as you want from any US source; (b) it has to be fully disclosed, no cute layers or screens; (c) no donations or loans or in-kind help of value within 2 weeks of the election (to provide time to analyze donor sources); (d) any funds unspent 90 days after the election go to US Treasurt—no incumbent war chests; (e) no fund-raising more than one yeat before election.

    My first reaction is that those sound pretty good. I’m not sure that (e) would accomplish a lot or could be easily enforced, but I can’t think of a compelling reason to oppose it. 

    • #11
    • February 10, 2019, at 8:50 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  12. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos Post author

    I have a published article in National Review, I have in a footnote in a SCOTUS decision that proves Anton Scalia read a brief I wrote. But none of compares to today: There is a link to this post on Instapundit

    • #12
    • February 10, 2019, at 10:02 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    And frankly, I would rather have a Congress that I could bribe rather than a majority of AOC-type ideologues.

    It’s sad because I agree with this. It’s sad because Dingell and his investigative staff acted like thugs (I know people with direct experience). It’s sad because Dingell typified the entitled, privileged Democrat grandees who ruled the House for 40 years and thought their reign would never end.

    • #13
    • February 10, 2019, at 11:03 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  14. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos Post author

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… (View Comment):

    And frankly, I would rather have a Congress that I could bribe rather than a majority of AOC-type ideologues.

    It’s sad because I agree with this. It’s sad because Dingell and his investigative staff acted like thugs (I know people with direct experience). It’s sad because Dingell typified the entitled, privileged Democrat grandees who ruled the House for 40 years and thought their reign would never end.

    And Waxman was often even more thuggish, determined to set perjury traps for his targets. One party rule and a compliant press corrupts everything and everybody.

    • #14
    • February 10, 2019, at 11:09 AM PDT
    • 5 likes