Detroit — At the height of his powers as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in October 1991, Representative John Dingell (D., Mich.) was feted by 800 Washington lobbyists — representing Morgan Stanley, AT&T, Merck, and more — who laid out $600,000 to honor the ruthless congressman nicknamed “Torquemada.” I was a young journalist in D.C., and the glitzy Washington Hyatt Regency event was called a “Tribute to John Dingell.” Any other town might have called it a shakedown.
On Monday the 88-year-old Dingell announced his retirement. His media and political allies celebrate him as a populist man of the middle, but the reality of who he is couldn’t be more different. Over his record 57 years in Congress, Dingell has been one of the key architects of centralizing regulatory power in Washington to the benefit of big-business lobbyists — and to the detriment of the little guy.
A decade after my first encounter with Dingell, I landed at the Detroit News and since then have frequently crossed his path. Also nicknamed “Big John” for his once-imposing 6′3″ frame (he has become stooped in later years, relying on a cane for support), he is a soft-spoken, engaging man with a quick wit. When it comes to federal power, however, he has been a single-minded bully.
From emissions mandates to the mother of all regulations, Obamacare, Washington’s powerbrokers now rule vast swaths of America’s economy thought unimaginable when Dingell took office in 1955. In 1990 he led revision of the federal Clean Act At, which brought new controls over coal-burning utilities in the name of reducing acid rain. The legislation defied the scientific conclusions of Congress’s own ten-year National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program (NAPAP) study, which found that claims of lake acidification were overblown and that the proposed regulations to reduce it were excessive.
Many of those lobbyists come from Dingell’s own staff, part of the permanent government of influence peddlers who then return to influence him. Dingell’s legend was that he regulated “anything that moves, burns, or is sold.” And so, at the Dingell tribute in 1991, Merck bought a table for $7,500 because few could do more than Big John to destroy Big Pharma.
“The pashas of the Ottoman Empire protected their subjects in return for the right to claim all that they owned,” wrote Paul Gigot in the Wall Street Journal in 1991. “A true congressional pasha doesn’t need to enrich himself, since he never faces a competitive election. Instead he has his favorite charities. Mr. Dingell’s ‘tribute’ was a fund-raising benefit for the Center for National Policy,” a Democratic think tank.
Washington power and gerrymandered districts have given rise to congressional dynasties. Dingell succeeded his father and will likely be succeeded by his wife, Debbie, whom Dingell met when she was, yes, a GM lobbyist.
There is no better example of Washington’s centralization of power than the Affordable Care Act, perhaps Dingell’s most enduring legacy. President Obama honored the socialized-health-care advocate with a prominent role in his Oval Office signing of Obamacare, a bill written by the health industry’s biggest players. The ACA has wreaked havoc in Dingell’s home state, costing thousands of jobs at Stryker, a medical-device maker, forcing a move toward part-time workforces in venues as diverse as fast food and city governments, and forcing the cancellation of tens of thousands of insurance policies. “It’s affordable, quality health insurance made available to everyone,” Dingell wrote in a recent constituent e-mail even as the non-partisan Office of the Chief Actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has concluded that premiums will increase for two-thirds of American small businesses.
A credulous Detroit Free Press reported this week that Dingell was stepping down because of his frustration with Washington partisanship. “The words ‘compromise’ and ‘conciliation’ should not be considered dirty words in Washington,” Dingell says. Yet his precious Obamacare was rammed through on a straight partisan vote. It’s a fitting Washington legacy for a self-declared populist dealmaker who has overseen a Washington that is more partisan and more tilted to special interests than ever.
— Henry Payne is an auto critic for the Detroit News.