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The Lessons Of John Dingell's Departure

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., whose House career stretches nearly 60 years, will retire at the end of his term as the longest-serving member of Congress in history.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., whose House career stretches nearly 60 years, will retire at the end of his term as the longest-serving member of Congress in history.

Nearly every news account Monday of Rep. John Dingell's retirement announcement made mention of his amazing longevity — the Michigan Democrat is the longest-serving member in the history of Congress.

While his durability is the stuff of legend, it's also remarkable that an accomplished, heavyweight legislator like Dingell stayed so long into an era of congressional dysfunction.

His 58 years of service in the House are no doubt a testament to his love for the institution. Dingell entered Congress in 1955 after winning the seat vacated when his father died. A onetime House page and elevator operator, Dingell practically grew up in a House that was a lot like a home to him.

For the past 20 years, however, the "dean of the House" — an honorific on the small license plate on the scooter he rides around the House corridors — has served in a chamber that's been rife with partisan rancor, ever less compromise and even less lawmaking.

In announcing his plans to step down at the end of his term, Dingell said the sorry state of the House was only part of what was driving him into retirement. The 87-year-old's physical decline also played a significant role.

But Congress' inability to free itself from partisan gridlock may have made his decision to quit easier.

"It was very painful to someone like him, who considers public service to be the highest calling," said Marda Robillard, a lobbyist who was Dingell's chief of staff from December 1992 to May 2000. "It saddened him."

In nearly six decades in the House, Dingell mostly knew the power of being in the majority. The Democratic House leadership had him sit in the presiding chair when the House passed historic Medicare legislation in 1965. It was leadership's way of honoring Dingell's late father, who had tried to win earlier passage of Medicare but failed.

The congressman was also a long-serving, powerhouse chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Dingell, who was 6 feet 3 inches in his prime, could be imposing, sometimes breaking gavels when he pounded them during hearings. It was as committee chairman that he wrote seminal legislation — the Clear Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

With Dingell's departure, the House will lose, all at once, a great deal of institutional memory. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who serves on the energy committee with Dingell, hopes the dean will use some of his remaining time in Congress to share as much of that knowledge as possible.

"He's still teaching us," she told It's All Politics. "There's no one who has his ability to ask pointed questions that require a yes or no answer that get to the heart of the matter. He can be really hard-hitting but incredibly gentlemanly."

His long career, with all the change he has witnessed, contains another lesson lawmakers would be wise to remember, Schakowsky said.

"John Dingell can teach us that nothing is permanent, that things change. He served through Nixon and Reagan. He has seen a lot of things many people thought would last that turned out to be ephemeral," she said.

Robillard, his former chief of staff, put it this way: "I think his greatest accomplishment was his ability to adapt, his ability to stay and adjust."

She points to his Twitter and Facebook accounts as evidence, along with his embrace of Internet and data-driven re-election campaigns. "He rolled with it," she said.

And so it could be that one ancient lawmaker, who more than anyone else looked like a permanent fixture on the Washington scene, winds up reminding his colleagues that change is the only constant in politics.

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Frank James
Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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