John Dingell Jr.: A Wonkpreciation!
John Dingell Jr. died last night at the age of 92. He was the longest-serving member of either house of Congress, over 59 years. He won the seat from Michigan that his father had been elected to in 1932 and held until he died in office in 1955. In 1943, Dingell Sr. introduced a bill to provide healthcare to all Americans; after his death, his son won election to replace him. John Dingell Jr. went on to introduce his father's universal healthcare bill on the first day of every session of Congress until he retired in 2014. His wife, Debbie Dingell, succeeded him in Congress. As dynasties go, it's a pretty low-key one.
Nobody has ever fought longer or harder to bring healthcare to more Americans than Congressman John Dingell. He presided over the House when it passed Medicare in 1965, helped pass Medicaid, and fought back Republican attempts to gut or privatize both. He loaned the gavel he'd used in 1965 to Nancy Pelosi when she oversaw the passage of Obamacare in 2010. It's a shame he didn't live to see real universal healthcare actually pass, but in the last few years, he saw it was on the way. Looks like we'll need to finish that job for him.
Dingell recounted his own history with making healthcare a right for all Americans in a March 2017 thread on Twitter, where he'd become ridiculously popular after leaving Congress (bragging point! He followed Yr Editrix). At the time, Donald Trump and Republicans were trying to undo the Affordable Care Act, and Trump had just offered his brilliant observation, "It's an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew health care could be so complicated." It really must be amazing to see the world with such wide-eyed wonder, huh? Dingell, as he detailed, knew a thing or two about the matter. We won't reproduce the whole thread, which is a delight, but here are some pieces:
John Dingell Jr. was nine years old when his father witnessed FDR signing the Social Security Act into law in 1935. Decades later, his admiration of and affection for his dad is still palpable.
Oh, hey, speaking of history and dynasties and stuff: On December 8, 1941, John Dingell was a teenager, serving as a congressional page, and he was on the floor of the House when FDR called for a declaration of war against Japan and Germany. The day before had been a date that would live in infamy, as you may recall.
So yes, back to the history-making and the young
Dwight Schrute John Dingell who made it happen:
Along the way, Dingell notes someone else who knew exactly how complicated healthcare could be: Hillary Clinton. He also notes that Republicans were very much invited to help work on the Affordable Care Act, but too bad, "They declined." Keep that in mind when you see complaints that the Rs were shut out of the process. Mitch McConnell was the driving force behind that shutout. And eventually, there was John Dingell sitting next to Barack Obama as the ACA was signed into law:
Oh, yes, and he took the gavel to "The Daily Show," where he let Jon Stewart use it to crack a walnut.
As the Atlantic's obit notes, even though Dingell was justifiably pleased with the work he'd done to help expand healthcare to more Americans, he was proudest of his vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act:
"For the first time, we addressed the problem of seeing that every American had full citizenship," he said. "I almost lost my job over that ... [but] I think that was the vote that really solved a problem that was eating away at the foundation of our democracy." (Dingell was perhaps exaggerating: His share of the vote did tumble from 1964 to 1966—from 73 percent down all the way to 63 percent.)
Dingell wasn't entirely a progressive's progressive on every issue. He was an old-fashioned pol who spent his career helping the auto industry, which had its upsides, like helping save the Big Three after the financial crisis (jobs: good), but his support for the industry also led him to hold back environmental protections, especially fuel efficiency standards. He lost his chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to Henry Waxman in 2008 after Waxman argued Dingell's industry ties caused him to resist stronger laws. Even so, Dingell supported a lot of the big environmental legislation, as the New York Times obit points out:
The League of Conservation Voters and other environmental organizations credited him with helping to pass the 1964 Wilderness Act, the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the 1970s, the 1980 Superfund law, statutes protecting marine mammals and bans on ocean dumping. (The Clean Air Act was passed only after Mr. Dingell had bottled it up for 10 years.)
"I've gotten more legislation passed on conservation and the environment than anybody else in this place," Mr. Dingell boasted in an interview with The New York Times in 2007. "I know how to build legislation from the center."
On basic matters of democracy, Dingell also saw that the structural bias of the Constitution gave far too much legislative influence to far too few people, so in 2018, he offered a completely serious proposal: You want progress in this country where a rightwing minority can stop progress in its tracks? OK, how about we abolish the Senate? It's audacious, but damn, that's actually worth looking at.
Politics, like healthcare, is complicated. By 2013, Dingell was tweeting that climate change had to be addressed, so while it took some time for him to catch up with other Democrats, he got there. And now, on his signature issue, it's finally looking like the Democrats are finally catching up with where John Dingell was on his first day in Congress in 1955.
Update: Via alert Wonkette Operative "Rank Member," the Detroit News has some of John Dingell's very best tweets. #4, his "Lighten up, nerd" comment to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, got me a number of new followers after I replied, and lit up again last night. Dude shared the Twitter wealth.
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.