When John Dingell (D-MI) was first elected to the U.S. House in a special election on Dec. 13, 1955 at the age of 29, President Barack Obama had not been born, man had not reached the Moon, and the Internet had not been invented.
The longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history, at 58 years, 74 days, Dingell, 87, announced his retirement yesterday. When his final term ends next Jan. 3, he will have spent slightly more than 59 years in the House.
In announcing his retirement, Dingell said, "My standards are high for this job. I put myself to the test and have always known that when the time came that I felt I could not live up to my own personal standard for a Member of Congress, it would be time to step aside for someone else to represent this district. That time has come."
Dingell said that his health "is good enough that I could have done it again. My doctor says I'm OK. And I'm still as smart and capable as anyone on the Hill." But he added that, "I'm not certain I would have been able to serve out the two-year term. I'm not going to be carried out feet first. I don't want people to say I stayed too long."
According to Dingell, increased partisanship in Congress diminished his love of his job. "This is not the Congress I know and love," he said. "It's hard for me to accept, but it's time to cash it in."
Dingell became dean of the House in 1995 after the retirement of Jamie Whitten (D-MS), death of William Natcher (D-KY) and defeat of Jack Brooks (D-TX). On February 11, 2009, he became the longest-serving House member at 19,420 days, passing Whitten. He became the longest-serving member of Congress on June 7, 2013 at 20,997 days, breaking the previous record set by former Sen. and Rep. Robert Byrd (D-WV).
With his record-breaking tenure, Dingell leaves the House with a legacy of major accomplishments. Rated by journalists and other observers as one of the most powerful and effective House members, Dingell chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee from 1981 to 1995 and 2007 to 2009, while serving as ranking Democrat from 1995 to 2007. As committee chairman, Dingell led investigations that uncovered corruption and waste in the Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, and Food and Drug Administration.
Generally liberal on economic, social and environmental issues, Dingell introduced universal health care legislation in every Congress in which he served until passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010, where he played a major role, and presided over the House when it passed Medicare in 1965. A skilled legislative craftsman and master of parliamentary procedure, he helped write the Water Quality Act, National Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, Ocean Dumping Act, Clean Water Act, Food Safety Modernization Act, and the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which set the first fuel efficiency standards.
A supporter of organized labor and Detroit’s auto industry, Dingell has always represented a safe Democratic district. Initially representing part of the west side of Detroit in the old 15th District, his 12th District today includes Dearborn, Downriver and southwest Wayne County Detroit suburbs, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. He received 68 percent of the vote in 2012.
Aside from the big Republican years of 2010 (57 percent) and 1994 (59 percent), he never received less than 62 percent of the vote in any general election. Dingell’s only serious challenges occurred in Democratic primary fights against fellow incumbents caused by redistricting. He defeated the more conservative John Lesinski in 1964 and the more liberal Lynn Rivers in 2002.
When Dingell was first elected, he succeeded his father, John Dingell, Sr., a New Deal Democrat first elected in 1932, who had died in office on Sept. 19, 1955. And the Dingell family legacy of more than 80 years in Congress may be extended even further.
After Dingell announced his retirement, speculation immediately began that his considerably younger second wife, Debbie Dingell, 60, may run for his seat. A consultant for the American Automotive Policy Council and former General Motors executive, Debbie Dingell has plenty of political experience of her own as a member of the Democratic National Committee and chairperson of the Wayne State University Board of Governors. On Friday, she is expected to announce her candidacy for her husband’s seat. Her high name recognition and political prominence make her a clear front-runner, and she will have her husband’s full support