The End of an Era of Committee Dominance

The announced retirement this week of Congressman John Dingell, Jr. may signal the end of an era when powerful committee chairs pounded out major legislation that passed into law.Age and the wear-and-tear of polarized politics are taking their toll in Congress. The longest serving member of Congress in history announced this week he will retire.

Congressman John Dingell, Jr., the son of a congressman who also represented what has become a staunchly Democratic district in the suburbs of Detroit, has seen a lot of history and made a lot of history in nearly 60 years on Capitol Hill. Operating as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell left his fingerprints on legislative achievements from creating Medicare, environmental laws and civil rights legislation.

Perhaps nowhere was his powerful grip felt most than when it came to protecting Detroit's Big Three automakers from ambitious Presidents and restless congressional colleagues. It is notable that Congressman Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who unseated Dingell as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee over his foot-dragging on stricter vehicle emission standards and climate change measures, also announced his retirement from Congress earlier this year.

Dingell referred to himself as a Social Democrat, a tradition he inherited and embraced from his father who introduced national health insurance legislation in 1943. Dingell supported the Affordable Care Act, though he said it didn't go far enough. He championed a more aggressive single-payer national health system.

The imposing 6-foot, three-inch Dingell assumed command of the Energy and Commerce Committee in 1981, the year Oregon's Ron Wyden landed in Congress and earned a seat on the powerful panel. Dingell spread his wings to collect broad jurisdictions over health care, the environment, telecommunications and consumer protection. He leveraged that widening jurisdiction like a hammer in oversight hearings, where Dingell grilled Republican and Democratic witnesses with the same fervor.

The days of committee power brokers were numbered by the 1990s and Dingell ran afoul of California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who later would become Speaker. When he was forced to run against another Democratic incumbent following redistricting, Pelosi supported his primary opponent. Dingell won in a breeze, but six years later lost his prized chairmanship to Waxman.

In Dingell's world, powerful committees were the anvil of successful legislation. As power was siphoned off from committee chairs to speakers and majority leaders, Dingell and other powerhouses were bereft of the platform they used to pass major legislation. Now, even speakers and majority leaders have a hard time controlling members whose allegiance is to ideology and special interest groups, not political parties.

In his Detroit speech where he announced his retirement, Dingell said Congress no longer gets much done. "This Congress has been a great disappointment to everyone," he said, noting only 57 bills had passed into law, many of them not that noteworthy and certainly not in the ranks of Medicare and the Clean Air Act.

At 87, Dingell gets around Capitol Hill on a scooter and can still flash the broad smile that made him a favorite back home and a feared force to those who crossed him. His retreat from Congress, along with several other long-time committee chairs, signals an end to the era when committees in Congress counted.