Misremembering John Dingell


John Dingell becomes the longest-serving House member in history on Wednesday, and to honor the Democrat from Detroit Speaker Nancy Pelosi is hosting a reception at the Capitol today. Bill Clinton and Carl Levin are scheduled to speak. During his 55-year run in the House, Dingell has maintained a pro-environment voting record, repeatedly proposed health care reform legislation, and even joined fellow Democrat John Conyers when Conyers sued (PDF) then-President Bush in 2006 for violating the Constitution (the case was thrown out).

But the elephant in the room will be Dingell’s close relationship with the auto industry, a connection seen as one major reason for Detroit’s foot-dragging on raising fuel economy and cutting carbon emissions during Dingell’s 17-year tenure as chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, a position he lost in November when Californian Henry Waxman organized an intra-party coup to oust Dingell. Waxman’s rise to the chairmanship of the Energy Committee represented not only an geographic and ideological change (from Detroit to Beverly Hills), but a generational one as well (Dingell had been in the House for 20 years when Waxman arrived as a freshman).

I have a feeling no one will mention Dingell’s recent defeat at the reception. Here’s a quick list of other things about Dingell that probably won’t receive a mention:

  • Even though Dingell helped write the original CAFE standards in 1975, he has since resisted broad changes to emissions, fuel economy standards, and other regulations affecting the auto industry, including air bags. In 1989, when Nevada Senator Richard Bryan proposed a bill to raise CAFE standards to 40 miles per gallon, Dingell floated the idea of building a toxic waste dump in Bryan’s home state.
  • Dingell’s wife, Debbie, has worked for General Motors since 1977, when she joined the company as a lobbyist. Dingell’s own financial disclosure documents show he owns at least $600,000 in GM stock and stock options.
  • In 2002, a Pelosi’s PAC donated $10,000 to Lynn Rivers, a Democrat challenging Dingell for his seat.
  • As late as November 2007, Dingell was still pushing to keep SUVs classified as light trucks, a classification that subjects them to less-strict fuel economy standards.

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