WASHINGTON — Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat and the longest-serving member of Congress ever, will step down after this year and cap a career unmatched for its longevity and influence.
Dingell, 87, told the Detroit Free Press that he'd reached the decision to retire at the end of his current term — his 29th full one — rather than run for re-electon because it was time, given a list of achievements that any other member of Congress would envy, and his continued frustration over partisan gridlock. Dingell replaced his father in Congress and, like him, made health care his overriding passion.
Dingell's retirement comes at a time when many members of both parties are moving toward the exits in the House and Senate. Already, top House Democrats Henry Waxman and George Miller of California — who with Dingell are among the most powerful and prolific legislators of their era — have announced their retirements. Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a widely respected Democrat with 35 years of experience, is also retiring.
For weeks, rumors had circulated that Dingell — who last June surpassed the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia as the longest-serving member of Congress — might be considering retirement. While clearly sharp mentally — he could be seen in recent months peppering witnesses with questions before his Energy and Commerce Committee — time has had taken its toll on his body, forcing him to use crutches or a wheelchair to get around.
But less than two weeks ago, his office seemed to put those rumors to rest with an e-mail to constituents in which Dingell vowed to fight on for extended unemployment benefits and "to protect the many workers and industries important to southeast Michigan." In the e-mail, he said he would "continue to reiterate to my colleagues that the words 'compromise' and 'conciliation' should not be considered dirty words in Washington."
Dingell, who will be 88 in July, was expected to let his staff know about the decision Monday morning and then announce it publicly at a noon luncheon at the Southern Wayne County Chamber of Commerce in Southgate.
Dingell's wife, Deborah, who with her husband makes up one of Washington's and southeastern Michigan's most prominent power couples, is considered a possible candidate to seek his congressional seat. The 12th Congressional District is considered a relatively safe Democratic district.
Whoever replaces Dingell, she or he will have a tough act to follow.
John David Dingell Jr. was 29 years old when the Detroit native was elected in a 1955 special election to serve out the remainder of his late father's term. Since then, he has cast tens of thousands of votes and helped pass — if not write — the most iconic pieces of legislation of the last six decades, from the Civil Rights Act and Medicare to the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and, in 2010, the Affordable Care Act.
The man known throughout Washington as "Big John" — he's 6-foot-3 — Dingell cut a distinctive figure in the Capitol. A progressive when it came to workers' rights, he is also an staunch defender of Michigan industries, including its automakers, and at times ran afoul of environmentalists.
He also supported gun rights, and, as an avid outdoorsman, sat on the board of the National Rifle Association for a time, though he eventually quit. He counts as among his most important accomplishments the creation of the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge and the River Raisin Battlefield.
Gentlemanly and erudite, Dingell has always positioned himself as a centrist when it comes came to getting legislation passed, looking for members on both sides of the political aisle to he could count on as allies. Dingell has decried the partisan atmosphere that has grown toxic in Washington, but he has managed to maintain friendships across the aisle, including with Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican and the current Energy and Commerce chairman.
Dingell still likes referring to himself as "just a dumb Polish lawyer," but his career has helped shape the way legislation is passed in Washington. He vastly expanded the scope of the Energy and Commerce Committee's purview during his first stint as chairman, which lasted from 1981 to 1995, to the point where it was said it handled four out of every 10 bills in the House.
He used to have a photo of the Earth from space behind his desk and when anyone asked him to define the committee's jurisdiction, he'd point to it.
Dingell also became famous
Many felt Dingell might resign sometime after the 2008 election when, fresh off a knee surgery, he was challenged for the Energy and Commerce chairmanship by Waxman. The California lawmaker, a key ally of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, won the committee gavel and was in charge when the Affordable Care Act was signed into law. Dingell remained "chairman emeritus" and sat on all subcommittees.
Waxman, who had remained the ranking Democrat on the commtitee after Republicans took control of the House in 2011, recently announced his retirement from Congress. With Waxman stepping down, there had been some speculation that Dingell might again ask his party to return him to the ranking member's seat.
Dingell's departure at the end of the current term in early January gives the title of the longest-serving active member of Congress to another Michigan lawmaker: Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat and former House Judiciary Committee Chairman who has been in the House since 1965.
Conyers, 84, would need 10 more years to match Dingell's record for longevity.
Last June, at a fete in the Capitol for Dingell surpassing Byrd's mark, Republican House Speaker John Boehner choked up as he his described his friendship with Dingell.
He said Dingell's "milestone comes with all kinds of markers ... but you can't really put a number on what it means to enjoy the admiration and respect of your peers."
Contributing: Catalina Camia, USA TODAY