John Dingell’s tenure in the House lasted for 11 presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama. | Lauren Victoria Burke/AP Photo Former Democratic Rep. John D. Dingell Jr., the longest-serving member of Congress whose tenure stretched from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama, died on Thursday. He was 92. The cause of death was prostate cancer.
John Dingell’s tenure in the House lasted for 11 presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama. | Lauren Victoria Burke/AP Photo
Former Democratic Rep. John D. Dingell Jr., the longest-serving member of Congress whose tenure stretched from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama, died on Thursday. He was 92.
The cause of death was prostate cancer. Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, his wife of nearly four decades and successor in Congress, was at Dingell’s side when he died.
Story Continued Below
“It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of John David Dingell, Jr., former Michigan Congressman and longest-serving member of the United States Congress,“ Debbie Dingell’s office said in a statement Thursday night. “He was a lion of the United States Congress and a loving son, father, husband, grandfather, and friend. He will be remembered for his decades of public service to the people of Southeast Michigan, his razor sharp wit, and a lifetime of dedication to improving the lives of all who walk this earth.“
Dingell‘s legendary tenure in Congress — he served in the House for 59 years and 21 days — is matched only by the scale of his contributions to American society. He was involved in crafting and passing legislation that aimed to ensure clean air and water, safer food and health care for Americans. He worked vociferously to protect the American automobile companies — the dominant industry in his southeastern Michigan district, which stretched from Detroit’s edge to the college town of Ann Arbor.
Dingell’s power came from his chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee, the panel he controlled from 1981 until 1995, and then again from 2007 to 2009, when he was knocked off by California Rep. Henry Waxman, whose candidacy was tacitly backed by Nancy Pelosi, a longtime Dingell foe.
So vast was Dingell’s jurisdiction atop “E&C“ that the entire planet came under his purview. “If it moves, it’s energy, if it doesn’t, it’s commerce,” Dingell declared.
The son of a House member, Dingell served in Congress from 1955 to 2014. He was sworn in by Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) and exited Congress as the “Dean of the House,” with John Boehner (R-Ohio) as speaker.
Dingell’s congressional career was 18 months longer than any of the more than 12,300 individuals ever sworn into the House or Senate. In fact, a Dingell has served in the House for nearly 86 consecutive years, a congressional dynasty that will likely never be equaled. His wife, Debbie, is in her third term.
A proud liberal on most issues, Dingell strove for decades to carry on his father’s legacy, especially on health care reform. Yet Dingell also forged close ties with Republicans and was able to use those relationships to help move dozens of pieces of legislation throughout his lengthy career.
“Most everything that my dad spent his life in Congress trying to accomplish, and his unfinished goals that I had worked so long and hard to complete, had now been achieved,” Dingell wrote in his 2018 memoir.
“Sixty-seven years after he’d first introduced health reform legislation, I’d helped get it signed into law. Our food was safer. Our air and water were cleaner. Endangered species were protected. We’d looked after the widows and the orphans and all those who, as my father always said, ‘Needed a hand up, not a handout.’ I’d carried on his lifelong commitment to protect the unspoiled open spaces of our beautiful country.”
Yet in many ways, Dingell was a walking contradiction. While Dingell called himself a “child of the House,” the Michigan Democrat also played the role of the average American. For all his love of Detroit and Michigan, the overwhelming majority of his life was spent in Washington. Tall and intimidating, Dingell was both profane and subtle, charming and callous, humorous and deadly serious.
But maybe most important, Dingell served in a Congress that has long since vanished, an insular world ruled by white men who spent months and years living and working closely together. These men shared common values, and often, a common vision for the future of the country.
The House of Representatives Dingell was first elected to in 1955 was largely controlled by Democratic committee chairmen, not the speaker, and those chairmen used their power to pass legislation. They faced comparatively little scrutiny from the press and public. Members had more in common with each other than they do now, and the partisanship was far less intense. “I was part of our government when it worked honorably and well together,” Dingell said.
Born in Colorado Springs in 1926, Dingell first came to Capitol Hill in 1933 at age 6 when his father, John Dingell Sr., was elected to Congress as a Democratic lawmaker from Michigan. The elder Dingell was the son of Polish immigrants who had Anglicized his name and got elected as a strong backer of President Frankin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The younger Dingell became a House page at 11 — his father made sure he served with Republicans to ensure no special treatment — and he was in the chamber on Dec. 8, 1941, when FDR declared war on Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Dingell attended the Capitol Page School and Georgetown Preparatory School. He went on to Georgetown University for his undergraduate and law degrees. The younger Dingell moved back to Detroit after law school, got married and had a son.
But his father’s unexpected death in September 1955 changed everything. He jumped into the special election to fill the vacant House seat and won the general election that December. Only 29 at the time, Dingell wouldn’t leave the House for nearly six decades, rising to become one of the most powerful men in Washington.
“I gave Dad about a week to get comfortable and then I went and ran,” Dingell told The New York Times in 2013. “It turned out to be a great thing. I’ve loved the job.”
Like his father, who first introduced a universal health care bill in 1943, Dingell focused on that issue once he was sworn in. He reintroduced his father’s bill in 1957 at the start of the 85th Congress, a tradition he would continue at the start of each Congress throughout his long career. Dingell was in the speaker’s chair when the bill creating Medicare passed the House in 1965, and he played a big role in passing the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
By 1981, after patiently clawing his way up the then-sacred seniority ladder, Dingell became chairman of what would become the Energy and Commerce Committee, a post he held for 16 years. Dingell turned it into one of the most powerful panels in the House, with jurisdiction over three-fourths of the legislation that moved through the chamber. Waxman, who ousted Dingell as Energy and Commerce chairman following the 2008 elections, jokingly referred to him as “Mr. Big Chairman.”
Dingell was known for aggressively questioning witnesses, as well as for using an investigative subcommittee to take on everyone from presidents to the Pentagon to powerful CEOs. He sent thousands and thousands of letters — known as “Dingellgrams” — to corporate, government and military officials, demanding documents and information. Not complying with those missives was unthinkable.
The list of legislative accomplishments for Dingell is extraordinarily long. He played a key role in passage of the Endangered Species Act, the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and legislation to create the first international wildlife refuge in North America.
Dingell was also involved in drafting the 2010 Affordable Care Act, the Patient‘s Bill of Rights, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, the Prescription Drug User Fee Act, civil rights bills, a ban on marine waste dumping, and legislation to protect marine mammals and to require drug-labeling.
As American automakers faced an onslaught of better and cheaper Japanese automobile imports in the 1980s, Dingell chaired hearings on the issue. He pushed legislation through the House requiring a percentage of American-made parts to be used in any car sold in the United States. He was the eyes and ears of the Big Three on Capitol Hill.
Dingell had a strained relationship with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), although they remained outwardly civil.
Dingell backed current-House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) in a 2001 leadership race instead of Pelosi, a slight she never forgot, or forgave. In 2002, Pelosi supported an unsuccessful Democratic primary challenger to Dingell. And in 2008, when Waxman took on Dingell for the Energy and Commerce gavel — a move that stunned House members — many Democrats believed Pelosi was supporting Waxman, although she didn’t endorse anyone publicly. Waxman won that race, ending Dingell’s hold on the panel.
Dingell, though, hadn’t moved quickly enough on issues like climate change and auto fuel-efficiency standards, which angered other Democrats. He was also strongly anti-gun control, which put him out of step with Pelosi and other party leaders.
Despite his success in Congress, Dingell’s personal life was difficult, although he later found happiness with Debbie Dingell, now in her third term in Congress.
In 1952, Dingell married Helen Henebry, a Denver native and airline flight attendant. The couple had four children, but divorced in 1972.
According to his memoir, Helen Dingell suffered from bipolar disorder throughout their marriage. Despite years of treatment and numerous medications, Helen Dingell wasn’t able to overcome her illness, and John Dingell was awarded custody of their children in the divorce. Helen Dingell died in 2016 at age 89.
Dingell met Deborah Ann Insley on a plane from Detroit to Washington in 1977, according to People magazine. Twenty-eight years his junior, Insley was a Republican lobbyist for General Motors, as well as being the wealthy heiress to the Fisher Body fortune. The couple married in 1981. She gave up lobbying and became a GM executive after their marriage in order to avoid any conflict of interest.
“I love Debbie — more than the air that I breathe,” Dingell said in his memoir. “I love her enough to do what is probably the hardest thing to do in any situation: keep my big Polish mouth shut about the decisions she makes about her own life, personally and professionally.”