Dingell Enters (Fossil) Record Books

Posted on June 8, 2013 by

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dingell_official-thumb-200x280-43John Dingell (D-Mich) has become the longest-serving member of Congress. The U.S. Rep. has held his position for 57 years, five months, and 26 days, breaking the record held by Robert Byrd (D-WVa). To put it in historic perspective, Dingell cast a vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Even more interestingly, Dingell took the seat over from his own father, who earned it in 1933. Yes, you read that correctly. There has been a Dingell in that House seat since the advent of the New Deal under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

There is much on the surface to appreciate about this kind of service. Dingell, clearly, has a unique bond with his constituents. He has also garnered the kind of expertise that is irreplaceable. He has, surely, the connections and relationships to get things accomplished in D.C. In some ways, it is hard to find fault with these facts.

Once we begin to peel away the layers, his years of service become more troubling, at least for me. Our founders never anticipated this kind of service, which would have been too aristocratic for their tastes. In essence, the Dingell family has had a stranglehold on this congressional seat. Such longevity breeds a leadership class and impacts decision-making. For the Dingell family, serving in the U.S. House has become a career and a way of life.  While we can never plumb the heart of a man, for those who serve in office for so long, re-election, more than any other goal, must become paramount. It is hard to imagine a member making decisions that might jeopardize that, even if those decisions may be best for the country. For members who view Congress as a short-term affair, and who have careers to return to, such decisions hold less weight.

While our government is far different from the one envisioned in 1787, and some of those differences are for the better, the U.S. House was designed to be the people’s mouthpiece, tightly bound by two-year terms, and facilitated by a revolving door of people and ideas. When careerism began to dominate the U.S. House, during the mid-Twentieth Century, the relationship between the people and their government also began to change. There is a gulf between us and our elected officials, and as long as they can use the tools of the House (the franking privilege, casework, and targeted benefits that aid only their district) to win re-election, members become invulnerable to challenge. Also, as legislative districts have become more and more protective of incumbents, we have seen re-election rates climb over time. Now, it is not unusual to see more than 90% of House members win re-election.

This lack of competitiveness has had many consequences, but the most significant one is that our elected officials can now act without actual accountability. Why would you ever cut spending, for example, if increased spending helps you target ‘projects’ to your own district, and the possibility of decreased spending might threaten your seat? It is pretty simple when you think of it that way. Just to be clear, this is true for Democrats like Dingell and Republicans as well. In spite of the rhetoric, there has been no real groundswell to cut government spending and a lack of electoral accountability is the biggest reason why.

We could praise John Dingell, and his years of service, but we would be wiser to weep because our system of government has allowed him to hold power for so long. We need more competition within our government. While term limits are always bandied about as an easy solution, a better alternative would be for our citizenry to be so educated that our elected officials would cast their votes while trembling, not from old age, but from the fear of the righteous wrath of the ballot box.

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