Fearless Crusader Or Self Serving Kingpin?

In a ballroom a stone's throw from the Capitol, 800 lawyers, lobbyists, and lawmakers gathered on Oct. 8 to pay tribute to a giant of Washington: Representative John D. Dingell. Just before the $750-a-head dinner held by the liberal Center for National Policy, guests bowed their heads for an invocation thanking God for Dingell, "protector of the powerless and the voiceless." Big John, as he is known, couldn't have put it better himself. In 36 years in Congress, the 65-year-old Michigan Democrat has earned a reputation as a tribune of the people--scourge of greedy corporate executives and pettifogging bureaucrats alike.

That the guest list included high-priced lobbyists for hundreds of companies such as Arco, Monsanto, Philip Morris, and USX was testimony to Dingell's reach and the fear he inspires. In fact, many lobbyists owe their livelihood to Dingell and his Energy & Commerce Committee. The chairman's influence and fondness for well-publicized investigations have made him one of the most powerful of Potomac potentates. But increasingly, critics say, Dingell has become intoxicated with his own importance and is blocking legislation crucial to business.

Dingell, who received none of the $600,000 the dinner netted, sees no irony in being feted by corporate lobbyists. "I'm lending my name to a fine think tank," he says. "I'm not for sale to somebody who's holding a dinner in my honor." Dingell points out that any group of lobbyists is bound to include some who have business before his panel because "there isn't an industry in the country not touched by our committee."That's no exaggeration. Energy & Commerce oversees telecommunications, securities, the environment, autos, railroads, oil and gas, health care, and nuclear power--economic sectors that account for 75% of gross national product.

From his perch as chairman of the oversight and investigations subcommittee, Dingell--an imposing 6-foot, 3-inch 200-pounder -- also pecks and pokes at whatever displeases him, even if it's outside his jurisdiction. For example, his high-profile probe into $640 Navy toilet seats was based on the thinnest of reeds: The Navy bought the seats from General Dynamics Corp., a publicly traded company supervised by the Securities & Exchange Commission, an agency in Dingell's purview.

Dingell wields at least partial control over half of all legislation that flows through the House's maze of committees and subcommittees. Since he became chairman in 1981, his aggressiveness has given Energy & Commerce an aura at the same time so frightening and appealing that other lawmakers clamor to serve on the panel.

TURF FIGHTS. Dingell is proud that he has used his power to protect consumers, the weak, and the downtrodden. His recent forays include unearthing fraud in scientific research, exposing bribery and falsified records in the approval of generic drugs, and uncovering overbilling of the government on university research contracts.

But after interviews with more than a dozen members of Congress, academics, and experts on the legislative branch, a view of John Dingell emerges that is far less flattering than the benevolent image portrayed at the fund-raiser. His assertiveness often crosses the line into bullying of bureaucrats, executives, and colleagues. While all lawmakers look after their districts' narrow interests, Dingell's parochialism, especially on behalf of the auto industry, can be extreme.

Although he fancies himself a foe of waste, Dingell's reluctance to yield an inch of turf can promote inefficiency in government. Earlier this year, Representative Timothy J. Penny (D-Minn.) offered a bill to consolidate all food inspections under the Agriculture Dept. The move would have cut red tape for food processors, but it would also have removed fish inspection from the Commerce Dept. and thus from oversight by Dingell's committee. When Penny apprised Dingell of his plan, the chairman "in a vulgar way told me he thought it was a worthless idea," says Penny. "Needless to say, it's not going anywhere."

Most committees have had at least one fight with Dingell over jurisdiction, and he has won so many that chairmen tend to avoid legislation that might have to be routed through Energy & Commerce. The Agriculture Committee has not overhauled pesticide laws in a decade because of fear that Energy & Commerce will make wholesale changes once a bill begins to move. Public Works & Transportation Committee Chairman Robert A. Roe (D-N. J.) scrapped a plan to study better connections between highways, railroads, airports, and mass transit because the study would have made the bill fair game for Dingell.

Dingell doesn't much like the idea of encouraging mass transit or anything else that would discourage Americans from driving. His suburban Detroit district includes the world headquarters of Ford Motor Co. and tens of thousands of auto workers. But critics say the sweeping jurisdiction of Energy & Commerce demands that Dingell occasionally rise above what's good for Detroit and consider the national interest.

For example, he has blocked long-term reauthorization of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since 1986. This has forced the agency, a thorn in the side of auto makers, to survive on a series of stopgap funding measures. By preventing a debate over auto safety standards, Dingell has frustrated lawmakers who want to force Detroit to build cars with better crash protection. Dingell was also crucial in blocking revision of the Clean Air Act for a decade, as well as stymieing measures to require air bags and better fuel economy. Says Joan B. Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a group founded by Ralph Nader that often butts heads with Dingell over auto safety: "Dingell commits legislative malpractice when he puts the public at risk."

HARDBALL. Dingell has a staff of respected investigators. But his crack gumshoes have never examined a U. S. auto company other than a Chrysler Corp. subsidiary currently being probed for defense-contract irregularities. They haven't been ordered to stay away from Detroit, but "they know better than to do something so foolish," says a former Dingell aide.

Legislators who challenge Dingell on his home ground often come away licking their wounds. Freshman Senator Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.) is sponsoring legislation that would force carmakers to increase average fuel economy 40% by 2001. Sources say Dingell has been pushing hard to locate a nuclear-waste dump in Nevada, hoping to distract Bryan. Dingell counters that Congress first targeted Nevada as a possible nuclear waste site in 1987, before Bryan took office, but adds: "His position on fuel economy might make me somewhat less sympathetic."

Such hardball tactics are vintage Dingell. In late July, when it looked as though he was losing a battle to derail President Bush's bill to reform antiquated banking laws by letting banks get into the securities business and branch across state lines, Dingell dropped a bombshell at a public hearing. He called Citicorp, the nation's largest bank holding company, "technically insolvent and struggling to survive." He suggested that it was being kept afloat by borrowings from the Federal Reserve.

The repercussions were immediate. Alarm bells started ringing at the Fed and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., where Chairman L. William Seidman quickly repudiated Dingell. "I don't believe Citicorp is insolvent under any standard," Seidman said. Citicorp announced that it hadn't borrowed at the Fed discount window in seven months. But in Hong Kong, news of Dingell's remarks had depositors lining up at Citi branches to withdraw their money. Dingell brushes aside the possibility that such remarks could set off a bank run. "I thought it was a true statement. There's obviously the danger of a run, but here the danger was not realized." Yet a top Citicorp official claims the bank lost $800 million in Hong Kong deposits. "He wanted in on banking reform, and we were the horse he chose to ride," says the official. "It worked."

BANK PHOBIA. Dingell's insistence on preventing greater concentration in banking has serious consequences. He has used his vast power over financial regulation to block modernization of laws, such as the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 and the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, that most experts regard as outdated.

This attitude may have more to do with family history than with lobbying. Dingell's father, John Sr., represented the same district in the House from 1933 until his death in 1955 and was an ardent New Dealer. And Dingell fils, who won a special election to succeed his father, has guarded the New Deal legacy ever since. Says the head of a top financial-services company: "I think he was born afraid of banks."

The elder Dingell lost $7,500 in the 1929 stock market crash, "every cent he owned at the time," says the congressman, who was then a 3-year-old. "The bankers have their noses out of joint, but they're asking for something that's not proper, and I won't give it to them," says Dingell. "Banks may have changed but bankers have not."

This year, Dingell used his committee's limited jurisdiction over pending bank-reform legislation to write a more restrictive version of a measure that had been drafted by the House Banking Committee. The ensuing spat with Banking Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) could sink the bill for this session.

But Dingell's interest in banking is selective. Although usually the first to jump on any scandal, he showed no interest in the brouhaha over Bank of Credit & Commerce International. He sent no demands to regulators and held no hearings. "Not our jurisdiction," says committee spokesman Dennis Fitzgibbons. "Too busy," claims Dingell, noting a dozen matters he's preoccupied with.

Something more may be at work here, though. Dingell and his wife, Debbie, an executive in General Motors Corp.'s Washington office, are very close to Robert A. Altman and his wife, actress Lynda Carter. Altman was president of Washington's First American Bancorp Inc. until the burgeoning scandal over the bank's secret ownership by BCCI forced him and Chairman Clark M. Clifford to resign. In 1989 and 1990, Dingell received nearly $10,000 in campaign contributions from Altman, Clifford, and their families and associates. That's more than any other lawmaker got from individuals with ties to BCCI. In addition, five years ago, the Dingells obtained a mortgage on their McLean (Va.) home from First American Bank.

Dingell denies that the funds are in any way connected to his passivity in the face of the BCCI scandal, saying he has been friends with Altman and Clifford for years and that neither has been charged with any wrongdoing. And a Dingell spokesman points out that Debbie Dingell has had an account at First American since the 1970s.

'OLD BULL.' Dingell's approach to overbilling by colleges also raises questions. His probe of lavish spending by Stanford University led President Donald Kennedy to resign and caused the government to change the way it compensates schools for indirect research costs such as heat and janitorial services. But when the new rules threatened to squeeze the University of Michigan out of $8 million a year, Dingell wrote to Budget Director Richard G. Darman complaining that a new cap on indirect costs "could cause undue hardship for a number of research universities."

Another nettlesome Dingell trademark is his antipathy toward foreign companies, particularly Japanese. He once referred to Honda Motor Co. executives as "the little yellow people." He defiantly refuses to apologize for the remark, saying: "I've heard them called worse." And he has brought new meaning to the slogan "Buy American." Before checking into the hospital for a 1987 hip replacement, he insisted that only U. S.-made parts be used.

In many ways, Dingell is a throwback to an earlier era in Congress when "old bull" committee chairmen ruled Capitol Hill with an iron hand. "We show fidelity to New Deal and Great Society programs as if they're etched in stone, but many have outlived their usefulness," remarks Minnesota's Penny. "We hang on to them because of a sense of ownership by our chairmen."

But John Dingell isn't about to change his views. "I'm unrepentant," he declares. "I was sent down here to serve and protect the best interests of the 500,000-plus people in my district. I'm going to do that to my level best, and I won't apologize to anyone."


This year alone, the House Energy & Commerce Committee:

-- Voted to dismantle barriers between investment and commercial banking, but with tight new controls

-- Will determine whether to loosen restrictions on Baby Bells

-- Will decide whether to grant localities power to regulate cable TV

-- Will consider Big Oil's request to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and will decide whether auto companies must meet a higher fuel-economy standard

-- Will consider reform of the government securities markets

-- Will consider broader enforcement powers for the FDA

-- Will consider national regulation for insurance companies

-- Will rewrite hazardous-waste laws