Partisanship Here to Stay in Congress, Dingell Says (Transcript)
Representative John Dingell Jr. said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend, that the partisan political climate in the U.S. House of Representatives that he’s dubbed “obnoxious” is probably here to stay.
(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)
AL HUNT: We begin the program with the longest-serving member of Congress ever, cast over 25,000 votes, served with 11 presidents and 10 speakers, one of the greatest legislators in American history, who announced his retirement this week. It’s a privilege to have the Honorable John Dingell of Michigan.
Mr. Chairman, thank you for being here.
REP. JOHN DINGELL: God bless you. You can still call me John.
HUNT: When you bowed out, you said it’s become obnoxious to serve in the House, an institution that you have revered. What one or two changes or reforms would you make?
DINGELL: Well, one is the nasty partisanship that we’ve seen happen, and that’s a great shame. It shouldn’t -- it shouldn’t be that way. The Congress means the coming together, the great assemblage of the American people to decide issues that are important. So that’s the first thing.
Second thing is, all of the business has been moved into the office of the speaker. Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay started that. It gave them control over the then-Congress and enabled them to have the control that they wanted to have to run the place they wanted.
HUNT: And you would return some of that power to the committees?
DINGELL: Really, I did not.
HUNT: I said you would.
DINGELL: Oh, you betcha I would.
DINGELL: Because the speaker should be the first among equals, but not more than that.
DINGELL: In the English parliament, the speaker is the king’s man, and he is excluded from most decisions. He just presides. Here it’s different. And unfortunately, the difference is not good.
HUNT: With all of the money in politics today, the 24/7 news cycle, the rewards for conflict rather than compromise, do you worry that rather than a temporary cycle, that this may be a condition for a long time?
DINGELL: I am very much afraid that that’s so. I’m also very much afraid that the Congress will never be able to go back. You mentioned some of the other problems we have, 24-hour news cycle, the difficulty in getting the business of the Congress done under those conditions, and the tremendous difficulty that we have with the fact that the members are no longer oriented towards Washington. They’re oriented towards the home district.
So you’ll find that when they hit Washington or getting off the plane, well, the first question they may ask the staff that meets the plane is, “What’s the first plane I can get back to the district?”
HUNT: Right, to get back home. Mr. Chairman, as we know, you’ve served with 11 presidents. Which one was the best political leader?
DINGELL: Oh, boy. I’ve got to tell you, probably the best political leader was -- that I served with was, I think, Lyndon Johnson. I think, however, probably the best president that I know of and knew intimately of was our great president, Roosevelt, or our great president, Truman.
HUNT: Who your dad served with, with both.
DINGELL: Dad served with both of them, loved them both, and they both saved this country many times, Roosevelt from depression, Communist takeover, and then World War II, and then he laid the basis for lasting peace. Truman did almost as much.
HUNT: You have a major supporter of President Obama, and he’s governing in a very difficult environment, as you have noted. Are there one or two lessons he could learn from those previous presidencies, one or two changes you’d like to see in his final three years?
DINGELL: He’s trying very hard. He’s got an awful situation, because the Republican Party is really terribly divided, and it’s terribly divided so that they spend much of their time -- or almost all of their time -- fighting each other. They really don’t have the time to mess with Democrats.
HUNT: So there’s not much he can do?
DINGELL: Not a whole heck of a lot, and he’s tried. Frankly, I think the staff that he has is good, but they’re not doing enough to see to it that he gets close to the Congress. They’re doing better, and they’re trying, but it’s going to take a long time to get over and get past that point. And it may take too long so that the task is -- there’s no more of the task remaining to be done by the time he’s out the door.
HUNT: You have said that your favorite speaker was Sam Rayburn, who was your speaker when you came in. Let me ask you about a couple others, just briefly. Tip O’Neill?
DINGELL: Tip was a wonderful guy. He was an Irishman. And everybody loved him. Both Republicans and Democrats, I don’t know anybody that has anything bad to say about Tip. He was a tremendous speaker.
There was another Irishman that was a great one, too, John McCormack.
HUNT: Right, who...
DINGELL: John McCormack was the protege of -- of Rayburn, but he also was mentor of -- of Tip O’Neill. And it was a wonderful succession of, frankly, Irish populists that ran the House, that understood how the place should work and how people could work together.
HUNT: Now, on the other side, Newt Gingrich.
DINGELL: Well, I’m in a very peculiar position, because Newt Gingrich is a friend of mine.
DINGELL: There’s very few men or women in the House with whom I’ve served that I don’t call a friend. Newt came in determined to remake the House, remake the Congress, and he did.
But a lot of the troubles were the things that he did were really not the things that needed to be done and were not the good things that we should have done. So the result was he moved all of the authority and power into the office of the speaker. Well, it doesn’t work.
DINGELL: The speaker’s office is a place where the speaker handles the programming, where the speaker should handle the legislation so that it moves in an orderly fashion and things of that kind. It’s not a place where decisions are made. The committee is supposed to be the place where that’s done, and that’s supposed to be the place where the business of the nation really begins. Woodrow Wilson, who was quite an author and student of this, said the Congress -- the place where the Congress works is the committee.
HUNT: Committee system. How about Nancy Pelosi as speaker?
DINGELL: Well, Nancy is probably one of the most effective speakers we’ve had. Nancy is, I think, not only able, but she cares, and she’s been very effective in getting things done. I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of the things that have been done by the Congress under her leadership have not been done in the way that the House works, or should work. So the result was that she carried forward a lot of the things that should have been done differently and would’ve been done differently prior to Gingrich.
HUNT: Right. You were -- are -- an extraordinary legislative craftsman.
DINGELL: Thank you.
HUNT: Let’s leave aside John Dingell for a minute. In all of your time here, what one or two legislators -- maybe Democrat and Republican -- struck you as really a great legislator?
DINGELL: I just talked to one today, George Mitchell, one of the great, great, capable compromisers. No longer much remembered, but a beloved friend of mine, John Moss of California.
DINGELL: He wrote the Freedom of Information Act. He was the closest friend I ever had in the Congress. There were -- there were two very good ones. One of the things is...
HUNT: Any Republican come to mind as a good legislator?
DINGELL: Well, had a mess of them, Tom Pelley from Washington, a whole array of people like that, Ed Madigan, who became secretary of agriculture...
HUNT: Right. Right. From Illinois. You know, you have said that over the past 30-plus years, there’s been no more important, no adviser who mattered more to you than your wife, the lovely Deborah, as you call her. She announced on Friday she is running for your congressional seat. Are you going to be that kind of adviser to the next Congressman Dingell?
DINGELL: I think I’m going to wait and see what the next Congressman Dingell wants me to do. I’m going to be her boss, because I’m going to be her constituent. And that’s a remarkable position to be in.
But Deborah is smart, has lots of experience in government and in the House, and knows how to make things happen. She will be a great congressman with no advice and no help from me. She’s going to be just a little giant, and she’s going to be a lot smoother and more gracious than her husband.
HUNT: I rarely disagree with you, but I think that -- that you’re off on that, that she’ll want your advice and she’ll be just like John Dingell. Thank you. It’s been such an honor to have you here today. Thank you very much, and we’ll stay in touch, and the best of luck to you.
DINGELL: Well, God bless you. I’ve been honored to be with you. First of all, stop being honored. I’m just a poor Polish lawyer from Michigan, and it’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve done a lot of wonderful things, met a lot of wonderful people, done a lot of wonderful things, saw to it that a lot of people were helped. It’s been a remarkable career.
HUNT: It has been. John Dingell, thank you. And when we return, a new tax reform plan. Representative Kevin Brady weighs in.
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