A Dissent on John Dingell, the Queen Elizabeth of Congress

Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View writing about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs. He is a national correspondent for the Atlantic, the author of "Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror" and a winner of the National Magazine Award for reporting. He has also covered the Middle East as a staff writer for the New Yorker.
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Permit me to dissent from the general mood of celebration surrounding John Dingell's record-breaking achievement in longevity as the elected representative of the people of Michigan's 12th Congressional District.

Dingell, the Queen Elizabeth of Congress, will tomorrow become the longest-serving House member in history -- 57 years, 5 months and 26 days. Dingell, who is 86, was first elected to Congress shortly after Elizabeth was crowned queen. Like the queen, Dingell essentially inherited his job from his father. John D. Dingell Sr. served in Congress from 1933 until his death in 1955.

Unlike the queen, who is the symbolic leader of a constitutional monarchy, Dingell has wielded real power for many decades. And unlike Queen Elizabeth -- who this week is celebrating her 60th year on the throne -- Dingell is a member of an elected legislature that requires new blood and fresh ideas to stay relevant and vital.

I understand why people celebrate achievements in physical durability. We would like to believe that we, too, could function efficiently in our chosen professions into our late 80s. Of course, most of us are under no illusion that we could do so, which is one reason very few people who reach 86 are still working.

Dingell has been a vital figure in the House until relatively recently, and he has achieved many worthwhile goals. Even now, he seems sharper than many of his colleagues who are 40 or 50 years younger. (I recognize that this could sound like an insult, but I don't mean it that way.)

So here are some questions raised by Dingell's new achievement: Should we, as a society, encourage our legislators to treat their seats as thrones? Should death be the only cause of abdication? Should we continue to make believe that old men are the best men for these important jobs? Should members of Congress rise to powerful chairmanships based on longevity, or based on their capabilities and accomplishments?

Dingell's "achievement" has come at a price, not only in Congress, but in Michigan. I'm not well-acquainted with the 12th District, but I assume it is like all other congressional districts in that it includes many men and women who have interesting ideas, popular support and a strong desire for public service, and who saw their ambition of entering Congress thwarted by a system that rewards long-serving incumbents with a great deal of concentrated power and a great deal of money.

I understand that the people of Michigan have returned Dingell to office again and again. But the powers of incumbency have made that result all but inevitable. Congressional seats should turn over at a much higher frequency than Old World monarchies.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com