Dingell delighted people across the U.S. with his sassy takes on politics which he shared via his Twitter account while both in office and after retiring in 2015.
His funny way with social media will be missed, but it is particularly in Michigan and its auto industry, where Dingell was a constant presence on the political scene for over 59 years, that his absence will perhaps be the most deeply felt.
Dingell began his lifetime of service as a Congressional page when he was just 12-years-old in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1938 to 1943, where as a 15-year-old he watched president Roosevelt give his famous “Date Which Live In Infamy” speech following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from the House floor. In 1944 he joined the U.S. Army, where he rose to second lieutenant and would have had to participate in an invasion of Japan had the two atomic bombs dropped on that country not ended the war. He then went on to get his law degree from Georgetown and, in 1955, won a special election to replace his recently deceased father, Rep. John Dingell, Sr., as representative for the 15th Congressional district in Michigan.
The next year, he won his first full term. He would go on to be reelected 29 times.
As a Michigan congressman, Dingell was a champion of both the auto industry and the working class. During debate in 1977 to amend the Clear Air Act, Dingell worked for a favorable outcome for the car industry, instead of the air. The 1977 revision addressed specifically automobile emissions and in particular three pollutants—hydrocarbons (HC), carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen oxide (NOx). Auto industry executives had already received three postponements to implementing these standards—two by the EPA and one by Congress—and insisted after seven years their companies still could not meet standards. While the auto companies did gain another extension, the bill didn’t include the relaxed targets that Dingell was pushing for.
Dingell claimed on the House floor that there was “no quantified evidence” of health hazards caused by automobile carbon monoxide in the open, a claim his fellow Democrats roundly rejected. And while a more relaxed amendment called the Dingell-Broyhill substitute almost made it into the bill, but died in a tie vote in committee. In protest, Dingell refused to sign the conference report that lead to the 1977 Clear Air Act and actually apologized to automotive industry executives for not furthering their interests, Congressional Quarterly noted at the time.
In the 1980s, Dingell again went to bat for the auto industry. He worked with Reagan to loosen emission targets, and when charcoal canisters designed to filter gasoline vapor were being debated, Dingell called the gadgets “motorized bombs.” From a 1989 Congressional Quarterly article:
Gasoline vapor, though a relatively minor contributor to urban smog problems, had been classified by the EPA as a probable carcinogen that caused an estimated 75 cancer deaths a year.
But Dingell harshly attacked the canisters as potentially hazardous devices that could turn automobiles into “motorized bombs.” “If you want to ride around in exploding vehicles … you can support this amendment with enthusiasm,” he said.
But by 1990, Dingell’s attitude had softened a bit, and a new Clear Air Act was passed, ending a 10-year stalemate over emission regulations, mainly held up by John Dingell.
It may be thanks to Dingell that we have companies like General Motors and Chrysler today, as there was no stronger champion of the automotive bailouts in 2008 and 2009. He gave constant speeches, made personal calls to the president and offered quid pro quo for support of the “Cash for Clunkers” program. He pushed for at least five bailouts, according to the Washington Post, ultimately securing billions for General Motors and Chrysler.
“I’ve never known a man who has been a better champion of the American worker, and he deserves a great deal of credit for the resurgence of the iconic American automobile industry,” Vice President Joe Biden told Automotive News about Dingell.
As chair of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee he was well positioned to plead the case of the Big Three and, of course, for Big Oil. This stance led to him butting heads with fellow Democrats who consistently have wanted to raise emission standards for decades. He fought against every attempt to curb automotive emissions, earning him the unflattering, but perhaps fitting, nickname “Tailpipe Johnny.”
While The League of Conservation Voters Scorecard gave the former representative a 100 percent rating his last few years in office and a 75 percent rating overall, Dingell eventually lost his chair on the Energy and Commerce Committee in 2008 due to fellow Democrats feeling that he wasn’t taking environmental policy seriously, the Washington Post reported. Even after losing his powerful position however, Dingell still fought for the auto industry, personally writing President Obama and urging him to make more funds available to the industry.
It wasn’t just the domestic auto industry Dingell was interested in protecting. While Dingell supported the 2008 bailout of GM and Chrysler, he also oversaw the Affordable Care Act’s passage through the House, and he supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dingell was a leading Democratic voice for the NRA, and for years was on the National Rifle Association’s board of directors. While championing the interests of the auto industry he also co-authored the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, which created the first corporate average fuel economy in the nation as well as the 1973 Endangered Species Act and the 1990 Clean Air Act—which only passed after a decade of contention with members of both parties.
Dingell retired from the House in 2015, becoming one of the last people to serve in World War II to leave Congress. John Dingell was active in public life until a heart attack in September of 2018. His family announced he would be entering hospice care earlier this week after a battle with prostate cancer.
John Dingell is survived by his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell, who took over his old seat, and four children from a previous marriage.