Stashed away in the office of U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D–Mich.) is a letter written by a colonial-era British parliamentarian. The letter, which he said he reads from time to time, states in part: “I owe the people, I serve the duty of the British truth, the greatest decency, the greatest humility and the greatest ethics.”
At a discussion held at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy yesterday, Dingell told the crowd of about 100 students that the letter serves as more than a symbol of his civic responsibility to the public — it reminds him of what he believes has gone wrong with Congress in the last decade. Dingell criticized the representative body for its persistent partisanship, unfulfilling promises to the public and its abdication of public duty.
Dingell, who is the longest-serving member in the history of the House of Representatives, said he was “distressed” at the current state of politics in Congress. At the event, he repeatedly attacked the lack of bipartisanship between Democrats and Republicans and blamed it for many of the issues in Congress today.
“I remember in Congress when members had huge differences but great friendships that went across the aisle,” he said. “That still exists among some of the older members, and it’s possible it could be done. But the taxpayers, the voters, the media have got to tell Congress, ‘You work for us. We expect that you will not have the kind of hostile, destructive behavior that we’re seeing.’”
Dingell said the kind of bipartisanship he remembers from his earlier “puppy” years in congress is still possible, noting the efforts he’s made with current members of Congress. However, he blamed the current situation, in part, on the inability of many representatives to make their duty to the public a priority.
“We have to sit down and say look (what my Dad told me): Son, the best politics is the best public service,” he said. “If you do what is best for the country, the people are going to put you back into power. If you don’t, they won’t.”
Dingell recalled when he warned his father, who preceded him in serving in Congress, about candidates who were preparing to run against him during re-election periods.
“Dad would say to me, ‘Son, don’t worry. I take care of my people,’” Dingell said. “That’s a great rule to follow, but I don’t think a lot of my colleagues have.”
When discussing legislative issues, Dingell said he favors some form of union between gay and lesbian couples, though he did not comment specifically on marriage equality.
Dingell also decried the influence of money on politics, labeling the Citizens United Supreme Court decision likening corporations to people as “absolutely outrageous.” He said he spent $19,000 on his first campaign, much less than the hundreds of millions of dollars politicians spend on campaigns now.
Dingell still defended members of Congress against frequent accusations that they mislead the public. He said it is easy for members of the public to confuse their changing ideals with learning on the job, and using questionable sources of information as distortion.
“Most (members), honestly, are trying to tell you the truth,” he said. “Some of them will view the truth as something they heard on some broadcast or read in some kind of a newspaper or heard in church, and every once in a while, those folks are right and every once in a while, they’re wrong.”
Dingell added that lobbyists and special interests are wrongly criticized for harming the political process. While he admitted that many lobbyists go too far in pursuing members of Congress, he said precluding them from voicing their opinion would be a violation of democracy.
“The fact of the matter is that everybody is entitled to be heard,” he said. “Everybody, including lobbyists, has a right to be heard and their concerns be evaluated properly in the process of writing legislation.”
In an interview after the event, Public Policy Dean Susan Collins said she appreciated that Dingell answered so many questions and contributed to a transparent atmosphere.
“Not everyone has to agree with his standpoints, but I think he does an excellent job explaining why he holds certain positions,” Collins said.
Collins pointed to Dingell’s assertion of seeking accurate facts on a particular issue as an important lesson she hoped that students learned from the event.
Many students echoed Collins, and said they enjoyed the opportunity to hear from Dingell even if they did not share his opinions.
Rackham student Ariel Pearl-Jacobvitz said she welcomed the chance to hear about Congress’s problems from an insider.
“My biggest problem with politics is politics for the sake of politics — egos in the way of actually getting things done and politicians seeing themselves as lords over men,” Pearl-Jacobvitz said. “There’s just an issue when it becomes this horse and pony show.”
Rackham student Andrew Bracken said Dingell offers interesting insight into the legislative process.
“He’s kind of an institution in himself,” he said.