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Dingell Letters and the History Books

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The towering Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who as of Friday is the longest-serving lawmaker in U.S. history (57 years) has for decades struck terror in the hearts of agency managers with his famed “Dingell letters.”

In an appearance at Atlantic Media Friday morning for “Atlantic Live,” the longtime chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee explained the secret to composing an effective letter as part of the congressional oversight process. “It takes an honest sense of social justice and outrage, along with the great English words who, how, why, and when, rather than starting a nasty argument,” Dingell told moderator Steve Clemons. “You can stop a lot more rapscallions in government with questions than by going out and breaking heads.”

Dingell, who has a long record of legislating for environmental protections while also backing a strong automobile industry, shared a few other secrets and observations:

  • The current Congress is “the most snarled-up Congress I’ve ever served in, but it’s still a privilege.”
  • The gridlock is the fault both of Congress and “the people who put up with it by sending us here not to compromise but to fight.”
  • The Tea Party is “smart as all get-out” because its plan to control Congress “is working,” but its newcomers “don’t understand how the system can and should work.”
  • As committee chairman, he always became good friends with the ranking Republican.
  • The only member of Congress of who he was ashamed of was Sen. Joe McCarthy, R-Wis.
  • The most important vote he ever took was for the 1964 Civil Rights bill, which “almost cost me my job.”
  • Passage of the updates to the Clean Air Act showed “government working as it should, and that compromise is honorable.”
  • Today’s Congress focuses too much on “events of today or tomorrow and not six months or 10 years ahead.”
  • The institutions of government “are more important than any single individual or issue.”

Charles S. Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books, and organizational media strategies.

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