A personal remembrance from Katie Murtha, who serves as vice president of federal government affairs for U.S. PIRG and Environment America, both members of The Public Interest Network. Katie was formerly chief of staff for U.S. Rep. John Dingell, who passed away Thursday.
Despite all John Dingell did for our country in Congress, if you asked him what was his favorite job, without skipping a beat he’d tell you it was during his college years when he spent summers as a ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park. He loved the outdoors and it was that love that led him to help create some of our nation’s most important environmental laws.
John Dingell was either the author or at the center of efforts to pass the National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the list goes on. He used to say that he was chairman of a “little committee called the Merchant Marine Fisheries Committee that nobody cared about or paid attention to that allowed the freedom to do some really big things.” He was a true conservationist in the best sense of the word. As a member of Congress, he served on the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission from 1969-2014. It was from this perch that he worked with members of both parties to purchase land for the National Wildlife Refuge System and increase funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. He also followed through on enforcement of these laws, for example, by working to ensure that the Clean Water Act protected all of the nation’s streams and wetlands.
He was a master of congressional oversight. It mattered not who was in the White House, John Dingell chased down waste, fraud and abuse with passion. He found that the Pentagon was purchasing $600 toilet seats, a practice that was stopped immediately. In 1982, he found that the EPA had mishandled $1.6 billion in Superfund dollars. When EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch refused to hand over relevant documents, she became the first agency head to be cited for contempt of Congress. She eventually resigned.
He was also known for his passionate belief that healthcare is a right. Every Congress, he would introduce a bill to establish a national healthcare system. This was a bill his father, John Dingell Sr., wrote when he was in Congress. He sat in the chair of the House during its consideration of the Affordable Care Act and gaveled that vote closed. While he was writing his recent book, which is about many things but begins and ends with healthcare, people would ask “Hey Chief, when is that book going to be done?” He would answer, “I don’t know, they keep changing the damned ending!”
All in all, John Dingell was always on the right side of history. He was an early supporter of the civil rights movement, despite representing a district that was skeptical of its aims. He always said that he was most proud of his vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, where, as a young congressman he attended the signing ceremony. When the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed in 1999, he stood on the floor of the House arguing it was wrongheaded and would create a class of banks that will be “too big to fail.” He voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, but, as with so many others in Congress, he realized it was a mistake and became a cosponsor of legislation to repeal it.
He was known for his tremendous constituent service, recognizing that it was arguably the most important part of his job. When his position on an issue differed from groups of constituents, he was always willing to sit down and talk. Everybody in his district respected that and would leave forums saying, “I might not agree with him, but his position is well-thought-out and rational.”
John Dingell used to say “compromise is not a dirty word” and was known for reaching across the aisle as often as possible. In fact, he always instructed his staff to “work with them when you can and fight them when you have to.”
After he retired, he spent much of his time brushing up on his Twitter skills, which were unmatched in their honesty, humor and commentary on our too often broken government and, of course, on his beloved Detroit Tigers and University of Michigan Wolverines. He earned the title “King of Twitter.”
Forever a believer in the great experiment that is America, we would be wise to look back at his deeds, his commitment to his country, his thoughtfulness, his core belief in right and wrong. For if there were more like John Dingell, our country would be in a better place with less partisanship, less anger, more collegiality and a more widely shared desire to find a path forward together. The loss of John Dingell is a loss for our nation. But if, as he did, we see the glass as half full, we will find a way forward. That would be a legacy he would cherish.