The Long View: Senior moment

The Long View

Senior moment

by Manuel L. Quezon III

May 30, 2005

OF the Class of 1944, of Georgetown Prep, in Washington, D.C, my father’s graduating high school class, only a few are left. Perhaps one of the most prominent of them is John Dingell, who has been a member of the U.S. Congress since 1955, when he ran for his father’s congressional seat after his father passed away. Rep. Dingell has been the longest-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives for some time now. I first met him in the company of my father in 1985, when he had us over for lunch and we toured the U.S. Congress. I recall that I thought I was being frightfully witty when I asked for Russian dressing on my salad in the House dining room (this was at the height of the Cold War); the most enjoyable part was riding the little electric subway that American legislators use to go from their offices to Congress.

While in Washington, I decided to pay Rep. Dingell a visit to see how he was and to find out his views on political developments in America. He is, of course, much older now, and rather frail looking. He turns 80 in July, and can look back at a productive career in the House. He is proud of being a co-sponsor of the Civil Rights Act, and of the 1990 Clean Air Act, and for fighting for the passage of legislation such as the Endangered Species Act. In the past, Dingell led successful efforts to stop the Bush Administration from allowing higher arsenic levels in drinking water and from cutting funds to investigate and prosecute environmental crimes. He has been responsible for laws such as Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Mammography Quality Standards Act. A leader in the effort to toughen corporate accountability both before and after the Enron and WorldCom accounting scandals, Dingell has also taken the lead in exposing American government waste and abuses of tax dollars, including the investigation of no-bid defense contracts in Iraq.

He holds office in a lower floor of the Rayburn House Office Building, a squat, Roman-style office complex full of lobbyists scurrying from one grand congressman’s office to another. What struck me, though, was how small his staff was: a total of about four people in Washington, D.C. with another contingent attending to constituents in Michigan. Photos of Rep. Dingell with Speaker Sam Rayburn, Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan and Bush (W, that is), adorn the walls, along with a photo of Dingell with the Cookie Monster. In 1985 I saw an autographed photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt but it seems to have been put away for safekeeping since then.

We sit down in his private office. I mentioned to him that the last time my father saw him on television was when he swore in Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House. Dingell smiled: “Not the most pleasant of tasks.” He is deeply unhappy with the political atmosphere in Washington since Gingrich’s time. “They have no respect for tradition. No regard at all for debate, civilized or otherwise. They think they have it all figured out and will stop at nothing to get what they want.” Does this mean they act as if they think they’ll be in power for ever? “That’s exactly right,” Dingell nods. “They have no conception that today’s majority can be tommorow’s minority: the basis of the self-restraint that should be one of democracy’s defining characteristics.”

Asked about the then-burning issue of the day (since defused, after a herculean bipartisan effort), the threat to resort to the “nuclear option,” which would have ended the time-honored tactic of filibustering to prevent judicial nominations offensive to the minority, Dingell frowns. “The new Republicans are different from the old ones. They’re simply uninterested in getting along with anyone who disagrees with them. They fit the facts to their existing views –look at Iraq.” Soberly (and, it turns out, correctly) he added, though, that “I do think they will work it out, there are sober men and women in the Senate.” Indeed, his opinion of the Senate has been raised a notch or two over the years. “It’s taken me a long time to change my views about the Senate. Now, though, I realize the importance of another chamber that can apply the brakes and say, ‘whoa, hold on now, let’s look at this further,'” he explains. Not that he thinks the Senate is very much worse than the House. His younger colleagues in the House are all ideology with little or no regard for the discipline of legislative life. “They don’t study. Recently they passed a law referring to another law –except the law they referred to hasn’t even been passed,” he sadly observes.

What accounts for the success of the new Republicans? With a bemused smile, he quips, “You see, they lie better than us. A lot better.” The Republicans are better organized, and their take-no-prisoners attitude towards politics has left Democrats somewhat shellshocked.

His big fight these days is to save Social Security: “My father was one of the sponsors of social security. If you look at the photo of President Roosevelt signing Social Security into law, you can see a skinny Polack with a moustache and a broken nose, that was my father.” He finds the Bush administration’s proposals offensive, but maintains that he and his fellow Democrats, as well as moderate Republican allies, will save the day. “We’ll win, but it will be a very close fight,” he says.

His parting words are a pledge. As a World War II veteran, he feels strongly about the issue of veteran’s benefits denied Filipinos: “They were gallant allies and helped win the war. They fought for their country’s freedom in partnership with the United States. They deserve every bit as much as American veterans received.” He is pessimistic, though, about the prospects of our veterans. “This administration has been cutting the budget for veterans,” he says. He shakes his head; extends his hand, and wearily gets up to attend an important vote on the floor.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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