TIM SKUBICK: The worst dysfunction ever
There is only one man in America who has witnessed as much as this man and what he sees he does not like. From his seat in the U.S. Congress, Michigan Congressman John Dingell, the longest serving congressperson in the nation’s history, has served with 11 different presidents starting with Ike in 1955 to the current occupant.
And in one sentence he captures the mood in the Congress, where in-fighting and back-stabbing have become an art form.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” he observes regarding the dysfunctional nature of the beast and the public’s embedded disdain for all things political in that institution.
It was not always thus, Mr. Dingell reflects. There was a time when the POTUS said, “I will lead” and most of the country dutifully said, “We will follow.”
Those days are so long gone, very few folks are still alive to talk about that “golden era” as the Dearborn lawmaker puts it.
So, que pasa?
The question brings a long pause from Mr. Dingell as he ponders where to begin.
And then the list begins: Bitter partisanship. Outside interference. Fear among members that if they make a deal with the other party it will result in a primary opponent which could cost him or her their job. A divided nation segregated by the colors red and blue. But what probably grieves him the most is the final dysfunctional element that goes to the very heart and soul of the legislative process: The forum where major decisions are really made has shifted.
Years ago when Mr. Dingell would tangle with Democratic Speakers Tip O’Neill and more recently Nancy Pelosi, they would tell him what they wanted out of his committee and he would tell them to take a hike.
This did not mean the speakers were powerless but under the old system, committee chairs actually called many of the shots in consultation with the other party members on the committee.
Now Mr. Dingell reports all the decisions are “made in the Speaker’s office and the caucuses” where everything is done behind closed doors and members, who use to be somewhat independent, are told what to do and when to do it.
And then he tosses into this toxic brew the influence of huge sums of money brought on by the Citizens United high court decision that opened the flood gates to undisclosed political contributions to both political parties.
“It is corrupting the system,” he laments and “people suspect the system is corrupt.” What else would you expect them to think, one might add?
So it is in this milieu that the Congressman tries to do the people’s business.
The partisans among you will complain that you don’t like Mr. D’s politics and he’d be cool with that, but he does bring something to the table that is also missing in the current Congress quagmire.
He admits he’s made mistakes.
Asked the other day about the gay marriage issue, he concedes he voted wrong when he embraced the Defense of Marriage Act that President Bill Clinton signed into law.
In the wake of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling tossing DOMA onto the unconstitutional junk heap, Mr. Dingell reflects on the evolution of his own thinking prompted in part by chats with his “beloved Debra”, his wife, and by watching the gays who have worked around him for years.
“It’s highly discriminatory,” as he asserts that gays should have the same rights as everyone else.
And so his longevity record marches on and when confronted with whom he might endorse for the post when he does retire, he laughs, brushes the question aside and recites an old Polish saying, “Don’t buy the bear skin rug, until the bear is dead.”
Long live the bear.
Tim Skubick is Michigan’s Senior Capitol correspondent and has anchored the weekly public TV series Off the Record since 1972. He also covers the Capitol and politics for WLNS-TV6 in Lansing.