With Dingell Sidelined, An Era Ends Rep. John Dingell of Michigan's ouster as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee may come as a relief to many in Washington. Over the years he has built a reputation as blunt, demanding and irascible.

With Dingell Sidelined, An Era Ends

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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. We're going to hear now about the personalities at the center of this week's leadership battle in the House of Representatives. It's Henry Waxman in and John Dingell out. Yesterday, Democrats voted to unseat Congressman Dingell from a position that he first won in 1981- the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

BLOCK: Its one of the most powerful committees in Congress since so much legislation has to pass through its filter. In a moment, how Henry Waxman will use his new power to manage the president-elect's agenda. But first, NPR's Brian Naylor has this profile of the ousted chairman, a man who spent decades intimidating agency heads all over Washington.

BRIAN NAYLOR: From the Clean Air Act to health care to deregulation of the cable TV industry, John Dingell's fingerprints can be found all over the legislation approved by Congress in the past few decades. As top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee for 28 years, there were a few more powerful players in Washington. Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher served with Dingell on the panel.

Representative RICK BOUCHER (Democrat, Virginia): I think, in fact, he's been the best legislator that our Congress has produced in modern history. And legislating with him is like playing baseball with Babe Ruth.

NAYLOR: Dingell was born while Babe Ruth was playing for the Yankees in 1926. He was first elected to the House in December 1955, winning the Dearborn, Michigan seat left vacant by his father's death. In February, Dingell will become the longest serving House member ever. In his career, Dingell has worked on reams of legislation. He is perhaps best known for interrogating government bureaucrats when he feels their agencies have come up short. Here he is last December berating Kevin Martin, the chairman of the FCC.

Representative JOHN DINGELL (Democrat, Michigan; Former Chairman, House Energy and Commerce Committee): We have witnessed too much sniping amongst the commissioners and we've heard too many tales of short circuited decision making processes. In some, the FCC appears to be broken.

NAYLOR: This spring, the target of Dingell's ire was Janet Woodcock of the FDA in a hearing on the drug heparin found to have adverse side effects.

Representative DINGELL: In other words, you want a balance between killing people and not killing people as opposed to a balance between the sane truth that the laws were properly enforced and people can't be killed. Isn't that right?

NAYLOR: And while it may fairly be said that Dingell could come off as a bit of a bully, Rick Kessler, a former chief of staff, said it was with the best of intentions.

Mr. RICK KESSLER (Former Chief of Staff to Rep. John Dingell): You need to understand to the extent he didn't suffer fools. It was because it was - they got in the way of the things that the people and the country needed. It wasn't motivated by anything less than his care for the country.

NAYLOR: Dingell has been fiercely protective of his constituents in the Detroit auto industry, fighting higher mileage standards and emissions regulations. But he has of late moderated those views, approving last year's increase in mileage requirements. Rick Boucher says Dingell's greatest legislative legacy may have been the Clean Air Act he helped expand in the 1990s working with Henry Waxman.

Representative BOUCHER: And the result has been extraordinary. Air quality is far better today than it was in 1970 when this exercise started. That's an example of what good and thoughtful leadership, applying a centrist approach, achieving consensus, balancing all of the various centrists that are at stake, can achieve.

NAYLOR: Dingell is losing his chairmanship as other long tenured members of Congress have been forced out or are stepping aside. Republican Congressman Ray LaHood of Illinois, who is retiring after 14 years in Congress, says it's important to know when to go.

Representative RAY LAHOOD (Republican, Illinois): You can be effective here, but there comes a time when your effectiveness wanes. And I think, perhaps, the election of Waxman today to Energy and Commerce proves that maybe John Dingell may have stayed a bit too long.

NAYLOR: Dingell will become chairman emeritus of the Energy and Commerce panel, no longer wielding the gavel but likely still to have a voice, occasionally loud at the table. Brian Naylor, NPR News, The Capitol.

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