Congress could use a few more members like Rep. John Dingell
About to become the longest-serving member of Congress in history, the Michigan Democrat is a genuine treasure.

Reuters

Rep. John Dingell speaks at the microphone as House Democratic leaders celebrate healthcare bill passage after vote on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 22, 2010.

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  • It may be that the IRS employed consultants who were overpaid, or had kickbacks.

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  • When I look at too many others, such as Bachmann, it makes me treasure the Dingells, Simpsons, Doles, and Lautenbergs even more.

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  • All of us who care about the institutions of government and want them to operate as they were intended treasure people like Dingell.

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Today’s column has two parts. The first is on the IRS. I had not intended to write a column about it this week until I sat through repeated airings on cable-news shows of a video showing agency employees line dancing at a conference, spurring pols of both parties to take potshots at the agency for the latest outrage.

It is the potshots—cheap shots, actually—that irked me. I don’t know at this point if the IRS is guilty of indefensible or corrupt uses of public money in the many conferences it put on from 2010 to 2012 (although the practice of lumping together more than 200 meetings, big and small, over a long time, to get a high aggregate figure to demagogue is tried and true). It may be that the IRS employed consultants who were overpaid, or had kickbacks, or cavalierly paid full price for hotel rooms when better deals were to be had.

But here are some things for readers to consider. The Internal Revenue Service is stocked with employees who have to keep ahead of extraordinarily complex and ever-changing tax laws, while also dealing with tax lawyers, tax experts, and accountants who make millions of dollars to find ways to subvert, exploit, or distort the law for their clients. By the standards of those tax experts, the IRS employees are overworked and underpaid, not to mention despised by many Americans for what they do.

I have been to hundreds of conferences run by corporations, trade associations, professional associations, law firms, television networks, and other entities in the private sector; most have been designed to build morale and provide training for employees. The employers spend tons of money to create the best climate for employees to do their jobs, work with their colleagues harmoniously, feel good about their employers and their roles, and so on. These private-sector entities would not compromise their bottom lines and spend their money unnecessarily to create junkets or useless frivolities.

Most of these conferences have had programs aimed at entertaining as well as enlightening the participants, and I have seen dances, magic shows, and lectures by famous outsiders or not-so-famous outsiders, along with awards given, plaques presented, and other “frivolous” exercises to build teamwork and help people integrate the messages and training. If a hokey line-dance exercise could make IRS employees feel more like they were part of a team appreciated by higher-ups and doing important work, good for them. If that helped them pay closer attention to training videos that used costumes or parodies of television shows as aids to keep them focused on the real message, great. If malfeasance occurred, by all means go after it. But the knee-jerk journalistic and political grandstanding here is shameful.

Now on to Part Two, which starts with a truly notable event—Rep. John Dingell’s remarkable milestone Friday, when he becomes the longest-serving member of Congress ever. I have known John Dingell for decades. I have faced his wrath, when Tom Mann and I had the temerity to propose committee reform in the 1980s that would have taken precious jurisdiction from his Commerce Committee; I have experienced his warmth and kindness, including way back when I was a young and inconsequential junior academic. I sat with him on an airplane when he saw me in a walking cast just before I was traveling to China. A couple of days later, he came by my office, unprompted, and presented me with a hand-carved shillelagh from his grandfather. More important, I have watched a master craftsman, a true legislator, whose handiwork is evident in landmark legislation from voting rights to environmental law to health policy. Dingell is a quintessential man of the House who cares about the institution and how it operates.

When Democrats lost their majority in 1994, reporters asked me if I thought Dingell would retire since he was no longer in the majority. I got the same question in subsequent Congresses and after Dingell lost his chairmanship in late 2008 to Henry Waxman. Each time I gave the same answer: no. Of course, Dingell loves being in the majority, and he reveled in having the gavel. But after 1994, he managed to operate quite well in the minority, in part because he had assiduously worked to build partnerships with Republicans on his committee, especially his ranking counterparts, and he was able to operate and influence policy in areas large and small even without the gavel. To be sure, it is much harder now, despite his friendly relations with his state colleague Fred Upton; not much happens in policy in the House, and with few exceptions, Republican chairmen who work with Democrats are not likely to be chairmen for very long. But so long as his mind is clear—and it is crystal clear—I expect Dingell to continue to grace the House with his presence.

All of us who care about the institutions of government and want them to operate as they were intended treasure people like Dingell. I also treasure people who used to serve, such as Alan Simpson, who spent long hours working as cochairman of the Continuity of Government Commission, a thankless task, and who has spent even countless hours on the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan. No matter his age, he just does not turn down a request to do public service. And Bob Dole, who cares about the Senate and governance, and about the state of his own party, and does not mince words. And the late Frank Lautenberg, who grew immensely as a legislator across his two stints in the Senate, who, after Bob Torricelli left the chamber, did not have an enemy in the body, and who as a problem-solver made his own major imprint on the lives and health of millions of Americans.

When I look at too many others, such as Michele Bachmann, whose legislative record on her retirement will be negligible, and Darrell Issa, who seems intent on throwing away every opportunity to be a diligent and fair-minded overseer of government by continuing to throw reckless accusations based on his “gut” before proving them, it makes me treasure the Dingells, Simpsons, Doles, and Lautenbergs even more.

This article appears in the June 6, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Man of the House.

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About the Author

 

Norman J.
Ornstein
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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