Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan becomes the longest-serving member of Congress on Friday, taking the title from the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. Having served just under 58 years, he nevertheless says he isn't interested in retiring.
If what ultimately happened to Mr. Byrd and Strom Thurmond, Ted Kennedy, Daniel K. Inouye, or just this week, Frank R. Lautenberg, is an indication, Mr. Dingell's streak is likely to end with him leaving Congress feet first. That's not what the Founding Fathers intended. Citizen legislators were supposed to come to the capital as average men, serve for a few terms and go home to be average men living under the laws they passed.
The return to the "real world" teaches needed lessons. George McGovern stepped down from the Senate in 1981 and purchased the Stratford Inn in Connecticut and came face-to-face with all the tax laws and regulatory red tape he had once enthusiastically promoted. His eyes were opened, as he explained in an op-ed essay in the Wall Street Journal headlined, "A Politician's Dream is a Businessman's Nightmare." Mr. Dingell came to Congress in 1955 at age 29, on the death of his father, John D. Dingell Sr., who had held a firm grip on the seat for 22 years before him. The younger Mr. Dingell was a House page as a teenager in the second and third terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Congressional lions like Mr. Dingell, 86, argue that their longevity provides Congress with needed institutional memory, but such an argument is symptomatic of everything that's wrong in Washington. A lawmaker's performance shouldn't be measured by how much pork he can send home, though this "favor factory" mentality isn't likely to go away in the absence of term limits.
The current system is designed to discourage new people with fresh ideas from running for Congress. Given the perks of office, it's very, very difficult (and expensive) to unseat an incumbent. In 80 years, no Republican has ever been able to defeat a Dingell in the Dearborn congressional district. That streak could continue. Mr. Dingell's wife Debbie, a Democratic activist, or his son Christopher, a former state lawmaker now a state judge, may have their eyes on preserving the family business.
Mr. Dingell deserves thanks for taking care of his district and for his service to the country, but after eight decades, new ideas — and a new representative for that district — deserve a chance.
The Washington Times
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