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Good Riddance, John Dingell

The ousting of Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat and pawn of the auto industry, is the best thing for Detroit—and the nation.

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Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democratic and for decades a pawn of the auto industry, was ousted yesterday as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. If you wonder how American automakers could have ended up with tin cup in hand, begging the government to bail them out for egregiously ignoring the needs of consumers and the environment, look no farther than Dingell. He gutted the agency entrusted with regulating the auto industry and ensured that car companies never had to improve fuel efficiency or safety. Left to their own devices, they pursued short-term greed over long-term sustainability.

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I could write a book on this. Actually, I did: Tragic Indifference: One Man’s Battle with the Auto Industry over the Dangers of SUVs (HarperBusiness, 2003).

Here’s an excerpt:

Once an avid enforcer of auto safety, [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] since 1981 has been under the purview of House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman, Rep. John Dingell, (D-Mich.), whose suburban Detroit district encompassed Ford Motor Co. headquarters and tens of thousands of autoworkers. Chairman for more than two decades, Dingell bragged there wasn’t an industry in the entire country untouched by his committee. It controlled in whole or in part half the legislation that wound through House committees and subcommittees. Its somewhat conflicting mission was to oversee autos, railroads, nuclear power and the environment, oil and gas and telecommunications, securities and health care, all of which combined to form 75 percent of this nation’s gross domestic product.

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Known by friends and foes alike as “Big John,” the 6-foot, 3-inch, 200-pound Dingell was 100 percent gruff-talking, God-fearing, assembly line American. While heading a committee that through its actions and policies had national and international ramifications, Dingell proudly lived by the axiom, “All politics is local.” “I was sent [to Washington] to serve and protect the best interests of the 500,000-plus people in my district,” he declared. “I’m going to do that to my level best, and I won’t apologize to anyone.” On his congressional Web site he promised to respond “to every constituent request as expeditiously as possible.” And he was not above using bare-knuckle tactics to protect his home turf: When Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.) sponsored legislation to require carmakers to increase fuel economy 40 percent Dingell, in a nasty tit-for-tat, pushed for a nuclear-waste dump in Nevada. Business Week labeled the hardball tactics “vintage Dingell.”

“There has been a symbiotic relationship between John Dingell and the auto industry,” charged Joan Claybrook, [former head of NHTSA under Jimmy Carter]. This was borne out by his campaign finance records, which read like a Who’s Who of the auto industry. His biggest campaign donor: Ford. When it came to regulating gas guzzlers, Dingell was a cash nuzzler; he protected his contributors’ interests. That meant the 70-something Dingell didn’t much like the notion of mass transit or a gasoline tax or anything else that could discourage Americans from driving. He didn’t care for proposals to mandate higher fuel standards, legislate better pollution controls, create a rollover standard or strengthen the roofs on SUVs.

At the same time, Dingell wished to be viewed as a public servant who used his prodigious political powers to protect factory workers, consumers, the weak and downtrodden. In the late 1980s, when American automakers were under siege by Japanese car companies, Dingell took the term “‘Buy American” to a new realm by insisting only U.S.-made parts be used in his hip replacement operation. He once refused to apologize for referring to Honda Motor Co. executives as “the little yellow people,” explaining, “I’ve heard them called worse.” He trumpeted investigations that uncovered bribery in the approval of generic drugs and over-billing of the government on university research contracts. He investigated pharmaceutical companies, banks and universities.

About the author

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University and author of several books

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