John Dingell, 84, plans to run for a 30th term in the House

From the Detroit News:

John Dingell, 84, plans to run for a 30th term and extend his reign as the dean of the U.S. House…

Dingell, who began his career on Capitol Hill at age 29 when he filled the seat of his father, faced a tougher than usual campaign in 2010 against Rob Steele, a tea party favored Republican. In the end, Dingell pulled out with a 17-point lead.

Now, I’m not for a second hopping on the term-limits bandwagon. I think that having experienced legislators is essential in passing on the experience of past generations of government to the leaders of tomorrow. But 60 years in Congress is enough – and Dingell isn’t even the oldest member of the House! That accolade would go to Ralph Hall, a Texas Republican born in 1923 (!) who currently chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. And the Senate is just as bad. Granted, Robert Byrd passed away back in 2010, and he was Congress’s longevity champion, born in 1917 and first elected to the Senate in 1959. But even now, the oldest members, Daniel Inouye, Frank Lautenberg and Daniel Akaka, were all born in 1924. The average age in the Senate is 61 (58 in the House). Most people would agree, I hope, that having the country run by a bunch of geriatrics and late-middle-agers is not necessarily good for democracy, much as I respect the three current sitting octagenarian senators.

And why are things the way they are? I don’t think that it’s a shock to most people to suggest that seniority rules and the power of incumbency play a major role. While partisanship is often decried in America, this is one domain where strengthening party leadership at the expense of individual members could help. The Republicans have more or less done away with the seniority principle, and instituted term limits on committee chairmanships, while simultaneously giving greater power to the leadership to pick chairs. Maybe that’s why the average House Republican is 54 years old, while the average House Democrat is 60. If seniority, and thus incumbency, mattered less at the ballot box, then we might get a slightly more representative legislature. That’d probably be good for everyone.

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7 thoughts on “John Dingell, 84, plans to run for a 30th term in the House

  1. While I disagree that the age of a rep is one of the reason they are out of touch with most Americans, I agree that longevity of service is a better measurement of inability to represent.

    If you look at Mr Dingell’s district you will see that they know no other last name for a representative. Dingell sr was the first rep for that district and then jr took the seat. Because the Democrats refuse to hold primaries in some districts, the people who are obviously in favor of the DNC do not get a choice in representative.

    Also, in the light of knowing that Mr Dingell and his family have been paid politicians for nearly all his life, do you really think he understands what it means to be an average American? Do career politicians that have never run a small business or lived paycheck to paycheck, understand the effects of the legislation they are passing?

    Term limits is a dire need for American to get back on track.

    1. I don’t agree with the idea of term limits on principle, for two reasons. First of all, I think it limits people’s ability to pick their democratically-elected representatives. That’s a bad thing. People should be allowed to choose how many terms their elected officials serve. If they’re not happy, they can vote for someone else.
      Second of all, arbitrary term limits mean inexperienced politicians, more easily manipulated by the party leadership (and judging from your political viewpoints, I’m guessing you’re not crazy about party machines) and by lobbies and special interests. That’s not a good thing.

      I think that what needs to be done is simply to take away some of the powers attached to incumbency. I’ve given removing seniority rules as an example, because it seems to me that people like Ralph Hall or John Dingell wouldn’t have as much of an electoral leg-up were it not for the advantages that their longevity of service brings (committee chairmanships and party leadership positions, I mean).

      As for being an average American – you could ask the same thing of many representatives who’ve worked in high-paying jobs in the financial sector or in upper management. Sure, they have experience in the private sector, but their six- or seven-figure salaries mean that they’re pretty far removed from average Americans. Just because someone’s worked in the public sector for most of his or her life doesn’t mean they don’t understand the concerns of the working man or woman.

      1. You make some good points and I think we are not far off from agreeing.

        I would argue that the political parties already limit your choice in representative by now hold primaries in every district. I was pleased to see the GOP last year hold so many primaries, I hope that the DNC follows suit in 2012. Primaries offer options.

        Unfortunately it is impossible to limit an incumbents exposure and too many voters vote based on name recognition more than any other reason. Correction, they vote party line first and name recognition second.

        I agree with your statement on reps that worked in the finance sector or other high paying corporate position. The small difference that I would point out is that at some level they have to know how things effect those that work under them. And more importantly, they understand more how legislation effects the majority of American businesses. Mr Dingell has very little clue on how his legislation effects the American economy outside of the reports he gets from the special interest groups around him.

        Do you feel that the term limit on president is hindering your choice in representative? Most of the term limit amendment suggestions I have read set the term limit at 12 years, thats 4 years longer than you can serve as president. I think 2 terms in the senate and 6 in the house would be enough time for someone to get things done and if they can’t do it in that much time they will never get it done.

        Last point. I believe that term limits would also reduce the influence special interests groups have over politicians because they can not carry over favors from past years to cover many years going forward. It would cost them more to continue bribing our representatives.

        1. Oh, I completely agree that parties should have contested primaries whenever a certain fraction of those parties’ electorates are unhappy with the establishment candidate. I don’t think that primaries are universally good, because they can divert financial resources away from the general, and sometimes they can lead to nominating unelectable base-pleasers instead of people who can appeal to a majority of voters in any given district… but you’d never have had Barack Obama in the White House had the Democratic Party establishment hand-picked a candidate in a smoke-filled room.

          As for the issue of people with private sector experience – public service also counts. You need a good mix of people in both the House and the Senate. Look, there’s no rule that says that a former CEO is going to know how to run a country’s economic policy better than, say, a university economist, or an analyst at the Fed. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have people with business backgrounds in Congress. Mark Warner springs to mind as an example of a successful businessman going on to be a great senator (after four years as Governor of Virginia). But John Dingell’s constituents obviously think that he’s doing a decent job of representing their political viewpoints and economic policy preferences, or they wouldn’t keep re-electing him.

          As for the specifics of term limits: look, I do think that the 22nd amendment was probably a bad idea, and if you’d given me the opportunity of voting for a 3rd Clinton term, I probably would have done it, just as many Republicans would have given Reagan a third term in office. Elected officials doing a good job shouldn’t have to step down if the people want them to keep their jobs. Now, I don’t think 12 years is excessively restrictive as limits go, but I don’t see why we have to legislate for these kinds of things. If you trust the people, you trust their judgement at the ballot box. I would support taking away some of the advantages that make incumbency so electorally attractive, though, which is why I keep coming back to seniority. If you put every single representative of the people on a level playing field, voters will be able to better judge whether their congressman or senator is doing a good job.

          As for special interest groups – yes and no. Yes, term limits would reduce the influence over politicians in terms of re-election campaign financing. At the same time, though, it’d accentuate the revolving-door phenomenon – as in, “You do me a favour, I’ll give you a job when you’re out of office.”

      1. Thanks for the welcome. I found your blog through the tag surfer feature of wordpress. I thought your post was well written and opened the conversation up for me to inject my thought on the topic. I enjoyed reading your response and hope we can continue to discuss this topic and others in the future.

        Good luck with your blog and I hope you get as much out of it as I have so far.

        1. Well, thanks for your kind words! I can tell that we’re on opposing sides of the political divide, but I can already see that we agree on some things. Good luck with your blog, too – how long have you had it?

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