Editorial: Capitol Curtain Call

It used to be that the autocratic committee chairmen who ruled Capitol Hill were reviled for ramming through bills without preserving all the niceties of the legislative process. As with so many other things, we miss those ornery old barons now that they are gone.

Or going, as is U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who announced on Monday that he will not seek re-election to the seat he has held since back in the Eisenhower administration. Although he has served 59 years in Congress — the longest tenure in history — and is 87 years old, Dingell says he’s not retiring because he can no longer do the job but because he no longer wants to.

“I find serving in the House to be obnoxious,” Dingell told the Detroit News. “It’s become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness, both in Congress and in the streets.”

In departing, Dingell joins a parade of accomplished veteran lawmakers of both parties who have decided that enough, after all, is enough — enough, in this instance, signifying gridlock, ideological showboating and general lack of seriousness of purpose.

“The truly distressing thing about these folks leaving is that they’re the ones who know how to negotiate, know how to legislate, know how to get things done,” David Goldston, a former Republican congressional staffer, told The New York Times. “Congress is increasingly left with people who not only don’t know how to do those things; they don’t know that they can be done.”

Indeed, Dingell got things done over his long career, making a lasting mark in progressive causes ranging from civil rights to health care. He also was at odds with his own party over gun rights, which he championed, and climate control legislation and stricter auto emissions standards, which he resisted on behalf of industry centered in the Midwest. As a result, according to the Times, he became a sometimes liaison between the House leadership and more conservative Democrats.

And as long time chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell was one of the most powerful figures on Capitol Hill, building an empire that exercised oversight over not only energy, but also consumer protection, the environment and health. In 2008, he was deposed by a more liberal colleague, Henry Waxman of California, who is also retiring after this term.

In the event, the committee system has declined into something approaching irrelevance, according to many observers, and it’s important not to romanticize the past. Many of the most potent committee chairmen in their heyday used their virtually unchecked power to obstruct as well as to construct. But nothing seems to have emerged to take place of that system as far as actually getting anything done in Congress. Maybe that’s because compromise — “an honorable word” to Dingell — has become a dirty one to far too many members.

Congress passed only 57 bills into law in its most recent session. Dingell finds this deplorable, as we do; but we suspect there’s a strong contingent in Congress that subscribes to the notion that the less legislation passed, the safer the country is.

Perhaps as soon as this fall’s elections, the American people will have to sort this out and decide which vision they subscribe to.