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Longest Serving Congressperson Should Be Heard, Not Just Heralded

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"Longest Serving Congressperson Should Be Heard, Not Just Heralded"

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(Source: NY Times)

I will never forget having the honor of being a few feet away from Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) on the floor of the House as he cast the deciding 218th vote for healthcare reform. This great public servant had been fighting for universal healthcare for the length of two of my lifetimes, and showed no sign of slowing down. (While some colleagues gave me a look of pity for casting what they saw as a difficult vote, Dingell looked me in the eye and said, “You are fortunate to get the opportunity to be part of something that matters, and you won’t regret this.”)

This week, Dingell becomes the longest serving member of Congress in the history of our nation. While headlines are focusing on his longevity, articles are rightly focusing on the substance of his accomplishments. He is a veteran of World War II and of some of the most contentious political battles back home. He presided over the passage of Medicare and championed the Civil Rights Acts, knowing the latter would cost his party crucial seats in the South. He managed to be a staunch supporter of the auto industry and a major force behind key environmental legislation protecting Clean Air and Clean Water. He has been quiet titan for fairness and dignity that combines a Midwestern charm with a mastery of House procedure and old fashioned politics to get things done.

One could easily celebrate Dingell by looking backwards at his decades of accomplishments, but what amazes me is how much Dingell has to contribute to America’s direction going forward. A Midwestern populist, he has gained more wisdom than ideology through his six decades. Views that seemed a bit reactionary in the 1990s – opposing the repeal of Glass Steagell and accelerating the decline of America’s industrial base – now seem ahead of their time. He warned about “too big to fail” in 1999, because he had not forgotten why these rules were passed in the first place. While accused of being naïve to think America would still make and grow things, it is now those critics who seem naïve to have thought that every factory worker could just become a computer programmer and that the American middle class would track the financial sector more than others.

Too often we celebrate the Greatest Generation only with nostalgia instead of listening to what they can teach us about our future. After witnessing world wars and great depressions, civil rights movements and stagnation, and the explosion and steady decline of the American middle class, John Dingell yet has much to say worth the listening. One of the many things he taught me during our brief time together in Congress is that we can never let principles like basic fairness, promises like retirement with dignity, or planning for America’s competitiveness be categorized as old-fashioned. That is just an excuse not to fight for their relevance today. And because Dingell has always chosen the fight over the excuses, we are a stronger, more decent country and American community.

Our guest blogger is Tom Perriello, a former member of Congress from Virginia and President and CEO of Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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