The carefully worded letters are among the most dreaded documents in Washington. Most recipients of “Dingellgrams”—which summon witnesses to appear before Democratic Representative John Dingell’s powerful Committee on Energy and Commerce or its Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee—are aware of the six-foot, three-inch congressman’s reputation for toughness. As chairman of the committee, Dingell wields enormous influence, which is
augmented by one of the largest committee staffs on Capitol Hill and the congressman’s often-scathing manner. Indeed, one of his staff members recalls Dingell launching into an argument immediately after handing an opposing congressman some revised legislation. “I’m still reading this,” objected the other congressman. Replied Dingell: “I’m sorry. I thought your lips had stopped moving.”
For 32 years Dingell has represented the heavily industrialized district of Michigan that is the home of the U.S. auto industry. And the avid hunter— whose office is adorned with trophies—has often set his sights on Canada. One environmentalist dubbed him “Tailpipe Johnny” for his repeated efforts to block legislation intended to curb the industrial emissions that
cause acid rain. Dingell’s subcommittee investigation of former White House aide Michael Deaver—who lobbied for acid rain controls on behalf of the Canadian government—is at the centre of the former Reagan assistant’s current perjury trial. Now Dingell has turned his attention to the tentative Canada-U.S. free trade agreement—and Canada may again find itself on the Michigan Democrat’s wrong side. That alone makes Dingell the congressman Canadians should
watch most closely.
Insiders say that Dingell’s tough style has been developed through his lifelong commitment to politics. He served as a House of Representatives page during some of his father’s 11 congressional terms. And when John David Dingell Sr. died in 1955 his son won the vacant seat in a special election that year. Now, the 61-year-old Dingell is widely considered to be the voice of the auto industry on Capitol Hill. His second wife, Deborah, is a former lobbyist for General Motors Corp., and one of his sons from his previous marriage holds an engineering job in the auto industry. But most important, the majority of his constituents depend on the auto industry for their livelihood.
Indeed, that factor has clearly shaped Dingell’s opposition to regulations that would lessen acid rain. The Canadian
government and most U.S. environmental groups say that
there is little question that acid rain can be controlled by curbing industrial emissions. But such controls will cost money, and coal-burning utilities and such heavy industries as auto manufacturing in Dingell’s part of the United States—the main sources of emissions that damage Canada—clearly fear that they will be forced to pay most of the cost.
For his part, Dingell says that the causes of acid rain are scientifically unproven. That position is identical to the stated view of the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan. Said Dingell: “Not only our Canadian
friends but a number of other people are in an absolutely desperate rush to commence the addressment of a problem whose cause and cure and cost they cannot state.” For Canada, that
has meant continuing setbacks. Advocates of pollution controls, particularly Representative Henry Waxman of California, regularly introduce control legislation. And Dingell fights vigorously to water down, defeat or delay the measures. Said Waxman of his nemesis: “Whenever he tells me that he is off on a hunting trip, I tell him I hope he misses every shot.”
Still, Dingell has at times advocated environmental causes. A member of the National Rifle Association since childhood, he has backed numerous wildlife programs. He also engineered
the legislation passed in 1969 that requires detailed impact studies of projects that have the potential to disrupt the environment—a measure that has become one of the most effective tools available to U.S. environmentalists.
At the same time, insiders say that Dingell is a stern moralist with a keen interest in U.S. ethics laws designed to prevent former officials from capitalizing on their government contacts after they leave public service. Indeed, in 1986 his Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee targeted Deaver, who had left government in May, 1985,
to start a lobbying business that included the governments of Canada and South Korea on its client list. The allegations: that the lobbyist had improperly used his government sources to press his clients’ cases.
Deaver has not been found in violation of the ethics laws. But he is currently on trial before the U.S. district court for the District of Columbia for perjuring himself while testifying before Dingell’s subcommittee and the U.S. grand jury. Among the charges: that he lied about his efforts to win acid rain concessions for the Canadian government while still in the employ of the White House. And Dingell remains critical of Ottawa for retaining Deaver. Said Dingell: “You know what I would be most critical of about my Canadian friends on this? They did not need Deaver. The whole thing was so lacking in grace. And I have always regarded my Canadian friends [as people] who behaved with far better grace than the people in this country do.”
Much of Dingell’s success has been fashioned in the maze of offices in the Rayburn House Office Building that contains his army of staff. Noted for their diligence, the clerical, investigative and legal workers press on with issues that are often swept away or postponed in the whirl of events on Capitol Hill. For one thing, while most members of Congress have put off consideration of the Canada-U.S. trade deal until next year, Dingell emerged last month with an exhaustive list of 40 detailed questions about the scheme and whether U.S. workers might suffer as a result of it. He is demanding information from the Reagan administration about a wide range of subjects—including the cultural industries and the Auto Pact.
To some, Dingell remains very much an enigma. Said Republican Representative Edward Madigan of Illinois: “Sometimes I think he is an arbitrary and capricious son of a bitch, and at other times I think he is a great parliamentarian. At all times I would much rather have him on my side than against me.” Dingell’s conversations swing from historical references to street language. He keeps a pressing office schedule, but after his first marriage ended in divorce in 1973 he raised his four children singlehandedly. He often wears a gold tiepin in the shape of a rifle—but used his love of ballet to woo his second wife out on dates. But there is one constant. According to his aides—and even some of his critics—Dingell has never wavered in his commitment to Congress. Said one staff member: “Dingell tends to be a man of high seriousness.” Given that, Dingell will likely remain Canada’s leading congressional critic.
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