“I find serving in the House to be obnoxious,” Rep. John Dingell recently told the Detroit News. “It's become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness, both in Congress and in the streets.” So he's stepping aside, after 59 years.
Despite the obnoxiousness, he hopes his wife can keep the seat in the family. “I think she would be one hell of a good congresswoman,” Dingell says. Debbie Dingell is a former lobbyist 27 years younger than her husband.
By opting for retirement, John Dingell is not alone. Among others, Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Frank Wolf and Jim Moran of Virginia are leaving as well, taking with them a combined 95 years of seniority. Combined, the tenure of these four men would reach back to the Buchanan administration. The Washington Post thinks it understands the exodus.
“This is a city where no one seems to have the clout to make things happen anymore, and where even the most junior members of Congress have the ability to stop those who try,” Karen Tumulty and Paul Kane write. But it's not “junior members” of the House who have taken so much of the power away from people like Dingell. Sadly, lawmakers have surrendered most of it themselves.
Consider the budget.
Congress is where it’s all supposed to begin. As the Constitution’s Origination Clause begins: “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.” That seems pretty clear. Yet lawmakers actually control only a small portion of federal spending.
Last year, two-thirds of all federal spending was mandatory. It happened without any input from Congress at all. That includes Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, welfare payments and interest on the federal debt.
Lawmakers controlled about one-third of the money the government spent. Still, some 18 percent of the total “discretionary” spending was on defense. So while that could be reduced or redirected to other programs, doing so might raise political problems at home. Americans do like having a world-class military. In effect Congress only really directed about 16 percent of all spending.
During most of Dingell’s long tenure, lawmakers were able to spend money to gain influence — thus earmarks and pork-barrel spending. When the country wanted to put a man on the moon, Congress put NASA facilities in Florida, Texas and Alabama.
But today, so what if you’re an appropriator who’s able to direct space spending back to the home district? All of NASA represents just $18 billion, a tiny dot next to the $2.54 trillion the government spends automatically. Likewise the Department of Education. For decades conservatives have wanted it shuttered. But even if you did so tomorrow, you’d only be trimming 3 percent of federal spending. No big savings to be had.
And things are going to get worse. Without change, “in less than two decades, all projected tax revenues would be consumed by three federal programs (Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid, which includes CHIP and Obamacare) and interest on the debt,” the Heritage Foundation explains.
If Debbie Dingell is elected and lasts half as long as her husband did in office, she won't have much to do in the years ahead, as federal spending is set to simply take care of itself. Then again, she could plan to hold hearings to discuss the business of government with those who wield real power today: members of the vast administrative state.
- Rich Tucker is a senior writer in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in the Washington Examiner