• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

Debbie Dingell, Political Dynasties, And The Problem With Long-Term Incumbency

John Dingell Debbie Dingell

On Tuesday, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, Debbie Dingell won the Democratic Primary to succeed her husband John Dingell, who is retiring at the end of the year after serving in Congress since 1955:

Debbie Dingell has won the Democratic primary to succeed her husband, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the Associated Press reports.

Dingell easily won Tuesday’s contest against attorney Raymond Mullins in Michigan’s 12th District. She will face Republican Terry Bowman in the general election.

John Dingell is the longest serving congressman in U.S. history. In February, the 88-year-old announced that he would retire from Congress after nearly 60 years on Capitol Hill, citing frustrations with how “obnoxious” Congress has become.

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

Just days after her husband’s announcement, Debbie Dingell announced she would run for his seat.

“There is no one in this district — no one — who has a better sense of just how big his shoes will be to fill, because I’m the one who does the shoe shopping,” she said of her decision to seek her husband’s seat. “So let’s be clear: I’m not running to replace John Dingell. I think he’s irreplaceable. I wouldn’t run if I didn’t think I could do a good job for my friends and neighbors and for the men and women of labor that I’ve worked side-by-side to fight for the jobs and businesses of Michigan.”

Given that the district Dingell represents is solidly Democratic, there is really no doubt that Mrs. Dingell will win her election in November. This means that, when she takes office in January she would be the third member of the Dingell family to hold the seat since John Dingell’s father, John Dingell Sr. won election to Congress in the election of 1932. As I have noted in the past, there really wasn’t anything admirable about Dingell’s five decades of service and, indeed, the fact that he has not faced a serious challenger in decades stands as a perfect argument for Congressional term limits. Now, though, we have an excellent example of yet another problem in American politics, political family dynasties. There is simply no good reason why the same family should hold the same seat in Congress for more than eighty years, a streak that could end up being as a long as 100 years depending on how long Mrs. Dingell decides to stay in office, because it’s rather obvious that she will find it as easy to get re-elected to this seat as her husband and late father did.

As a general rule, there is something unhealthy about both political dynasties and long-term incumbency, and the Dingell case provides ample examples of both. The fact that Congressman Dingell has not faced a serious challenge in decades is, in and of itself, a major problem both because of what it says about the ability of an incumbent to stifle internal challenges in his own party and because it stands as another excellent example of how, through redistricting, Congressional seats such as Dingell’s are made virtually immune from challenge by the opposing party. Additionally, as I said above, there is just something distasteful about the fact that the same family has held the same Congressional seat since Franklin D. Roosevelt was first elected to the Presidency. These things are not supposed to be viewed as entitlements, and yet it is quite obvious that this is how the Dingell family views the matter. After Debbie Dingell does finally retire, which again may not happen before 2033 when the seat will have been in the family’s hands for 100 years, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see one of Dingell’s four children run for the seat, or perhaps one of his grandchildren. Voters being what they are, they will probably reflexively vote for whatever Dingell happens to be on the ballot, and the legacy will continue. Some people may consider this to be a good thing, but I do not. Instead, it is, along with the fact that we could very well end up with another President Clinton or President Bush in the White House, a sign of how clannish our politics has become. In some sense, Barbara Bush was right when she said that it was time for other families to contribute to the country, and that applies as equally to a seat in Congress as it does the Oval Office.

There are several changes that ought to be made to deal with problems such as this, of course. Redistricting needs to be a far less partisan process than it is today, although accomplishing that is quite obviously a far harder task than saying that it ought to be done. Additionally, as I’ve stated before, it seems quite apparent to me that Congressional Term Limits are an idea whose time has come. Twenty four years in the House and the Senate, seems to me like a perfectly reasonable limit on the amount of time that any single person should be serving in Washington. Contrary to what the advocates of long-term incumbency would tell you, there is no single person in Congress who is indispensable, and our political system would do well to bring in fresh blood on a continuous basis. Indeed, that is what the Founding Fathers envisioned Congress would become. None of them anticipated that we would have people like Dingell, Robert Byrd, John Coyners, Ralph Hall, Don Young, or Orrin Hatch, who have served in Congress longer than some other members of Congress have been alive. Congress will do just fine with John Dingell in office, and it would do fine without Debbie Dingell as well, and our political system will be better off if we eliminate the factors that lead Representatives and Senators to believe that they are entitled to their seats.

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Shorter Doug: Democracy bad.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 6

  2. From my perspective this isn’t any more democratic than the Kim dynasty

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 7

  3. PJ says:

    As I have noted in the past, there really wasn’t anything admirable about Dingell’s five decades of service and, indeed, the fact that he has not faced a serious challenger in decades stands as a perfect argument for Congressional term limits.

    No, it’s an argument for ending gerrymandering.

    In some sense, Barbara Bush was right when she said that it was time for other families to contribute to the country, and that applies as equally to a seat in Congress as it does the Oval Office.

    No, there’s 435 members of the House, 100 members of the Senate, but only one President.

    Twenty four years in the House and the Senate, seems to me like a perfectly reasonable limit on the amount of time that any single person should be serving in Washington.

    Currently, 34 members of the House (7.8%) have served for 24 years or more.
    12 members of the Senate (that would be … 12%) have served for 24 years or more.

    That’s not a problem that needs to be addressed with term limits.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  4. Mu says:

    Wouldn’t term limits for federal office require a constitutional amendment?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  5. PJ says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    From my perspective this isn’t any more democratic than the Kim dynasty

    Except for the fact that there’s no real voting to be had in North Korea.
    Other than that, clearly just as democratic.

    Seriously?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 1

  6. Andre Kenji says:

    Political dynasties and Term Limits is not related. Mexico has LOTS of political dynasties(A large number of Mexican politicians have the same name of other prominent politicians of the past – take a look at Mr. Gustavo Madero), and they also has very strict Term limits. Probably the strictest term limits in the world.

    Term limits also has it´s problems, specially because in fact it decreases, not increases competition for the seat. Without candidates with personal name recognition money and party affiliation becomes more important. Besides that, without experienced lawmakers that understands the poltical process, the non-elected staffers become more powerful.

    And above all Political Dynasty is not the real problem here. The problem is that absence of competition for the seat. I don´t like Political Dynasties, I associate them with caudillismo/coronelismo, but that´s not the issue with the Dingells.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  7. Jr says:

    @PJ: Yeah, that is a laughable statement by Doug. You can dislike political dynasties, but at the end of the day they still go through the primary process and an actually general election……can’t say the same for North Korea.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  8. Andre Kenji says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Dictatorships with no dynasties aren´t much better than dictatorships with dynasties.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. @Mu:

    Yes. I didn’t say it would be easy

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. @PJ:

    I was being just a little bit hyperbolic there.

    But, surely, the fact that John Dingell has not faced a serious opponent in decades is not a good thing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  11. PJ says:

    Of the 34 Representatives who will have served for more than 24 years next year, six are retiring.
    And of the 12 Senators who will have served for more than 24 years next year, of the five up for reelection, three are retiring.

    Again, not an issue that needs to be solved with term limits.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  12. Pylon says:

    While there are obvious cons to this, there are also a few pros to so-called dynasties, especially if you are voting for a local rep. The scions know the ropes, so they won’t be exactly rookies. They are used to the legislative process, so they don’t have unrealistic expectations. They have connections to those already in place.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  13. @PJ:

    And I am open to a lower number for term limits such as 18 years. Three terms in the Senate and 9 in the House seems like enough to me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. Pinky says:

    I just think it’s sad when smart women fall for a guy based solely on looks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  15. stonetools says:

    The problem here is not term limits, but corrupt and incompetent representatives. The solution is corruption is campaign finance reform ( which Doug opposes) and ethics reform ( which Doug is lukewarm about). The solution to the second are fair elections (ending gerrymandering would help that).
    I understand Doug disliking dynasties. But dynasties are as dynasties does. The Adams and Roosevelt dynasties were good: The Bush dynasty not so much. As to the Dingells, they haven’t been either bad or good apart from the founder. Voters seem to like them, though and absent findings of corruption or incompetence, that’s enough in a democratic system.
    Now, term limits for federal judges? I could get behind that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  16. PJ says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    But, surely, the fact that John Dingell has not faced a serious opponent in decades is not a good thing.

    No, but again, he’s one of 435. As long as people in his district are happy sending him to DC, let them.

    The system needs fixing. Make districts competitive. End gerrymandering. Increase the number of Representatives. Representatives shouldn’t have to spend all that fundraising. And so on. Term limits is far down on the list of things that needs to be done.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  17. Davebo says:

    @stonetools:

    I’m curious why you would want term limits for federal judges.

    Hell I’m curious why most would want to take the federal bench. The pay cut is normally huge and while there’s a certain amount of prestige involved unless one has further political aspirations I don’t get it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  18. @OzarkHillbilly:

    Democracry is neutral. Whether it is good or bad depends on whether what the demos wants is good or bad.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  19. John Peabody says:

    One argument against term limits is that the un-elected administrators and civil servants would get more power through longevity. But the 24 years of terms should take care of that. Other than that, I believe that voters can make their choice…term limits not needed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  20. SKI says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    But, surely, the fact that John Dingell has not faced a serious opponent in decades is not a good thing.

    How about instead of just stating it is “not a good thing”, you try to explain why?

    Each and every time you post this you never actually point to any negative impact on anything. Your entire argument rests on two principals:

    1. It feels “icky” to you – which is no better here than it is when opposing SSM.

    2. Voters are idiots that I need to protect from themselves. If they were smarter, they wouldn’t keep electing the same family.

    Both strike me as inherently anti-libertarian.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  21. rudderpedals says:

    indeed, the fact that he has not faced a serious challenger in decades stands as a perfect argument for Congressional term limits.

    For 50 years running his electorate’s been poking holes in that argument. There’s nothing left but a tatter of cheesecloth.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  22. stonetools says:

    ’m curious why you would want term limits for federal judges.

    Because there is now no check at all on them once they get in. The result is that you have Scalia, Thomas, and Alito wreaking havoc for decades. Worse, you have Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owens sitting one Republican Presidential win away from joining in the destruction FOR DECADES.
    This is one of the reason why we absolutely cannot risk screw up holding on to the Presidency in 2016. It’s frustrating for liberals, because it means we have to unstintingly support the one candidate that everyone agrees we have to get behind. The stakes are just too damn high for anything else.
    One way to lower the stakes is to give judges 15 year terms, with an option to renew through a Senate vote. Now of course, that could work against us if a Republican Senate happens to be sitting when a liberal judge’s term is up. But I think it’s worth it to provide SOME check on the judges.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  23. @stonetools:

    My solution would be to get rid of supreme court justices entirel. Each year 9 random federal apellate justices would get picked to be the supreme court. Additionally, they would only get to hear cases picked for review by the previous set of 9 justices and would choose the cases to be heard by the next 9. That way they don’t know who will be deciding the case when they select it for supreme court review.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  24. Vast Variety says:

    How about we award seats in the house the same way jury members are picked? Randomly from from the general population.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  25. Tillman says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Now there’s a thought.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    I’d set term limits for Congress at 12 years: 6 house or 2 Senate terms. Congress shouldn’t be a career. Power corrupts, people get set in positions and then instinctively defend them forever no matter what (psychology 101), the world changes (remember all the jokes about these guys trying to set laws relating to the “internets” and other gaffes?), and national politicians simply don’t live in the same reality as the rest of us. You need decent turnover to keep them connected.

    Judges I’d put at 12 years at their current position, for the same reasons. So they can make a career out of it by moving through different levels, but not clog the Supreme Court for decades.

    And a pony. I want a pony too.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  27. Stan says:

    I live in John Dingell’s district. Apart from his inexplicable coziness with the NRA, I like everything he’s done in Congress. He supported LBJ’s civil rights legislation back when he represented a white working class district in Dearborn. He’s been a lifelong supporter of single payer health insurance. He voted against the second Iraq War. He was a little too liberal for his previous district, the one in Dearborn, but still managed to get re-elected repeatedly. He’s a perfect fit for his present district, centered on Ann Arbor. Like a few other older Democrats — Tip O’Neill and Henry Waxman, for example — he’s carried on the progressive tradition of FDR and Harry Truman. I’ve always disliked term limits laws, and John Dingell’s record is one of the reasons.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  28. Tyrell says:

    Here is an idea: House of Rep.: 4 terms in, 2 out and you can return. Senate: 2 terms in, 1 term out.
    This plan would satisfy everyone.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  29. PJ says:

    @Tyrell:

    Here is an idea: House of Rep.: 4 terms in, 2 out and you can return. Senate: 2 terms in, 1 term out.
    This plan would satisfy everyone.

    Again, I don’t believe in term restrictions for members of Congress.

    Also, your idea seems to be rather easily circumvented for the kind of dynasty that Doug dislikes.
    Representative serves four terms, then his/her spouse/son/daughter/mother/father/brother/sister serves two, rinse and repeat.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  30. gVOR08 says:

    I find serving in the House to be obnoxious… It’s become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness, both in Congress and in the streets.

    So he wants his wife to do it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  31. Harry Huntington says:

    Folks have the idea of term limits completely wrong. The focus should be on compensation and lifestyle. Here are the changes:

    (1) Upon election, representatives will receive no salary or benefits for the duration of their term.
    (2) For medical care, representatives will be enrolled in medicaid
    (3) upon election, all personal money must be placed in an untouchable blind trust
    (4) members’ personal spending will be limited to the median income of his or her district. The trustee of the blind trust may not give them any more money for any reason (even family emergency).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  32. edmondo says:

    This will be quite a demotion from her previous job, being a DC lobbyist. I suppose she’ll get used to having less control over legislation once she’s in office.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  33. grumpy realist says:

    @Mu: Yes, they would, which makes Doug’s comments even funnier.

    Yoo-hoo, Doug? Don’t you remember your Constitutional Law class?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  34. ernieyeball says:

    The way some people talk about term limits one could conclude that they will cure all political ills and the common cold.
    AZ, AR, CA, CO, FL, LA, ME, MI, MO, MT, NE, NV, OH, OK and SD are 15 states that currently have legislative term limits of varying durations.
    If anyone can demonstrate that the bills passed through these chambers are measurably wiser and more efficient than the work of the 35 other states I will consider they might be useful at the Federal level.
    EE

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  35. Tillman says:

    Am I the only one who thinks the voters in Michigan’s 12th are perfectly happy with their representation in Congress and just enjoy chuckling to themselves whenever they mention their representative’s last name is Dingell?

    It’s a sad crapsack of a world out there, people. You take your little jokes where you can!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  36. ernieyeball says:

    @Tillman: It’s a sad crapsack of a world out there, people. You take your little jokes where you can!

    Did your scrip for Prozac run out?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  37. ernieyeball says:

    Apparently President Obama has authorized air strikes in Iraq. Now I am depressed.

    “I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq…

    Where have I heard this before???

    We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves. LBJ 1964

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/islamic-state-militants-seize-christian-town-in-northern-iraq-thousands-flee/2014/08/07/942a553a-1e2b-11e4-ab7b-696c295ddfd1_story.html

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  38. C. Clavin says:

    You have to admit Debbie Dingell is fun to say.
    Go ahead…say it 5 times fast.
    But I have to ask…what’s an attractive woman doing with an old bag of bones 30 years her senior? I guess those little blue pills work, eh?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  39. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I was being just a little bit hyperbolic there.

    We know.

    It’s what makes you a Libertarian.

    ;o)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  40. Tillman says:

    @ernieyeball: Nah, but my Cymbalta’s running low.

    The ads for Cymbalta were always more upbeat. You got the idea it was an ED med.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  41. ernieyeball says:

    @Tillman: You got the idea it was an ED med.

    uh…maybe you did. I never saw the ads.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  42. Tillman says:

    @ernieyeball: Well I’m sorry I presumed you watched television. :)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  43. ernieyeball says:

    Television! Teacher, mother, secret lover.
    Homer Simpson

    My TV at home does not get any channels. I use it for DVDs.
    I see a lot of sports events on the 45 TVs at my local Buffalo Wild Wings. Including the two TVs in the pisser. One on the wall above each urinal.
    Some times the sound is on for a game. Like when the Cubs rip up the StinkBirds. Mostly it’s it loud music.
    Commercials? It’s easy to miss them as a game will be on the next screen.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  44. rudderpedals says:

    @ernieyeball: Does your home have multiple urinals? That’d be highly cool

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  45. ernieyeball says:

    @rudderpedals: Yes. The Buffalo Wild Wings in Sleepytown is my home.
    On my 66th birthday last January all the employees pitched in and got me a BWW Gift Card for $80! On Wing Tuesday that’s about 160 Chicken Wings.
    To acknowledge their kindness I donated $40 to the local Boys and Girls Club and told the B+G Club it came from the workers at Wild Wings.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  46. rudderpedals says:

    Ughh how did I miss your mentioning Wild Wings? It’s right there in the same post.

    /slams head on desk

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  47. ernieyeball says:

    @rudderpedals: When I am not “living” at BWW I sleep in my 14×60 trailer house. The 1/2 acre lot it sits on has many trees I have watered on occasion. Does that count?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  48. ernieyeball says:

    @rudderpedals: /slams head on desk

    I know you do that because it feels good when you stop…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  49. ernieyeball says:

    @rudderpedals: I suppose I could have 45 TVs at home too but that would take a double wide trailer…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  50. rudderpedals says:

    I was going to say that 45 tvs sounds like overkill but if they were arrayed around a chair with suitable controls it could make the start of a wicked cool virtual spaceship sim . Add a urinal and I’m outta here

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0