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20,997 days: Dingell looks back at his 57 years in Congress

On Friday, Democratic Rep.
Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell speaks during an event marking the third anniversary of the passage of the Affordable Care Act at the U.S. Capitol March 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. The House of Representatives passed the controversial Patient...
Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell speaks during an event marking the third anniversary of the passage of the Affordable Care Act at the U.S. Capitol...

On Friday, Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan added another achievement next to his name in the history books, serving his 20,997th day in Congress to become the longest serving member of Congress ever.

In his 57 years in Congress, Dingell has worked with 11 presidents, 11 speakers of the House, and cast more than 25,000 votes, and served as the chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.

Dingell won his first seat in a sad turn of events for the 29-year-old. His father, John Dingell Sr., had served in Congress for 22 years before his death from tuberculosis. Then a small town lawyer, it was a tragedy he never anticipated.

But in the end, he says his tenure should be judged on his effectiveness, not his longevity.

“It’s not how long, it’s how well,” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd in an interview this week in his Rayburn office. “I’ve done my best.”

He’s seen the representative body change and evolve during his many years, but what he laments most is the loss of comity and collegiality.

“There’s a lot of ill will, nastiness, unpleasantness, lack of understanding, hatred, and irritation today,” said Dingell. “And truthfully, I think it’s the worst I’ve ever seen it.”

And with members eager to avoid the stigma of “going Washington,” Dingell says their flurry to leave town, even without their work completed, is another change he’d like to see reversed.

“Members hit this town and on Monday, to make a 6:30 vote and they're already inquire about how they're gonna get a 6:30 plane out on Friday or Thursday to go home,” he said. “Everybody said, ‘We oughta be back home.’ That's totally wrong. We oughta be here, working on the nation's business. We oughta not be fighting. We oughta be talking about how we come together.”

His proudest accomplishment during his nearly six decades in Congress was helping usher through the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- then a controversial vote that nearly cost him his job in a contentious primary that fall against fellow Rep. John Lesinski.

“We solved a terrible, searing problem,” said Dingell. “We were dealing with the issue and we'd say, ‘Why is it, explain to us that a white man should be able to vote, and a black man, who's also a citizen, cannot?’ And the people responded fairly. They said, ‘They're not. You're right.’”

Every year, Dingell, like his father before him, would introduce a universal health care bill at the beginning of each new Congress. And in 2010, he finally saw a form of that become law. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed him to gavel the final vote, that that same gavel now sits in his office.

With the bill still under criticism by many as its full implementation nears, Dingell says he wished it had passed in a more bipartisan fashion, but said even slipping poll numbers on the public’s confidence in the legislation doesn’t undermine its positive aspects.

“Frankly, we tried every which way to invite our Republican colleagues to participate, because we knew that the bill would not become law with good will and we'd not have the public trust if we didn't do that,” said Dingell.

“But if you look, you will find there's a tremendous wave of public trust. First of all, there's a number of rights that citizens are given, no more preexisting conditions to deny you healthcare. No more can they cancel your healthcare because you get sick. No more they can kick your kid off the policy until he’s 26. Those things are important.”

Looking back, Dingell said he never anticipated a career in politics when he was younger, having a small law practice and even working as a park ranger before he ran for his father’s seat.

“I had a great little law practice firm I ran. And I quite frankly made a better living then than I ever did since,” he laughed. “I had more time for the family. Had more time to hunt and fish and do the things I liked to do.”

Dignell’s office is dotted with deer and elk he’s shot himself, and as a longtime hunter he’s championed gun rights and even been supported by the National Rifle Association many times in the past. But now, he even admits the gun lobby may have become too partisan.

“I've got to say, I think they've done so far to the right that I don't think they have the ability to compromise,” said Dingell. “They have honest concerns. They're deathly far somebody's out to take away their guns. And that's a very, very deep concern for everybody, that includes me.”

Will Dingell make it 59 or even 60 years in office? The 86-year-old lawmaker says that’s a conversation he’ll have every January of an election year with his wife, Debbie, herself a powerful political force as a top auto lobbyist, as they weigh his health and other factors.

“There's always something to be done. And-- and there's always some public need to be met. Or you can do things to help people and-- and make the country better.  That's why we're here,” Dingell said.

“I've got a wonderful wife and I wanna see to it that she is happy. And-- and when she gets tired of this business, and the burden-- let me tell you something. The burden in this job is not on the officeholder.”