One of the frustrating things about living in Michigan is that people here love John Dingell. This is an indictment of my state because it reveals a certain insecurity that makes us think we need a bully to protect us from the rest of the world. The 85-year-old Democratic congressman, who has served since 1955 and last week became the longest-tenured member of Congress in the nation’s history, is widely revered as a Michigan hero because he has so skillfully wielded the power born of his clout in Washington.
I recently wrote a piece for DBusiness Magazine about a group of minority investors who wanted to build a commercial/entertainment development in the Detroit area. The whole thing seemed to be going fine until they purchased the property, at which point they encountered the wrath of Big Jawn.
What had they done wrong? They had bought a piece of land where Dingell had fond memories of hunting and fishing as a boy, and he didn’t like the idea of it being developed.
So Dingell began a campaign of behind-the-scenes harassment and intimidation so outlandish that the developers actually managed to successfully sue the federal government (success in this case being a $5 million settlement), but only after Dingell vindictively drove them into bankruptcy.
Quoting somewhat extensively from my story:
At the same time, Reynolds filed documents showing that Dingell had personally written at least seven letters to regulatory officials opposing the Gibraltar Bay project, and even wrote one to Made In Detroit’s lender, then Standard Federal Bank in Troy, as part of the effort to bring the property under federal control.
On May 28, 1998, Dingell wrote a letter to the leaders of four different federal agencies and MDEQ, urging them to give the project a thorough review for any and all regulatory issues, and encouraging them not to worry about how long the effort might take. Dingell even acknowledged in the letters that the agencies may not have authority to deal in every aspect of the matter, but urged them to do so anyway: “I realize that your agencies do not have or share responsibility for each of these issues I am raising in this letter,” Dingell wrote. “However, given the uniqueness of the habitat in question, I believe it is imperative that your staffs conduct a coordinated and thorough inquiry into the various regulatory questions which will lead to the best decisions for the shoreline properties.”
And with that, Dingell proceeded to list a litany of issues he wanted the regulators to explore, including a controversial conservation easement, a spawning ground for walleye and other fish, staging areas for migratory ducks, and the potential environmental impact of dredging in connection with the development.
Overzealous exercise of governmental authority complicated the issue. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers typically does not have authority over the development of bridges, as that oversight belongs to the Coast Guard. Nevertheless, the Army Corps informed Made In Detroit that it would hold up the development over a proposed bridge from the mainland to the island, where 25 luxury homes were to be built.
Dingell followed up three months later with another letter reiterating his concerns about the environmental issues and instructing all the agency heads to keep him informed about progress on the matter, as well as any forums planned for public comment.
Dingell even took a personal interest in the details. When the Army Corps of Engineers announced the expiration of a public comment period, Dingell wrote to demand that the period be extended. When MDEQ began considering the developer’s wetland permit, Dingell sent a letter demanding the answers to 14 questions, including details about drainage and the locations of possible wetland mitigation. He also challenged the MDEQ’s authority, demanding of then-director Russ Harding: “Please explain to me where the department derives its regulatory authority.”
His tenure in Congress is nothing to celebrate. The fact that such a person is allowed to do what he does is one of the reasons government no longer really serves the people.