When John Dingell was a child, he met Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who dreamed eighty years ago that a groundbreaking Social Security proposal might feature a publicly funded national healthcare program.
Under pressure from the American Medical Association, FDR and his congressional allies scaled back the Social Security proposal.
But the Dingell family kept the dream alive.
In 1943, Dingell’s father, a congressman from Michigan who had played a critical role in enacting the initial Social Security Act of 1935, joined a pair of New Deal stalwarts from the Senate—New York Senator Robert Wagner and Montana Senator James Murray—to propose the rough outline for a single-payer national healthcare system.
Seeking re-election in 1944, Roosevelt campaigned for an “Economic Bill of Rights” that included both “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health” and “the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.”
There was a powerful sense that the Dingell-Murray-Wagner bill would frame the underpinnings for that initiative. Its sponsors traveled the country promising to “not give up until the fight is won.”
After Roosevelt died at the beginning of his fourth term in 1945, Harry Truman pressed the issue—only to be blocked by the combination of Republican obstruction, red-baiting and an expensive campaign of opposition.
But John Dingell Sr. kept introducing his national healthcare proposal through the rest of the 1940s and into the 1950s. And after John Dingell Jr. took his late father’s House seat in 1955, he continued to introduce it as “The United States National Health Insurance Act.”
Much will be made, with the news that John Dingell Jr. will retire from the House at the close of his twenty-ninth full term, of the congressman’s remarkable tenure—elected during President Dwight Eisenhower’s first term, he will leave as the longest-serving member in the history of Congress. As Michigan political veteran Steve Mitchell noted, “With the exception of John Quincy Adams, there’s no one with a longer participation in the affairs of the United States than John Dingell.”
Surely, something will be made of the fact that the dean of the House of Representatives says that serving in the chamber has become “obnoxious…because of the acrimony and bitterness,” in Congress. And of his fierce condemnation of congressional backbiting and obstruction: “The American people could get better government out of monkey island in the local zoo.”