US Capitol / Newscom

US Capitol / Newscom


Washington D.C. won’t have John Dingell to push around much longer.

The venerable Democrat, who’s been in the House of Representatives since 1955, is preparing to retire and hand his family’s seat (his father held it before him, having been elected in 1932) to his wife. But he’s not doing her any favors. 

In recent years the problem isn’t that lawmakers have left the House. It’s that they’ve stopped being lawmakers. Nobody has kept Dingell  — and his 434 elected colleagues — from legislating. The fact that they don’t legislate is a self-inflicted wound. Congress has willingly given up much of its lawmaking authority.

“In terms of actual policy, most of the action is located in administrative agencies and departments, not in the Congress and the President as is commonly thought. Unelected bureaucrats—not elected representatives—are running the show,” scholar Joe Postell notes.

Consider several of the items Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus listed in a recent column headlined, “Losing the art of legislating as John Dingell retires”:

  • Clean Air: Lawmakers are happy to pass policymaking about carbon dioxide to the EPA.
  • Education Reform: Lawmakers allow the Obama Administration to offer waivers to replace the  Congressionally-passed No Child Left Behind with Common Core.
  • Health Care: Lawmakers enacted Obamacare, but the bill was more aspiration than law. Much of the actual policy is being crafted by the Department of Health and Human Services. For his part, President Obama has felt free to issue waivers at will.
  • Telecommunications: The FCC is aggressively trying to expand its domain. It recently floated a plan to put observers in newsrooms, even those of newspapers and Web sites (which the agency doesn’t even regulate).

The Constitution established a federal government of limited but enumerated powers.

See also: Legislative Powers Not Yours to Give Away

To work, it requires lawmakers who are jealous of their power to make law. If many long-serving Representatives are getting bored, maybe it’s because they stopped being lawmakers years ago.