There are millions of reasons to think Congress won't do much about global warming, all stockpiled in the lobbying budgets of the U.S.'s mightiest interest groups--automakers and other manufacturers, environmentalists, labor unions, farmers, oil companies, coal companies, utilities, the military, antitaxers and so on. A Washington axiom holds that it's always easier to do nothing than to do something. By that standard, tackling climate change, which would affect every industry and every private life, looks almost impossible.
On the other hand, there's John Dingell. Michigan's eternal Congressman, defender of Detroit's carbon-spewing gas hogs, would seem an unlikely cause for optimism. After all, his wife Deborah is a General Motors Foundation trustee, leading his critics to assert that Dingell is literally in bed with the auto industry.
But just as it took anticommunist Richard Nixon to open the door to China, and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons to denounce misogyny in rap, so Dingell, Democrat from Dearborn and friend of factories, may be the insider able to drive change. At 80, restored to his wide-ranging dominion over the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, "John Dingell is one of the few people with the capacity to manage complex pieces of legislation where there are high stakes," says former House colleague Philip Sharp.
He's smart enough, strong enough, mean enough. Sharp saw Dingell up close the last time Big John reluctantly tackled air pollution--the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act that successfully dealt with acid rain. Now Dingell has awakened to global warming, holding more than two dozen hearings on the issue since February and extracting on-the-record promises of cooperation from heads of industry more accustomed to obstruction.
He's not the most famous member of Congress, but he's among the most feared. "A trade-association leader recently told me that his group was going to shift from being against mandatory caps on carbon emissions to being for them," Sharp recounts. "When I asked why, he said, 'There's no way we can go meet with Dingell and just say no.' He didn't mention any other leader of the House or Senate, just Dingell."
He is the last link to a vanished era. Seeing Dingell hobbling along the halls of Congress on his cane or cupping his half-good ear to hear a colleague is like spotting an elderly mammoth alive in the natural-history museum. As long as he's not extinct, he's formidable. Dingell comes from a time when Congress did big things, like Medicare and the Voting Rights Act, as a matter of course. Key Congressmen were known as "bulls," and they didn't look to the White House for permission slips or marching orders. Dingell's first oath of office, in 1956, was administered by Sam Rayburn, whose power is memorialized in the congressional office building bearing his name.
"I am a legislator," said the last woolly mammoth in a recent interview with TIME. By which Dingell means he is in Congress to pass laws, not to wage ideological warfare or get his mug on television. He has never wanted anything beyond life in the House.
The art of moving a major bill is an elusive mix of endurance, persuasion, negotiation, intimidation--and timing. The field is sown with favors large and small over many years and watered with occasional menace. (Ask Dingell how he feels about being called "the meanest s.o.b. in Congress," and he quietly answers, "It's very useful.") With luck, the seeds bear fruit when the votes are finally counted. The process is so slow and cumulative that few people ever become masters. "I've been doing it for years, and I learned from the best," Dingell said, "Rayburn, John McCormack [Rayburn's successor as Speaker], my dad."
John Dingell Sr. (born Dzieglewicz) first won the Dearborn seat in 1932 and held it for more than two decades before his son took over. Together, the Dingell dynasty covers nearly a third of the nation's history. "He was a skinny little shrimp," Dingell said of his dad. "Never drew a decent breath of air. Supposed to have died of tuberculosis in 1914. When the doctor told him that he had six months to live, Pop looked at him and said, 'Doc, I'll piss on your grave.' And Dr. Conway, whom Dad loved, died in '35. Pop died in 1955."
His son practically grew up in the House. Dingell recalls hunting rats "as big as cats" with an air rifle in the Capitol basement, and Franklin D. Roosevelt inscribed a photograph to him--"my friend"--around the time that Dingell was a 12-year-old congressional page. He insists that he never planned to occupy his father's seat, but the senior Dingell's death in office left a humming political machine leaderless and important goals unmet.
Dingell's victory in a special election was the first of 27 consecutive blowouts (some, he insists, harder than others). Unlike his father, Big John was physically imposing, and he filled his office walls with hunting trophies; visitors plead their cases under the cold gaze of Dingell kills. He honored his father by pushing for national health insurance and was chosen in 1965 to wield the gavel when the House passed Medicare.
Then, as now, many members of Congress coveted seats on Ways and Means or Armed Services, but Dingell preferred to master the process outside the spotlight. "No one paid any attention" to his subcommittee on fisheries, "so we were able to get a lot done," he explained. Between 1964 and 1974, Dingell was a driving force behind the National Wilderness Act, the Water Quality Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, wetlands preservation and bans on ocean dumping and the hunting of sea mammals.
In fact, Dingell would merit a bust on a pedestal at the Sierra Club, except that environmentalists cannot forget that his love for the outdoors is matched only by his love for heavy manufacturing. It was he who amended the Clean Air Act to guarantee that the U.S. auto industry must never be harmed by pollution regulations. And he has stoutly resisted increases in the gas-mileage requirements for sport-utility vehicles and minivans. "I've been looking after American manufacturing and American industry for years--it isn't just autos," Dingell acknowledged proudly. Besides, he added, neither he nor Detroit is to blame for the fact that overall mileage of the U.S. auto fleet hasn't improved. Americans simply prefer high-performance, four-wheel-drive towing machines, even for the preschool car pool. And in this free country, "if the people want something," he said, "they get it."