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12 to Watch: U.S. Rep. John Dingell

Jan 29, 2007  •  Post A Comment

It’s not retirement that’s in the eye of U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. At 80, having been a congressman since 1955, Mr. Dingell is looking to the battles ahead as the Democratic takeover of the House returns him to the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a panel he headed from 1981 to 1994.

For the dean of the House and one of the country’s more powerful congressmen, the chairmanship offers a new opportunity to set legislative direction on media issues and probe bureaucrats. Few expect his tenure will be quiet.

“He’s put people in jail! He’s not afraid of anybody,” said David Leach, a former Dingell staffer who now works as a telecom lobbyist for major media companies including Verizon Communications, AT&T and Tribune Co. “The man is fearless.”

Mr. Dingell has already indicated the Federal Communications Commission and its chairman, Kevin J. Martin, may be in his committee’s cross hairs, with the focus on both FCC’s procedures and media issues. Mr. Dingell will be working closely with U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who heads the committee’s telecom panel, amid indications the panel will be far more aggressive in overseeing the FCC.

In Mr. Dingell’s long tenure in Congress-the counting could start either in 1955, when he replaced his father, or in 1938, when at age 12 he began a term of several years as a House page-stories of past battles are legend.

Mr. Dingell’s dispatches have earned a reputation of their own. The term “Dingellgram” began as the Reagan administration Environmental Protection Agency’s reference to Mr. Dingell’s letters asking bureaucrats detailed questions and demanding immediate replies.

There was that 2004 Dingellgram to N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, questioning his suggestion that some service industry jobs might be viewed as manufacturing jobs.

“It could be inferred from your report that the administration is willing to recognize drink mixing, hamburger garnishing, French/freedom fry cooking and milkshake mixing to be vital components of our manufacturing sector,” Mr. Dingell said in the letter, which noted Michigan’s manufacturing job losses. “Michigan will find it heartening to know that a world of opportunity awaits them in high-growth manufacturing careers like spatula operator, napkin restocking and lunch tray removal.”

In recent years his attention has regularly turned to media issues.

In 2003, Mr. Dingell called the FCC’s media ownership changes a “body blow to democracy” and questioned former FCC Chairman Michael J. Powell repeatedly. In 2004, the congressman questioned actions of Sinclair Broadcast Group and Pappas Telecasting Cos. on airing political content.

“There appears to be a misunderstanding among certain broadcast licensees that they can use the public airwaves in new ways to elect candidates of their own choice,” he wrote.

He also entered the fray over Nielsen Media Research’s People Meter ratings, questioning the system’s impact on Latino viewer counts. Mr. Dingell also questioned whether, as the U.S. transitions to digital TV signals, enough money is being set aside to provide converter boxes, and demanded information about enforcement of broadcast indecency.

Since the November election, Mr. Dingell has written the FCC chairman twice and the FCC’s legal counsel once.

He called the FCC’s effort to require that cities complete action on new cable franchise requests within 90 days “entirely inappropriate,” warning the agency was usurping congressional prerogative. He criticized Mr. Martin’s effort to get FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell to vote on the AT&T/BellSouth merger after Mr. McDowell recused himself because of government ethics rules. When Mr. McDowell eventually decided not to vote, Mr. Dingell said he had “significant concerns” over Mr. Martin’s actions and that an examination of his decisions “may be suitable for committee review.”

“I think you will find that Mr. Markey is going to be an activist chairman and will be focused with great diligence on matters like this,” Mr. Dingell said in an interview with TelevisionWeek.

Asked what his return to the chairmanship would bring, he said only, “I’m going to find out as we go forward.”

Mr. Martin said he and other FCC commissioners are “always concerned” when members of Congress have issues about the FCC action.

“I don’t think I can predict whether he will continue to want to send letters,” Mr. Martin told TelevisionWeek. “He isn’t the only one who we get letters from. Am I worried? People on the commission are always worried about it. I think we try to be responsive and move forward on policy.”