WASHINGTON -- Rep. John Dingell has represented his Dearborn, Mich., district in Congress since the days when a '55 Chevy was a showroom car, not a collector's item.
He was there in Congress when the U.S. auto industry grappled with safety scares, the Ralph Nader-led consumer movement, air pollution and oil crises. He was there when a Detroit-dominated industry discovered it had global rivals and all the way through its descent into bankruptcy and now its rebirth.
But after more than a half century of service, the 87-year-old Democrat is ready to go. And that's the clearest sign yet that the U.S. auto industry must prepare for a changing of the guard in Congress (even if Dingell's wife, Debbie, ends up succeeding him).
"I'm not going to be carried out feet first," John Dingell told The Detroit News last week in announcing he will not seek re-election. "I don't want people to say I stayed too long."
Along with Dingell, this year's turnover in Congress will claim a few other longtime legislators who have played key roles in the auto industry's agenda. Among them is Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a staunch Detroit 3 and UAW ally who remembered his time at a Ford plant fondly enough that for decades, he carried a faded 1953 union card in his wallet.
Gone, too, will be Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the Standard Oil scion who studied in Tokyo as a young man and became Congress' resident expert on the Japanese auto industry. You could see that passion in Rockefeller's work as a senator, whether he was persuading Toyota to open its engine plant in West Virginia or seeking greater U.S. government expertise on electronic defects in the wake of Toyota's sudden acceleration crisis.
Also headed out is Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the liberal stalwart whose dogged advocacy for tough regulation helped drive the tailpipe emissions and fuel economy standards that have become a fact of life. He and the industry didn't always agree, but he was consistent in his positions, and he knew how to cut a deal.
It might seem like the industry has already cut all the deals it needs. Laws on auto safety and labor are well understood; the Obama administration and the industry have made peace on fuel economy. With the executive branch calling the shots, a cynic might say, who cares about Congress?
But the realities can change more quickly than anyone expects. Sometime soon, self-driving cars could force a rethink of how roadways operate. As cars become as connected as computers, privacy and security concerns could come to the forefront. More evidence of climate change could provoke a swift reaction, even more aggressive than the new fuel economy standards or what has been done in Europe.