TCS Daily

Mr. Dingell's Bullying Pulpit

By Henry I. Miller - December 1, 2008 12:00 AM

Most of the coverage of the departure of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) from the powerful chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has focused on his anti-environmentalism and his staunch defense of the interests of dysfunctional Detroit automobile manufacturers. But there is much more to Mr. Dingell than his having propped up a failing industry instead of a tougher approach that could have required it to improve and become competitive. He has fashioned a congressional career of bullying, anti-social behavior.

During the 1980's, while chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell intruded constantly in federal agencies' domestic policy-making and their negotiation of international regulatory agreements. His committee's ideologically-motivated investigators continually harassed scientists from various regulatory agencies (of whom I was one) although the congressional staffers lacked any understanding of the subject area and were, in fact, lobbying against both a sound scientific approach and a climate that would encourage American innovation. Research and development in fields like agricultural biotechnology and pharmaceuticals still bear the scars.

Dingell was a master of the politics of personal destruction. In acrimonious McCarthy-esque hearings, he made vile and untrue accusations against prominent scientists, university administrators and business executives, relying on his congressional immunity to avoid being sued for slander. In performing his committee's oversight role over the FDA, Dingell acted as a kind of self-appointed Grand Inquisitor. He and his staff often summoned agency officials to humiliating and abusive hearings and demanded that they produce mountains of documents on unrealistically short deadlines. His investigators even helped themselves to FDA files that contained confidential business information, a clear violation of federal law.

Last year, Mr. Dingell demanded that the CEO of drug company Amgen "cease all direct-to-consumer advertising and physician incentives" related to the company's anti-anemia drugs Epogen and Aranesp because of concerns that "when used at higher than recommended doses, [they] appear to cause increases in blood clots, seem to grow tumors and are associated with significantly higher mortality rates than placebo," until the FDA is able to determine whether any measures "need to be taken to protect the public from unnecessary risks to human life from these products." (Mr. Dingell made an almost identical request to Johnson & Johnson about that company's anti-anemia drug Procrit.)

Also last year, in a letter to drug companies Merck and Schering-Plough, Dingell and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight and investigations, questioned proposed changes in the interpretation of data from a clinical trial of a new cholesterol-lowering combination drug and instructed both companies to retain important documents about the study. Apparently, the congressmen were exercised about a delay in the announcement of the results of the study. But unless there is reason to believe that the companies have committed crimes or are involved in misconduct - which has not been alleged -- what they choose to do with their own data arguably is none of the business of Dingell and his committee. But this sort of bullying and interference is typical of the Dingellian (rhymes with "Orwellian") view of government.

Mr. Dingell lost track of the constitutional division of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government. His actions were often grossly inappropriate. Congressional committees have responsibility for oversight of government agencies, not of individual companies or universities. Congressmen don't get to play drug regulator, park ranger, soldier or air-traffic controller at their whim.

Several salient observations and lessons emerge from the Dingell saga. First, in spite of his execrable reputation, the voters of Michigan's 15 District have kept Mr. Dingell in congress since 1955. Second, his House colleagues have responded to the decades of unethical, arrogant behavior by burying their heads in the sand - not a hint of acknowledgment, let alone censure. Finally, Mr. Dingell's bullying and his abusive behavior were an affront to ethical and enlightened government. He will not be missed.

Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, was at the NIH and FDA from 1977-1994. Barron's selected his most recent book,"The Frankenfood Myth," one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.


TCS Daily Archives