What’s changed in Washington since John Dingell got elected in 1955? A lot.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. is celebrated by friends and colleagues on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 7, 2013, as he becomes the longest-serving member of Congress in history with his 20,997th day as a representative. A former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell, now 86, says he has no plans to retire as the representative of Michigan's 12th District that includes Dearborn and Ypsilanti. Rep. Dingell recalled wisdom passed on by his late father, Congressman John D. Dingell Sr., Washington Post – by JAIME FULLER

Today, Michigan Rep. John Dingell announced that he was retiring from Congress after serving 29 terms and nearly 60 years. That’s a long time. Let’s look at how much things have changed since 1955, when 29-year-old Dingell won a special election to replace his father, who had died in September 1955.  

In 1955, the House spent 112 days – 771 hours and 19 minutes– in session and passed 1,597 measures.

In 2013, the House spent 160 days – 768 hours and 24 minutes – in session and passed 366 measures. There was also a Democratic majority in 1955, with 232 Democrats and 203 Republicans serving in the House. Democrats also had a majority in the Senate.

When the 84th Congress ended its first session on August 2, 1955, House members celebrated by singing in the chambers.

Michigan Representative Louis Rabaut led the chamber in a rousing rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, accompanied by House Page Bill Goodwin, who said “the place was packed, and we were all waiting, and a lot of frivolity was going on at that time. The guys were telling jokes, and some guys were singing, but then Mr. Rabaut asked me to sing. That was a great thrill, and I got a good ovation for it, too.” Goodwin also sang a duetwith Minnesota Representative Coya Knutson, who attended Julliard. Kentucky Representative Frank Chelf accompanied the singing with his harmonica.

When the first session of the 113th Congress ended on January 3, 2014, no one said much. They didn’t do much all year. The muted close of the session is likely due to the fact that the American public prefers Nickelback to Congress.

In 1955, we were writing about the hipsters.

In the mid-20th century, we underestimated the power of the hipster. “Unfortunately, Americans who snobbishly regard jazz as a fad of the hipster set have not realized the power in has overseas.”

In 2014, we are still writing about the hipsters, and we likely overestimate their power.

People were not impressed with the 84th Congress.

The New York Times wrote in July 29, 1956, “Its achievements — or lack of them — reflect the prevailing mood of the American people, as do those of most Congresses. The Eighty-fourth embarked on no great legislative experiments or major reforms, preferring instead to move placidly along under the soothing influences of peace, such as it is, and prosperity. It has accordingly failed to build up a legislative record that either party can point to with particular pride in the coming elections; but as least the record has not been destructive or divisive. The farm bill was called a “barely satisfactory compromise.” The best thing, according to the article, “was that violent partisanship was lacking, the wild men were reduced to their proper size, and extremism was kept fairly well within bounds.”

People were not impressed with the last completed Congress either. Jonathan Allen at Politico wrote, “The 112th Congress came in with a bang, but it is crawling out with the soft whimper of failure.” An Ezra Klein column on the year was titled, “Good Riddance to Rottenest Congress in History.” Amanda Terkel wrote, “As 2012 comes to a close, the 112th Congress is set to go down in American history as the most unproductive session since the 1940s.”

A piece in the Atlantic Wire on the 113th Congress was not optimistic that the current incarnation would improve on its predecessor’s record: “Do-Nothing Congress Somehow Manages to Do Even Less.”

There were 17 women in the House of Representatives in 1955.

Today, there are 79.

In 1955, Senate Bean Soup was on the menu at the Capitol every day.

In 2014, Senate Bean Soup is on the menu at the Capitol every day.

In November 1955, Congress released an anthology of their favorite poems.

Three representatives and one senator contributed their own verses to the volume. One from Arkansas Representative Brooks Hays included this stanza:

My office is a chapel. There is
No priest or preacher here, but
there is an altar —
An office desk, oak-stained,
once bright, but now
There are in marks and
scratches on it.

Poet politicians are one trend that hasn’t changed much in the last 50-odd years. In 1921, Roger William Riis wrote,

This country is ruled by poets. There you have it all in one capsule. Congress works in poetry; it doth not debate by prose alone, but by every poewm that comes out of the mouth of the Muse … For example, during the session just ended, Congress produced about 4,000 words of vibrant verse. … Senator Heflin is the poet laureate of the Capitol ill. He holds the record for number of quotations, artistic productions and ability in declaiming. Since May he was broken into verse ten times for a time of eighty-four lines.

A nearly identical article was written four years later. In a House debate over whether the United States should appropriate funds for a home for the vice president in 1966, two representatives waged debate via poetry slam.

When James C. Cleveland , a Republican of New Hampshire, recited a 30-stanza poem opposing a ‘frill upon the hill,” James C. Wright Jr., Democrast of Texas, responded with a short poem of his own, protesting Republican contentions that ‘a land so fair hath no butter to spare’ for housing the Vice President.'”

Senator Robert Byrd was known for the repository of poems he could unfurl on a whim. In 1991, Representative Jim Bunning recited a poem called “The Eve Before Recess” to the Ways and Means Committee:

Twas the eve before recess
And throughout the House
All the members were restless,
They all wanted out.
The conferences all hung
In the member’s cold stare
In hopes that sine die
Soon would be there.

Several other representatives also contributed holiday-themed verse. On December 14, 2005, Rep. Dingell offered his own variation on the Night Before Christmas:

Twas the week before Christmas and all
through the House,
no bills were passed ‘bout which Fox News
could grouse.
Tax cuts for the wealthy were passed with
great cheer,
so vacations in St. Barts soon should be
Katrina kids were all nestled snug in motel
while visions of school and home danced in
their heads.
In Iraq, our soldiers need supplies and a plan,
and nuclear weapons are being built in Iran.
Gas prices shot up, consumer confidence fell.
Americans feared we were in a fast track to
. . . well.
Wait, we need a distraction, something divisive
and wily,
a fabrication straight from the mouth of
We will pretend Christmas is under attack,
hold a vote to save it, then pat ourselves on
the back.

In 2013, Ted Cruz quoted Henry V while filibustering CIA director John Brennan’s confirmation hearing. Marco Rubio quoted “that modern-day poet by the name of Jay-Z.”

In 1955, the Washington Senators were Washington, D.C.’s baseball team.

Although many fans still called them the Nationals. They ended the 1956 season with a59-95 record. Damn Yankees, a musical about a Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil so the Senators can beat the Yankees, came out in 1955.

When John Dingell was elected in December 1955, the U.S. unemployment rate was 4.2 percent.

The unemployment rate in December 2013 was 6.7 percent.

In 1955, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations merged.

At that time, the union was serving 16 million members. And now, the year that Dingell, known for being a champion of organized labor, leaves Congress, the union serves around 11 million workers, according to that last official data from 2008. In December 1955, there were roughly 52,950,000 people working in America. In June 2008, there were 138,612,000 people working nonfarm jobs.

Twelve days before Dingell took office in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Alabama.

On February 27, 2013, the U.S. Capitol unveiled a statue of the civil rights hero. On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last summer, John Dingell — who is the only member of Congress still serving who voted for the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960 and 1964 — released a statement saying, “Today, hundreds of thousands more have come to Washington, not only to recognize the anniversary of this monumental day, but also to continue that very same call for jobs and freedom. They continue the call for a Congress that works on behalf of all Americans. They continue the call for a fix to the Supreme Court’s unwise dismantling of the Voting Rights Act. They continue the call for equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender, race, or any other factors. Simply put, they are here because there is much work to be done and seemingly little interest from many elected officials in tackling the pressing issues we face.”

At the end of 1955, Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk was on the top of the New York Times’ fiction bestseller list

Slate called the book, which was made into a film starring Natalie Wood, “the conservative novel that liberal feminists love.” Private L.A., by James Patterson and Mark Sullivan, is number one on the New York Times fiction bestseller list today, which includes sales from e-books. One reviewer on GoodReads said of the book, “usual good read with one glaring editor miss … In n Out Burger does not serve burgers with bacon.”

In 1955, Coca-Cola started selling the soft drink in cans, as well as offering 26-ounce “king-sized” bottles.

In 2014, people attempt to survive on juice alone.

Marty, a film by Paddy Chayefsky, won the Best Picture Oscarand the Palme d’Or.

In February 2014, a book about Chayefsky’s more famous film, Network, was released,meaning that Marty has gotten more mentions this week than it has in decades.

In the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, the Soviet Union received the most gold medals: 37

In the recently concluded 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia won the most gold medals: 13.

In 1955, the minimum wage was $1.00.

Which translates to $8.49 in June 2013 dollars. Today, the minimum wage is $7.25.


Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for “The Fix” and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.



One thought on “What’s changed in Washington since John Dingell got elected in 1955? A lot.

  1. Despite the headline, the Washington Post is trying to convince us that nothing’s changed in America, so you can go back to sleep now.

    60 years in congress qualifies Dingell-berry as a long-term welfare recipient.

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