Michigan Braces for New, Less Powerful Era

After powerful veterans depart, who can step into the void and start rebuilding the state’s clout?

A view of downtown Detroit s shown March 23, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan.
National Journal
Tim Alberta
April 1, 2014, 5:15 p.m.

Michigan’s le­gis­lat­ive team is los­ing its vet­er­ans and fast ap­proach­ing re­build­ing mode, un­ex­pec­tedly ren­der­ing to the back­bench of Cap­it­ol Hill what has in re­cent years been one of Wash­ing­ton’s most in­flu­en­tial and seasoned con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tions.

At the dawn of this 113th Con­gress, not a single state could com­pete, pound-for-pound, with the le­gis­lat­ive in­flu­ence — and col­lect­ive ex­per­i­ence — of Michigan in the na­tion’s cap­it­al. Half of the Wol­ver­ine State’s 16-mem­ber con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion was power­fully po­si­tioned on Cap­it­ol Hill — either chair­ing a com­mit­tee, or in the case of minor­ity-party mem­bers, serving as rank­ing mem­ber.

This spoke not only to the stand­ing of the state’s law­makers, but also to their seni­or­ity. In fact, Michigan’s del­eg­a­tion entered the 113th Con­gress with a com­bined 259 years of ex­per­i­ence on Cap­it­ol Hill, an astound­ing av­er­age of 16 years per law­maker. (By com­par­is­on, Geor­gia, the only oth­er state with a 16-mem­ber del­eg­a­tion, entered this Con­gress with a com­bined 161 years of ex­per­i­ence.)

What a dif­fer­ence two years make.

Thanks to the re­tire­ments of four Michigan stal­warts — Demo­crat­ic Sen. Carl Lev­in, Demo­crat­ic Rep. John Din­gell, and Re­pub­lic­an Reps. Dave Camp and Mike Ro­gers — the state will cede at least 130 years of Wash­ing­ton ex­per­i­ence. More sig­ni­fic­ant, though, is the in­flu­ence lost. Lev­in chairs the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee and was an au­thor­it­at­ive fig­ure dur­ing a dec­ade of war; Camp holds the Ways and Means gavel and re­cently un­veiled a long-awaited tax-code over­haul; Ro­gers leads the In­tel­li­gence pan­el and is a na­tion­al voice on sur­veil­lance and se­cur­ity is­sues; and Din­gell, the “Dean of the House” who formerly chaired the En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, is a power­ful friend to his ho­met­own auto in­dustry.

“Most of these re­tire­ments caught both parties by sur­prise,” said a vet­er­an Michigan Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive. “It’s in­ter­est­ing, be­cause Michigan is a little bit of a dyn­asty state. So with the shuff­ling you see now, it’s sort of sad, be­cause — and this is go­ing to sound cheesy — but there’s a lot of re­spect for the gi­ants who are mov­ing on.”

All of these “gi­ants” will be gone come Janu­ary, suc­ceeded by less seasoned, and less seni­or, law­makers. But the ex­odus won’t end there.

Not far be­hind will be Demo­crat­ic Rep. Sander Lev­in, Carl’s older broth­er, who serves as rank­ing mem­ber on the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee; and fel­low Demo­crat John Con­yers, who is rank­ing mem­ber on the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee. Both are seek­ing an­oth­er term in Con­gress, but both are in their eighties and not ex­pec­ted to stick around bey­ond an­oth­er two years. The next dom­ino to fall would likely be GOP Rep. Fred Up­ton, whose chair­man­ship of the En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee will be term-lim­ited in 2016. It’s whispered that Up­ton, who came to Con­gress in 1987, will re­tire at that point rather than re­turn to the rank and file.

If those three vet­er­ans re­tire fol­low­ing the 114th Con­gress, Michigan would enter 2017 with per­haps not a single com­mit­tee chair­man­ship. This would rep­res­ent a stun­ning turn­around from less than a dec­ade earli­er, when the state had a strap­ping del­eg­a­tion stacked with a com­bin­a­tion of seni­or­ity and in­flu­ence.

“Look at it this way: Just since 2010, by the end of this year, 11 U.S. rep­res­ent­at­ives will have de­par­ted from the Michigan del­eg­a­tion — and one sen­at­or,” said Bill Bal­lenger, founder of the news­let­ter In­side Michigan Polit­ics.

Bal­lenger’s math checks out. At the be­gin­ning of the next Con­gress, the ma­jor­ity of Michigan’s del­eg­a­tion will have been in of­fice less than five years.

“The amount of turnover is pretty wild,” said a high-rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an staff mem­ber in the Michigan del­eg­a­tion. “It’s ex­traordin­ary, ac­tu­ally. And what comes next will really be fas­cin­at­ing.”

In­deed, as the state trudges to­ward an in­ev­it­able re­build­ing mode in which seni­or­ity is slowly ac­crued and chits are pain­fully won, there are ques­tions in both parties about who will fill the power va­cu­um.

Re­tire­ments on the Re­pub­lic­an side rep­res­ent an op­por­tun­ity for Rep. Justin Amash, the liber­tari­an star whose elec­tion in the tea-party wave of 2010 shook up Michigan’s buttoned-down GOP es­tab­lish­ment. Amash, who has sup­por­ted like-minded can­did­ates across the coun­try, would love noth­ing more than to re­pop­u­late his state’s del­eg­a­tion with ideo­lo­gic­ally com­pat­ible Re­pub­lic­ans.

He might get his wish in the 4th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict. There, self-styled liber­tari­an busi­ness­man Peter Kon­etchy, who already an­nounced a primary cam­paign against Camp, holds a huge or­gan­iz­a­tion­al ad­vant­age. (Camp’s late re­tire­ment gives oth­er can­did­ates very little time to col­lect the 1,000 sig­na­tures needed be­fore the April 22 fil­ing dead­line.)

Kon­etchy’s po­ten­tial vic­tory, though, could be off­set in the 8th Dis­trict, where es­tab­lish­ment-aligned can­did­ates such as former state Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mike Bish­op and former state GOP Chair­man Saul Anuzis are viewed as pro­spect­ive front-run­ners. (Here, too, however, there is noise about con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists try­ing to lure a “move­ment” can­did­ate — per­haps state Rep. Tom Mc­Mil­lin — in­to the race.)

On the Demo­crat­ic side, Sen. Debbie Stabenow chairs the Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee, and Rep. Gary Peters will be the nom­in­ee to take Lev­in’s spot along­side her in the Sen­ate. But if Re­pub­lic­ans take con­trol of the Sen­ate in Novem­ber, and Lev­in’s seat turns red — both dis­tinct pos­sib­il­it­ies — it could be double trouble for the Demo­crats. Not only would Stabenow lose her chair­man­ship, but Peters, one of the party’s best-liked mem­bers, would have lost his spot in the del­eg­a­tion, hav­ing for­feited his seat to run for the Sen­ate. And if both Lev­in and Con­yers de­part Wash­ing­ton at the end of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, it would leave Rep. Dan Kildee, elec­ted in 2012, as the seni­or-most Demo­crat in Michigan’s House del­eg­a­tion.

Both parties are put­ting a pos­it­ive spin on the op­por­tun­ity to re­stock their tal­ent and build for the fu­ture. But there is wide­spread ac­know­ledg­ment that Michigan will suf­fer from its del­eg­a­tion’s sud­den lack of ex­per­i­ence.

“In many ways, this was an ac­ci­dent wait­ing to hap­pen be­cause we have one of the old­est del­eg­a­tions in the coun­try,” Bal­lenger said. “And it hurts Michigan, no doubt about it. We’ve gone from hav­ing one of the most seasoned del­eg­a­tions to be­ing de­pend­ent on rook­ies stum­bling in­to Wash­ing­ton try­ing to find the men’s and wo­men’s rooms.”

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