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."
This article appears in the April 2, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.