It’s late November and there’s still a lot on Congressman Fred Upton’s to-do list. Congress is still in session. Floor votes. Committee meetings. And an office to clear of flotsam and jetsam — some of it dating back decades.
“Well, I’ll open up a drawer and I’ve got letters here from John Dingell, (Reagan chief of staff) Ken Duberstein, and Joe Biden when he was vice president congratulating me on my election, and I’ve got…” He pauses. “I’m a packrat and I’ve got a lot of things. I’m looking at a picture here of George W. Bush, George Bush 41…”
The list goes on. Books that caught his interest. News clippings. Letters and papers.
“There’s just a ton of a lot of things.”
This would seem to be a moment built for Upton, a center-right Republican who’s represented southwest Michigan for a solid three decades. Over that time – along with a formidable paper trail – Upton’s built a reputation as an affable colleague and an effective dealmaker, especially the period from 2011 to 2016 when he chaired the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
The coming congressional session and just a handful of seats separating the House majority from the House minority would seem ideal for a skilled political broker.
But Upton is calling it quits. His district evaporated with new lines drawn after Michigan lost a seat in Congress.
“I would like to stay,” he said. “I would like to stay and be part of it … but that wasn’t in my hands.”
A Legacy of Bipartisan Problem Solving
Part of Upton’s legacy that will outlast him is the Bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. He’s a founding member.
It’s an unusual congressional club in an intrinsically partisan institution where majority rules. An equal number of Republicans and Democrats. No working to defeat another caucus member of either party – no fundraising or campaigning for that purpose. The rules are conversation, collegiality and weekly meetings to work through sticky issues where win-win results can be tough to find.
“So if you have 50 members of the Problem Solvers Caucus committed to a certain issue where we can work together on what’s likely to be commonsense, bipartisan legislation, guess what? It’s going to pass,” he said.
Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, a Democrat, is also part of the Problem Solvers Caucus. She calls the GOP dean of Michigan’s congressional delegation “my best friend” in Congress.
“The Problem Solvers are Republicans and Democrats who come together, who think people are tired of partisan bickering and there are a lot of problems that need solutions, and we’re both very proud of our membership in Problem Solvers,” she said.
FDA Approval Bills Prove Pivotal During COVID
Upton said he’s most proud of pushing through legislation to clear a swifter path for FDA approval of some drugs. The pharmaceutical industry has a big footprint in his district. Upton said that 2016 legislation was prescient because it saved precious months during the COVID-19 crisis to get Pfizer and Moderna vaccines from laboratories to the factory and from the factory to clinics and vaccination sites.
“It would have happened maybe eight or 10 months later, so we saved literally hundreds of thousands of Americans, millions around the world,” he said.
‘Here to Do His Job’ and Avoid Controversy
Upton’s a policy nerd who’s tried to avoid DC’s more incendiary controversies. That’s not entirely possible in the current environment, but he’s been largely successful. That reticence may have helped in a district that tipped for Donald Trump by 51-47 percent in 2020.
“There are voters for whom screaming and shouting and drama are what motivates them but there are an awful lot of voters who just want you to do your job,” said Charles Ballard, a recently retired Michigan State University professor whose work has focused on the nexus of politics and the economy. “And I think Fred Upton, to his credit, is one of those guys who thought, I’m just here to do a job. And good for him.”
Before serving as an elected member of the House, Upton was a staffer for Michigan Congressman David Stockman until his boss left to become President Ronald Reagan’s budget director.
Upton went on to unseat three-term Congressman Mark Siljander, an often-controversial conservative culture warrior, in the 1986 Republican primary by a solid 55 percent to 45 percent. He was the only primary challenger to unseat a GOP incumbent in that cycle. He was re-elected 13 times.
Upton – who voted to vote to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998 — is one of 10 House Republicans to vote in favor of the second Trump articles of impeachment related to the January 6th assault on the US Capitol. He said the GOP’s continued thrall of Trump cost the party seats in the November elections.
“The focus of a number of my colleagues wasn’t really on the economy or on energy prices or the things people really care about,” he said. “They got off on some different issues and, frankly, Donald Trump hurt us as well.”
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
- Photo Credit: United States Congress
Honoring Congressman Upton
- “As the senior Republican in our Michigan delegation, Fred has been a strong partner in working together on important issues for our state – from the protection of our Great Lakes to strengthening Michigan’s military installations. I wish him the best as he retires and know he looks forward to spending more time with his family and grandkids.” Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan)
- “Fred is one of my best friends, and I will miss him very much. More importantly, it’s a loss for Michigan.” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI 12)
- “It’s the end of an era. In all his public service, Fred has brought practical, effective, and cost-conscious solutions to the table and has done it with the utmost professionalism, civility, and in a bipartisan spirit. He’s been willing to stand against party orthodoxy when core American and Michigan values were at stake. Fred’s model of public service is getting far too rare.” Sandy Baruah, President and Chief Executive Officer, Detroit Regional Chamber
- “Fred Upton is one of the most decent human beings that you should all have the pleasure of knowing. Congressman Upton tried to find common ground between the two parties because he is not a partisan, but a practical, logical and thoughtful Congressman. Unfortunately, as Fred retires, we have fewer members of Congress who are willing to work together and put our nation and Michigan first!” Former Rep. Bart Stupak, (R-MI 1)