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Rebuilding Clout

Page 68-69

By Rick Pluta

The state’s congressionals look to rebuild influence after the retirement of four heavy hitters.

Michigan will see a deep reservoir of congressional seniority and experience evaporate come January with a raft of retirements. Rep. John Dingell’s six-decade tenure by itself represents the loss of several congressional careers. But also, the pending retirements of the venerable Sen. Carl Levin, along with Rep. Dave Camp and Rep. Mike Rogers combined, mean the loss of more than a century’s worth of on-the-job training and the perks, privileges, and influence that come with seniority.

“‘Compromise’ is an honorable word,” Dingell said in February as he announced his pending retirement at a business lunch in Southgate. “As are ‘cooperation,’ ‘conciliation,’ ‘coordination’ and similar words. And let us remember that our Founding Fathers intended that these words are the way business should be conducted.”

And Michigan’s clout-heavy congressional delegation has shown it knows how to conduct business – leveraging its knowledge, committee chairmanships and good old-fashioned seniority on behalf of the state’s manufacturing sector, agriculture, tourism, universities, Great Lakes and local governments.

“The whole rescue of the auto industry wouldn’t have happened without the bipartisan leaders of our delegation,” said Rep. Fred Upton, the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Dingell is the ranking Democrat (and former chairman) of the committee.

Michigan ranks seventh overall in Roll Call’s Congressional Clout Index. The Roll Call index takes into account the size of each state’s delegation (which is why it’s no surprise that California is No. 1), its committee chairs and ranking minority members, and per-capita federal spending. Since Michigan is the eighth largest state, its measurable influence – to the degree that can be measured – is about equal to its size. Federal spending per-capita in Michigan is roughly $60,000, just slightly more than what the state sends to Washington.

Michigan also holds six committee chairs in the House and Senate. Three of those gavels will be handed off, though, with the departures of Levin, a Democrat who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee; Camp, a Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee; and Rogers, also a Republican, who’s in charge of the House Intelligence Committee. None of those are likely to go to a member from Michigan.

“There is no doubt that when you take a look at what Michigan is losing – Wow!” former Rep. Pete Hoekstra said. “The big thing about those three is they have a proven record of being legislators in the purest sense of the word. They all come at it with a partisan bent, but you could deal with these guys. They weren’t shrill partisans. They were legislators.”

And Michigan will need effective legislators to back up projects that are already underway and deal with issues looming on the horizon. The New International Trade Crossing may be ready to go, but Washington is dragging its heels on funding the critical customs plaza.

The law that required the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to accelerate its assessment of the threat to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway posed by Asian carp and other invasive species might never had passed if it had not been jointly sponsored by the super-influential duo of Rep. Dave Camp and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. But there’s still no deal in sight on any plan that would create a physical barrier in metro Chicago between the Mississippi River system and Lake Michigan.

Don’t forget, either, the annual exercise in wielding raw congressional power that is the competition for federal transportation funding. That’s not just about dealing with Michigan’s pothole crisis. The elusive dream of a regional public transit system for Southeast Michigan is getting a reboot with the downtown Detroit M-1 Rail project. And what’s the future of the Selfridge Air Force Base once Sen. Carl Levin is no longer holding the gavel of the Senate Armed Services Committee?

It’s pretty easy to see why Michigan’s delegation has worked the influence game well. And, guess what? It isn’t all about the seniority.

Seniority still matters, certainly, as does the experience that comes with it. But Rep. Hoekstra, and later Rep. Mike Rogers, both vaulted the seniority system to chair significant subcommittees, and eventually the House Intelligence Committee – a highly sensitive job that comes with a security clearance.

“Michigan has a tradition of having solid legislators who are effective, working across the aisle and getting things done,” said Hoekstra, who is now a consultant on education and national security issues. “The formula moving forward is to elect the same kind of people.”

Hoekstra and others say Michigan voters will have to make some choices if they want to preserve and build on the state’s influence in Washington. Here are some common themes:

  • It’s good for a lawmaker to have strong values, but it’s also important that a member of Congress knows how to play the Washington game and legislate – that ideologues and showboats actually rob the state of influence.
  • It helps to have rank and seniority on both sides of the aisle to maintain connections no matter which party controls the House, the Senate, and the White House.
  • Michigan has some built-in importance with its big manufacturing base, proximity to the world’s largest supply of freshwater, and the shared border with Canada – so use it.
  • Always be building the bench. Identify politicians with some star power, ambition and a willingness to stick with the job for a long time.

“It’s just incumbent on all of us who are involved to push for a strong Michigan presence in the most relevant spots where we can get our members placed,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, who was just named this year to the House Budget Committee. “You can’t replace committee chairs and the dean of the House with freshman members, but we have to do what we have to do.”

That will be a little more difficult in the House, where those decisions are made by a steering committee of Republican leaders. Rep. Camp and Rep. Rogers both serve on that committee. Their departure means Michigan has fewer voices influencing committee assignments. But Rep. Upton also serves on the committee, and he says that’s already on his radar.

“Frankly, one of the weaknesses our delegation has is we have nobody on appropriations,” said Upton, referring to the fact that Michigan historically has had at least one member on the powerful committee that makes spending decisions.

Upton said he’s already gone to work planning how get a Republican freshman from Michigan named to the committee.

“We need to work to get a Michigan member on appropriations, hopefully on both sides of the aisle,” he said. The questions surrounding the political future of the venerable Rep. John Conyers (D) could be an entire examination unto itself. With Dingell’s retirement, Conyers (who served five decades in Congress) is in line to become the Dean of the House. But his future is clouded by questions about whether he has enough valid petition signatures to qualify for the August primary ballot. At press time, legal and administrative challenges were still underway.

Rick Pluta is managing editor for the Michigan Public Radio Network