Mackinac Island — Michigan's new Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress see increasing cooperation in the delegation and pushing a common agenda as key to maximizing Michigan's might on Capitol Hill — a development that political experts see as significant among the states.
At the Mackinac Policy Conference on Wednesday, new delegation elder statesmen Democrat Debbie Stabenow in the Senate and Republican Fred Upton in the House unveiled a bipartisan Michigan "action plan" centered on protecting the Great Lakes, preserving defense operations around the state, and boosting medical innovation and therapies.
"People in my district, they don't care if you're an R or a D. They want you to get the job done," said Upton, representing southwestern Michigan.
The pair also increased the frequency of meetings of the 16-member delegation to every other month and is organizing a delegation tour of military installations around the state as the Pentagon gears up for another round of proposed base closures.
"Fred and I are really working hard to bring in new members and create a new Michigan team," said Stabenow of Lansing, who took over as senior Democrat when Sen. Carl Levin retired.
"We have five new members in the House, as well as Sen. (Gary) Peters, who is new to the Senate, so Fred and I believe this is a moment to bring everybody together."
Michigan's clout in Washington deflated significantly this year following the retirements of four of its most influential and longest-serving members. They included Levin, who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee; Republican Rep. Dave Camp, who headed the House tax-writing panel; and John Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history.
In an age marked by partisan squabbling and gridlock, an organized effort to work across party lines within a delegation and nurture collegial relationships is unusual and significant, said Dan Diller, former legislative adviser to retired Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana.
An analysis this month by the nonpartisan Lugar Center and Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy found that the past two Congresses have been the most partisan of the last two decades.
"Things like these Michigan meetings – say that caught on in 10 other states. I bet those 10 would have a better record (of success) after a few years than they otherwise would have," said Diller, now policy director for the Lugar Center, which promotes bipartisan governance.
"If that could be exported from Michigan, that could be significant."
The regular meetings will likely cause members to be more civil to one another, less likely to demonize the "other side" and perhaps lead to more legislation crafted to attract bipartisan support, Diller said.
In the short term, getting bills enacted as a delegation would have been easier when Michigan still had Camp, Levin and others around to muscle them through, said Kyle Kondik, who studies congressional politics and edits the weekly Sabato's Crystal Ball newsletter at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
"The opportunities for broader cooperation on certain issues – it's harder for the Congress to do that, in part because it's the country that is more polarized that way," Kondik said.
Generating 'full clout'
The state's five freshmen in the House, who stressed bipartisanship during campaign season, made early efforts to push for regular meetings of the Michigan delegation.
"There wasn't a bipartisan delegation meeting for a long time, and the freshmen came in said we wanted to do it," said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who succeeded her husband, John Dingell, in Congress. "We know we have to work together for Michigan."
The quarterly meetings review issues and bills that members are working on and how others in the delegation could use their committee assignments and positions "to bring the full clout of Michigan to the table when it matters," Stabenow said.
The delegation gathered less frequently — typically once or twice a year — in previous sessions of Congress. But it was during a time of long-established relationships between members and their staffs.
"Now, the idea is not to leave the development of those relationships to chance," said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, who is in his second term.
"A lot of the bigger policy questions, it's difficult to find common ground. But when it comes to something that's specific to our territory, or our land or our people – whether it's the auto sector or agriculture or the Great Lakes – we just find we're on the same page."
Kildee said he recently approached Republican members in other Great Lakes states recruiting support for his resolution opposing the storage of nuclear waste in Ontario, less than a mile from Lake Huron.
"It's been easier to get members from other states, like Sean Duffy in Wisconsin, when they know it's not an issue dividing the Michigan delegation," Kildee said.
Ten Democrats and nine Republicans, including five from Michigan, signed onto Kildee's resolution.
Finding common ground
Freshman Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, was immensely helpful in the new members' transition.
"She and I have been talking and keeping in touch," said Lawrence, who co-sponsored a Miller bill that would authorize the use of road funding for technology to improve highway safety.
"There's issues that we differ on (as as delegation), but issues that are important to us as a state, so we talk and find common ground."
The five freshmen this month sent a joint letter to trade officials urging the inclusion of enforceable provisions to prevent currency manipulation in the Asian trade deal under negotiation.
A majority of the delegation got behind an effort to extend cleanup funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and backed legislation sponsored by Stabenow and Miller to stop Asian carp and other invasive species from entering the lakes.
Stabenow and Peters on Tuesday introduced a bill to ban the sale of synthetic plastic microbeads used in facial cleansers — a companion to a House bill sponsored by Upton. Microbeads have shown up in high concentrations in the Great Lakes.
Rep. Dan Benishek is working to take the delegation and other members of Congress to tour the maritime locks in Sault Ste. Marie to draw attention to the need for a new $500 million lock.
Building a new Soo Lock should be a priority for the flow of freighters carrying grain, iron ore and other raw materials to national and international markets, he said.
Benishek, a Crystal Falls Republican, said some colleagues are unaware that upper Great Lakes shipping would grind to a halt if the lock were "sabotaged" or breaks unexpectedly.
On military operations, the delegation is lobbying the Pentagon to locate a $3 billion missile defense site at Fort Custer in Battle Creek and a cyber operations squadron at the Battle Creek Air National Guard Base.
Members also pressed budget negotiators in Congress this month to preserve funding for the A-10 attack plane fleet that supports hundreds of jobs at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Macomb County.
"The A-10s saved our butts in Iraq," Upton said. "There's no way we should disband that group. ... Together, our group in a bipartisan way is supporting the A-10s."
Language in the House-passed defense spending bill and a marked-up version in the Senate would prohibit retiring any A-10 aircraft in 2016. "That's one win already," Stabenow said.
She and Upton also have overlapping interest in boosting funding for medical research for orphan diseases such as Alzheimer's. A major Upton-sponsored bill headed to the House floor would streamline clinical trials as well as provide incentives for companies to research and repurpose drugs approved to treat rare diseases.
"I certainly expect to be working on something similar in the Senate," Stabenow said.