Michigan lawmakers fight loss of clout in Congress
Washington — Michigan’s influence in Congress will be further eroded with the loss of longtime Democratic lawmakers, though junior members of the state’s delegation are working to gain clout.
Royal Oak Rep. Sander Levin, 86, said Saturday he won’t run for re-election next year after 36 years in the U.S. House, where he is a senior Democrat on the tax-writing Ways & Means Committee.
And Rep. John Conyers Jr., 88, resigned Tuesday amid allegations of sexual misconduct. During his nearly 53 years in Congress, the Detroit Democrat spent many years atop the influential Judiciary and oversight committees.
Their departures follow the retirements of other senior Michigan lawmakers in the last five years, including Democratic Reps. John Dingell after 59 years in office, Dale Kildee after 36 years and Sen. Carl Levin after 36 years of service.
On the Republican side, Reps. Mike Rogers and Dave Camp retired in 2015 and Candice Miller in 2017 — each of whom wielded powerful committee roles in a GOP-led chamber. Rep. Pete Hoekstra left in 2011 after 18 years.
The delegation will have at least three new faces next session, with the departures of Conyers, Levin and retiring GOP Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, who is leaving after four years in Congress.
Due to the turnover, Michigan soon will have only one member of the U.S. House elected before 2006: GOP Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph, who took office in 1987.
“I look at this as the closing of the final chapter of Michigan’s clout on Capitol Hill in terms of chairmanships, seniority and committee assignments,” said longtime political analyst Bill Ballenger, a former Michigan legislator now running the Ballenger Report.
“I think back to the days when we had as many as 19 representatives. It’s incredible. We’ve gone from 19 as recently as 1982, down to 14. And we’re going to lose another one after the 2020 census. We had these people who were so prominent and in such powerful positions.”
Those powerful voices helped set the agenda in the U.S. Capitol and bring home benefits ranging from funding for Michigan State University’s nuclear science facility to federal bailout cash in 2008-09 for the then-ailing auto industry, among other priorities.
“This matters most when you’ve got the Michigan delegation working together and putting up a united front on issues important to the state,” said David Dulio, who chairs the political science department at Oakland University.
“When you had Levin and Dingell and Conyers and Rogers and Camp, others — those folks would say something, and members of the institution would listen — from both parties.”
Norm Ornstein, a congressional analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said Sander Levin is a particularly big loss, but it’s not as though Michigan is going to be without influence in Washington. He cited Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township.
“You’ve still got some people with significant clout in the delegation, including two senators who are widely respected. It’s tougher in the minority in the Senate, but they are still very much players in a host of areas, as well, including ones that are below the radar like mental health, where Sen. Stabenow worked with Roy Blunt (of Missouri),” Ornstein said.
“The quality of members matters as much as the seniority — or almost as much.”
For example, while Upton recently termed out as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he continues to lead on issues important to the panel as a subcommittee chair, Ornstein said. Upton is also on the GOP steering committee.
And Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, who succeeded his uncle Dale in 2013, has a shot at landing Levin’s seat on Ways & Means, Ornstein added.
GOP Rep. Bill Huizenga of Zeeland is mentioned as a serious contender to succeed Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling as chair of the Financial Services Committee, if Republicans retain control of the House.
Huizenga on Wednesday confirmed he is interested in the post.
“You position yourself and try to figure out how you best serve and that’s what I’m doing. I’m chairing the largest subcommittee on an ‘A’ committee in my fourth term,” Huizenga said in an interview. “That’s been very satisfying. We’ll let the future take care itself.”
Other junior members of the Michigan delegation have clinched plumb committee assignments and are working to gain rank, but it can take years.
Sophomore Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, serves on the powerful Appropriations Committee, while second-term Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, is on Ways and Means. Reps. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, sit on the Commerce Committee.
In the Senate, Stabenow is already the top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee and a senior member of the finance panel.
The state’s junior senator, Peters, serves on Armed Services, Homeland Security and the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation — a key panel for the auto industry.
Political observers are watching whether the Levin and Conyers families will continue to be represented in Congress by other members of the family, as the Dingell and Kildee families have.
Sander Levin’s son, Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township, declared Wednesday he would run for his father’s seat in the House.
Conyers has endorsed his 27-year-old son, John Conyers III, to succeed him, although his great-nephew, state Sen. Ian Conyers of Detroit, has said he’s also interested in the seat.
“Each party looks for the popularity of that name ID and says, for god sakes, if we have somebody in that family who is a plausible successor ... let’s run them,” Ballenger said. “Because they are going to be a tried-and-true partisan and will vote the way we want them to. And they’ll be able to continue on in the tradition of their predecessor.”