It’s shaping up to be a pretty rough week for Michigan. But the blows to its biggest business and its college basketball teams may be only a foretaste of something more consequentially harmful and longer lasting.
The state’s sway at the Capitol is getting ready for a big fall.
Monday’s retirement announcement by Dave Camp, the second-most senior Republican from the state and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, added a siren to the warning signs about diminished influence.
For the past quarter-century, the Roll Call Clout Index has gauged the relative strength of every state’s delegation at the start of each Congress. Michigan has remained the eighth most populous state since 1990, but its team of lawmakers has finished as high as fourth in influence several times — and never lower than the current ranking of seventh.
Michigan’s ability to remain anywhere in the Top 10 next year is now seriously imperiled. The size of the delegation (14 House members plus the pair of senators) is not going to shrink again this decade, but downward arrows are blinking red next to all the other quantifiable factors: collective longevity and positioning for power, and influence in leadership and the committee system.
Our weighted formula, of course, cannot account for all the subjective variables that affect each lawmaker’s influence. Nor can the Clout Index fully predict how well each state’s members will do pressing the parochial case at the Capitol — whether that means advocating for budget priorities that provide a payoff despite the restrictions on old-fashioned earmarks, or sticking up for the industries that deliver the most economic benefit back home.
The generational turnover in the Michigan delegation that’s accelerating this year is sure to have a visible impact for years to come.
The stress on the state’s clout will come into view Tuesday. The new CEO of the largest company in Michigan, Mary Barra of General Motors, will face intense bipartisan questioning as the House Energy and Commerce Committee opens an inquiry into the company’s handling of a defective ignition switch that’s been linked to 13 deaths.
While it’s true that the panel chairman, Republican Fred Upton, is a Michigander, his record and his statements in the run-up to the hearing suggest he’ll be at least as critical of GM’s conduct as he is of the federal automotive safety regulators. And, either way, come January he’ll be the only one remaining of the three Michigan lawmakers now on the committee, which has almost all legislative jurisdiction over the auto industry. Retiring are Democrat John D. Dingell, the former chairman who’s probably the most influential friend of the car makers in congressional history, and Republican Mike Rogers, who has risen to ninth in Republican seniority on the panel while also chairing the Select Intelligence Committee.
The state’s current stroke will get a little symbolic nod Wednesday afternoon, when President Barack Obama will launch his long-shot push for legislation increasing the minimum wage in a gymnasium at the University of Michigan. (The two-hour visit to Ann Arbor will at least give students something to cheer about after their school, along with Michigan State, came up short Sunday instead of advancing to the NCAA Final Four.)
GM will be on the hot seat again that day in the Senate Commerce Committee, which has no member from Michigan. But that hearing will nonetheless offer a reminder that the person with the most oversight power in the Senate is from the state, and is also retiring. That’s Democrat Carl Levin, who for the past six years has chaired the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, an independent fiefdom, in addition to wielding the Armed Services gavel.
Beyond that, for the past four years Michigan has been the largest state in the country without representation on either of the Appropriations committees — a fact that helps explain why government spending per capita is less there than in all but a handful of states.
All told, according to the Roll Call Casualty List, the delegation will lose at least 139 years of experience in December.
Now in his 36th year, Levin is the fourth most senior current senator. And the four who have now committed to vacating their House seats will have been around for a combined 79 years. Dingell is the longest-serving member ever, having been first elected at the end of 1955. Rogers surprised almost everyone last week with his decision to become a radio talk show host in 2015 rather than start an eighth term. Camp magnified the shock with his decision to leave after a dozen terms, even though GOP term limits had already assured he’d have to relinquish his Ways and Means gavel at year’s end. (More on that fight here.)
And Democrat Gary Peters is now a Senate candidate, giving up six years of seniority in the House in hopes of starting at the bottom of the ladder across the rotunda.
Now Michigan is only assured of two full committee gavels in the 114th Congress: Upton’s at Energy and Commerce and Candice S. Miller’s at House Administration, a panel with essentially no power to deliver benefits away from the Hill.
Debbie Stabenow will be demoted from chairwoman to ranking member at Senate Agriculture if the Democrats are not able to hold their endangered majority.
And, with the GOP a lock to control the House again next year, the most senior Michiganders remaining will continue to see their clout limited by their membership in the minority. Sander M. Levin is likely to have the top Democratic seat again at Ways and Means, and John Conyers Jr. will be ranking member at Judiciary.
Those two have nearly 82 years in office between them, an aggregation of seniority that a handful of entire delegations cannot match. But, in the main, the Michigan crew is rapidly trending younger. At least nine of its 16 members at the start of the 114th Congress will have been in their offices less than five years.
And no matter how many headlines get grabbed by such relative newcomers as the outspoken libertarian Republican Justin Amash, or how easily Debbie Dingell leverages her own status as a veteran Beltway Democratic insider after succeeding her husband, the system will still give significant advantage to states with more formalized clout.