Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 3, 2013

George Weeks: Michigan's high-profile players on Capitol Hill


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---- — As Chairman Carl Levin presided last week over the contentious Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on confirmation of ex-Sen. Chuck Hagel to be the next U.S. Defense Secretary, I was struck by how much Michigan's congressional delegation is now on the front lines of major foreign and domestic issues facing the nation.

The much-traveled Levin, Michigan's longest-serving senator (elected 1978), has long been at the forefront of such high-viability issues as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as championing such domestic issues as those involving the auto industry.

One day in 2000, while traveling with Sen. John McCain of Arizona as he campaigned in Michigan for the Republican presidential nomination, he told me that if elected he would consider Democrat Levin as his Defense Secretary.

Michigan's junior Sen. Debbie Stabenow (elected 2000) was in the No. 3 position in Senate Democratic leadership late in her first term; she now chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee that is important to Michigan's economy, and works well with Republicans on farm and a number of other issues.

Another current Michigan high-profile lawmaker in Capitol Hill leadership (and one allied with Stabenow on some Great Lakes issues) is 12-term Rep. Dave Camp, R-Midland, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He's a key player in Washington's efforts to get the nation's fiscal house in order.

The ranking Democrat on Camp's committee is 16-term Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, (who narrowly lost in 1970 and 1974 to Republican Gov. William G. Milliken but developed a friendship with him).Sander Levin, older brother of Carl, is an articulate Democratic spokesman not only on national issues but also weighs in on occasion on state issues — most recently opposing Michigan becoming a right-to-work state.

Over the decades, Michigan has had no more powerful presence in the House than 29-term Rep. John Dingell. D-Dearborn, dean of the House elected in 1955 who in 2009 became longest-serving U.S. representative in history. He replaced his father, John Dingell, Sr., who served 1932-55 and died September 1955.

(As noted by the Almanac of American Politics, in combined and Senate years, the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D, West Virginia holds the record for total congressional service, which Dingell will beat if he serves until July of this year.)

Much of Dingell's power came as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, but now that Republicans control the House, the power as chairman on current front burner energy issues is now with 14-term Rep. Fred Upton, R, St. Joseph, who in recent elections survived conservative attempts to dump him.

Another longtime Michigan congressman is 25-term John Conyers, D-Detroit, (once an aide to Dingell and now second to Dingell as the most senior member of the House) chaired the House Judiciary Committee under Democratic rule but now is ranking Democrat on the committee and a fading factor in House power ranking.

A rising factor in power ranking, if national media attention on current front burner issues is any indication, is seven-term Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Brighton, a former state Senate majority floor leader who as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee is oft-quoted by the media on breaking world news.

In the 20th century, Michigan had such headliners on Capitol Hill as 1928-51 Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, world-renowned for his conversion from isolationism to internationalism and role in creating the United Nations, and 1959-76 Democratic Sen. Philip Hart, whose traits of civility, integrity and fair-mindedness earned him the reputation as "The Conscience of the Senate."

The Senate put Vandenberg's portrait in what essentially is its Hall of Fame gallery and named one of three office buildings after Hart.

While early in the 21st century, no member of the Michigan congressional delegation is poised for such honors, there are some who are playing valuable roles that admirably serve the nation beyond Michigan.

Campaign 2014 stirrings

Thanks to recent developments, media speculation abounds about Michigan's 2014 election, starting with the gubernatorial race. Gov. Rick Snyder signaled he's likely to seek a second term, and Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, widely viewed as a credible Democratic challenger, ruled it out in favor of concentrating on being a mom. One well-credentialed Democratic prospect is third-term U.S. Rep. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township, a former state senator and lottery commissioner.

Statewide, there also will be three slots on the Michigan Supreme Court, including that of whomever Snyder soon appoints to fill out the term of Democrat-nominated Justice Diane Hathaway, who quit the court after allegations of bank fraud.

Up North, the Insider Michigan Politics (IMP) newsletter predicts three "toss-up" legislative races — based on dynamics of the districts, not on head-to-head matchups yet to be known. One is the seat of Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, who represents all of the Upper Peninsula except three eastern counties.

Below the bridge, IPM cites as toss-up the House seats of Republicans Ray Franz of Onekama and Bruce Rendon of Lake City.