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Once mighty Michigan Congressional delegation looks to rebuild influence in D.C.

We used to be a pretty big deal in Congress but, now, Michigan’s House delegation is in a re-building season.

A new session of Congress has been sworn in in D.C. and for the first time in generations none of our Michigan Representatives are committee chairs.

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For many, many years, Michigan had outsized clout in Congress even as the state’s population and delegation downsized over the decades.

There was now-retired Democrat John Dingell. He was the longest serving Congressman in history (in office for 11 presidencies).

In the 80s and 90s, as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell was widely considered to be Washington’s third-most powerful politician, behind only the president and the speaker of the House. He famously used the position as chair to the benefit of manufacturing, the auto industry, conservation causes, and Democratic protégés.

Michigan Republican Fred Upton later became chair of Energy and Commerce after Republicans took control of the House, and continued to protect Michigan interests. As did now retired Republican Dave Camp, who chaired the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

Michigan members once chaired a multitude of top-tier committees but their ranks are cleared now by retirements and recent limitations on how long members can serve as committee chairs.

It’s unlikely Michigan’s delegation will see the kind of power it once did anytime soon.

But the state’s delegation is not without a rebuilding plan.

Upton still sits on the Republican Steering Committee, a little-publicized group that decides who gets which assignments, and which bills are going to be voted on. (With Republicans controlling Congress, that’s a big deal.)

Upton also just succeeded in getting second-term Michigan Republican Congressman John Moolenaar onto the House Appropriations Committee. “We’ve lost a lot of seniority over the years and we have new members coming in, which is good because we have an opportunity for fresh ideas in Congress, and that’s always a positive thing, but we have lost some senior members of the delegation, and there is term limits on chairmanships, and, as a result, were in a rebuilding process for Michigan,” Moolenaar told It’s Just Politics.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee has also been deftly playing the influence game. He’s on the Democratic steering committee, and has landed himself on the House Financial Services Committee.  

Financial Services is one of the so-called “A-List” - committees that are so powerful members cannot serve on another committee without special permission from House leaders.

Those committees, by the way, are also some of the best positions to fundraise from. The donations practically come to you. And, like it or not, fundraising clout in D.C. matters.  

Meantime, we’ll see if Kildee decides to pursue seniority in the House or a run for governor of Michigan in 2018.

Now, Michigan certainly isn’t bereft when it comes to seniority. In fact, Detroit Democrat John Conyers is Dean of the House. Conyers and fellow Democratic-veteran Sandy Levin are influential but, also, in the twilight of their careers.

The focus now turns to Michigan’s up and comers, who have to build reputations and relationships and seniority.

It’s critical to keep Michigan members on those steering committees that make committee assignments in hopes of one day having the Great Lakes State once again brandishing big gavels in the halls of congressional power.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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