By Russell Berman - 04/05/14 11:10 AM EDT
Michigan's unlikely dominance in congressional clout is about to take a hit.
Though the state is the country's ninth-largest by population, it is tops along with California with six committee chairmen – four Republicans in the House and two Democrats in the Senate. And the two longest-serving members of the House, Reps. John Dingell (D) and John Conyers (D), hail from Michigan and carry more than a century of congressional seniority between them.
“It’s a loss. There’s no way to sugarcoat it,” said Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), who as chairwoman of the House Administration Committee will rise inside the delegation. “It certainly is a loss when you lose that kind of seniority, institutional knowledge, the understanding of this place and the ability to get things done.”
That Michigan had been able to amass as much power – at least at the committee level – as much larger delegations like California, New York and Texas, is remarkable even to the state’s lawmakers.
“It’s the great air and water that we have in Michigan,” joked Rep. Bill Huizenga (R). “We’re just superior.”
The more serious, and simpler, explanation is longevity. While more junior lawmakers can win bids to the elected leadership, committees still run largely on the seniority system, even in the GOP where party-imposed term limits allow members to climb up the ranks a bit faster.
“We elect good people, and we keep re-electing them,” explained Dingell, the 59-year House veteran who held sway over the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee for a total of 16 years before Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) ousted him in 2008.
When Huizenga first arrived in Congress in 2011, Dingell invited him to a dinner at the home of Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), then the new chairman of the Energy Committee. He was seated between Dingell and then-Rep. Dale Kildee, a Democrat who had represented Flint and Saganaw since 1977 before retiring last cycle.
“There was like 100 years of seniority sitting next to me,” Huizenga recalled.
While Dingell and Levin are leaving after having served together for nearly 35 years, the retirement decisions of Camp, who heads the Ways and Means Committee, and Rogers, the Intelligence Committee chief, came as a surprise to Republicans in Michigan.
Camp, first elected in 1990, is finishing his final term as Ways and Means chairman, while Rogers, who arrived in 2001, could have served another two years as intel chairman under the Republican three-term limit.
Levin was first elected in 1978 and heads the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But there was never any grand plan to take control of so many congressional committees, Rogers said.
“Some of it is luck and timing,” he said. “There was no backroom with cigars and martinis where we all said, ‘Let’s become powerful committee chairmen.’”
While the Michigan Republicans meet on a regular basis, the full delegation only meets when needed, members said.
The state’s unifying force has always been the auto industry, a bedrock of both the state and national economy. When Congress and the Obama administration were considering a bailout for the automakers, the delegation met nearly every week.
“When it came to the auto industry, there was a perfect example of the entire Michigan delegation – Republicans, Democrats – all working together for the home team,” Miller said.
All the state’s congressional members last gathered to meet Mary Barra, the new head of General Motors who has come under fire for the company’s delayed response to a faulty ignition switch linked to the deaths of 13 people.
And with the industry back in the spotlight, the absence of its long-time champion, Dingell, may be felt more keenly, Conyers said.
“I have to involve myself in issues I might not have gotten involved in when I was just behind John Dingell, the dean,” he said. In addition to the automakers, Conyers said he would play a bigger role in antitrust law and intellectual property issues.
Lawmakers and party officials said they were confident Michigan would not lose influence in the next Congress. Darren Littell, a spokesman for the state Republican Party, said Camp and Rogers “are both savvy leaders, and they saw an opportunity to pass the torch.”
While surprised at their retirements, Republicans were heartened that they decided to leave in 2014, a midterm election in which the party has a better chance of holding their seats heading into 2016, a year that may be more favorable for Democrats.
And despite the five retirements, Michigan is not losing all of its seniority, or familiar faces. Miller and Upton are expected to hold onto their gavels, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow will remain atop the Agriculture Committee if Democrats retain control of the Senate.
Levin’s brother, Sander, is sticking around as the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. And Dingell’s wife, Debbie -- a top powerbroker in the state in her own right -- is running to replace him.
And who would become the next dean of the House as its most senior member?
That’s Conyers, the 84-year-old former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who is now serving his 50th year in the House.
“I don’t think I’ll be lonely at all,” he said with a smile.