Americans aren’t happy with the job Congress has done. In October, the approval rating of senators and representatives fell to 9 percent in a CBS/New York Times poll — a historic low since the poll began asking the question in 1977. While Michigan’s Congressional delegation holds sway over issues like tax policy, national defense, agriculture, energy, and intelligence, it faces one painful reality: A deeply divided, partisan government that shows little signs of compromising on the toughest issues.
Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress for two years. While Republicans retook control of the U.S. House after the November 2010 midterm elections, Democrats held on to their majority in the U.S. Senate. Both houses of Congress — and members from each side — routinely point fingers at one another to explain why little was done in 2011. To make matters worse, both houses spent days, or sometimes weeks, debating bills that stood little or no chance of passage.
Brinksmanship has prevailed. The White House and Congress went to the 11th hour before approving a budget and extending the debt limit. On other fronts, Democrats and Republicans failed to reach a deal on a five-year highway-funding bill that was supposed to be done in 2010, or to approve a $60-billion bill to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system (the bill is languishing because President Obama wants it to include language that would unionize airport security personnel). Republicans in the House complain they’ve passed more than 20 bills that would create jobs, but the bills have gone nowhere in the Senate.
Out on the campaign trail, Democrats and Republicans increasingly are trying to appeal to the extremes of both parties, leaving fewer and fewer moderates. Charles Ballard, a professor of economics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, says Congress is growing even more divided. “The frustration of Americans is very justified. The extremes of the political spectrum are seriously overrepresented in Congress,” Ballard says. “The middle grumbles and says, ‘Why can’t you get anything done?’ But the extremes on both ends say, ‘If you don’t give me what I want, I will really wreak havoc.’ ”
Michigan’s slate includes two Senate Democrats, while the House is split 9-6 in favor of Republicans. In total, the state’s delegation has more than 250 years of service in Congress.
In the Senate, Carl Levin, D-Detroit, is the seventh most senior member, and chairs the powerful Armed Services Committee, which oversees military policies and approves the Pentagon budget. He also is chairman of the Permanent Select Subcommittee on Investigations, where he’s spearheaded a two-year investigation into the 2008 financial crisis, finally releasing a 635-page bipartisan report: “Wall Street and the Financial Crisis: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse.” He also held high-profile hearings with Wall Street CEOs. Apart from these public appearances, Levin has written 21 bills over the 39 years he has been in office.
Michigan’s junior senator, Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, is chair of the Agriculture Committee and has been working on a new farm subsidy bill for months. Since taking office in the House in 1997, and in the Senate in 2001, she has enacted four bills. She is up for re-election in November and will face former House colleague Pete Hoekstra, who was previously chair of the House Intelligence Committee, or Clark Durant, a charter school executive and financial expert.
“It’s frustrating, but we gradually get some things done and overcome it the best way we can,” Levin says. “Either Democrats get a larger majority or we find a way to change the rules (that allow just 41 senators to block nearly all legislation from going forward.)”
Levin touts the efforts of the Michigan delegation in late 2008 to rally support for loans to rescue General Motors and Chrysler. Ultimately, Congress failed to act and President George W. Bush agreed to spend $25 billion to save GM, Chrysler, and the companies’ finance arms. The Michigan delegation often meets jointly with the CEOs of the Big Three or Gov. Rick Snyder, and looks for issues to work together on — generally the Great Lakes and matters of importance to state businesses.
In July 2010, Michigan’s entire delegation sent a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu urging him to approve loans from the $25 billion Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program for GM and Chrysler. “For America’s auto industry to continue its global leadership into the 21st century, we must foster the American manufacture of fuel-efficient vehicles for the mass market,” the letter stated. Nothing happened. GM gave up its bid in January 2011, while Chrysler continues to seek $3 billion or more in loans to retool factories.
In July 2011, many members of the delegation sent a letter to President Obama raising concerns about proposed fuel efficiency increases for the 2017-2025 model years that they worried could hurt the Big Three. Days after the letter was sent, the Obama administration hiked the requirements to 54.2 mpg by 2025 — but granted automakers a “midterm” review in 2021 to ensure the final mandates are feasible.
In the House, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Midland, is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which deals with tax and trade policy. The top Democrat on the panel, and former chairman when the Democrats were in control, is Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has sweeping jurisdiction over business-related legislation. The committee previously featured a large picture of planet Earth, which members joked was the limit of its mandate.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Brighton, a former FBI agent whose brother is a Navy admiral, is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, has served in the House for 46 years and is the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
In a sign of Michigan’s importance, Camp and Upton were named to the “Super Committee” — the 12-member joint House-Senate bipartisan committee charged in August with reaching a deal to cut $1.2 trillion from the deficit over 10 years. In late November, the committee announced it had failed to reach any deal, despite hundreds of hours of meetings. “Disappointment does not begin to describe how I feel,” Upton says. “We could not find enough common ground to get it done.”
For his part, Camp worked to reform the tax code to boost job growth, adding he didn’t agree to $1 trillion in new taxes sought by Democrats as part of the proposed deficit reduction, “which would particularly hurt the ability of businesses to invest and grow our economy and ultimately create jobs,” he says.
Members of both parties did come together in November to pass legislation to aid thousands of unemployed veterans by creating a three-year training program for up to 100,000 people. The measure also repealed the 3 percent withholding requirement on certain payments made to contractors doing business with federal, state, and local governments.
“Our nation owes a great debt to those who, through their service in uniform, have sacrificed greatly to keep our nation free. With the draw-down of our forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, many are now returning home in search of jobs and opportunities,” says Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, who chairs the Homeland Security subcommittee Border and Maritime Security.
It was one part of the president’s $447 billion jobs proposal, which has little chance of passing. “Both of these provisions represent a starting point to find common ground on new job creation,” Miller says. “We may disagree on certain approaches to build up our nation’s economy, but these are some measures we can certainly agree on.”
Things in Congress often move slowly, and getting major pieces of legislation through can take years. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, spent nearly nine years pushing through the reauthorization of the Clean Air Act — it finally passed in 1990 — as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. And Congress dawdled for more than a decade before it finally agreed to hike fuel efficiency standards on cars in late 2007.
“I am very, very frustrated,” says Dingell, who has shepherded through numerous bills over the last half century. “We have a lot of people who came (to Washington) to rule the world, and who are not capable of understanding that this place can be made to work if people are willing to compromise. Compromise is how and why they set this place up.”
Members on both sides of the aisle say they are deeply frustrated. “We have real issues that impact real families that we have to address,” Rogers says. “The Democrats have made a political calculus that if it doesn’t pass, they win. I don’t understand that. I’ve got families (in my district) that can’t pay their mortgage. … The (Democrats) think that it’s better to watch the country sink than it is to actually work things out.”
Dingell notes that since the 112th Congress began last January, just 54 bills have been signed into law. By comparison, in the 111th Congress — which ran from January 2009 through December 2010 — 383 bills were signed into law. Back during the 104th Congress, with a Democratic president and a Republican-controlled Congress, 333 bills were signed into law. Dingell calls the current record “atrocious.”
“The House continues to focus on legislation so extreme that there is no chance it will pass the Senate, let alone be signed into law by the president,” he says. “The Senate does little. Meanwhile, the major issues we could be working on for the American people keep piling up. I’m a true believer in America and our system of government, so I’m not willing to say Congress is broken. I am, however, ready to say that we need some repair work.”
Dingell filled his late father’s seat and had previously served as a congressional page — one of the dozens of young people who deliver messages and perform other clerical duties in the House. In a sign of the times, last August House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi agreed to scrap the House Page program, ending the 184-year-old system and saving $5 million annually. In another sign of disagreement, the Senate opted to continue its page program unchanged.
Michigan members still do many of the things their predecessors have done. They lobby the Obama administration on behalf of projects seeking funds, like the state’s planned high-speed rail line from Detroit to Chicago and a regional transportation plan for metro Detroit, including a rapid-transit bus system. They also spend time addressing constituent services — also known as “case work” — where they help veterans get benefits or help senior citizens navigate the Social Security system. They return to Michigan to speak at endless dinners, march in parades, appear at dedications of new factories and buildings, and participate in other community events.
Dingell notes members of Congress don’t socialize with each other as much as they used to. Today, after the last vote on Thursdays or Fridays, most House members head to their home districts to campaign. In turn, many members don’t move their families to Washington anymore. Some rent rooms, while others, including Rep. Hansen Clarke, a freshman Democrat from Detroit, sleeps on an office couch during the week. What members do spend lots of time doing is endlessly raising money for re-election. In 2010, the average cost of winning a Senate seat was $8.3 million, while the cost of campaigning for a House seat was $1.1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Starting next year Michigan’s congressional delegation will shrink, as the state was the only one to lose population in the 2010 census. As a result, Rep. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Hills, and Clarke are running against one another in the newly configured 14th congressional district.
Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, who lost his seat in 2008 but won it back in 2010, says political gridlock has never been worse. “Whether you agree with us or not, we are sending out solutions and plans and the Senate is sending nothing back,” he says. “The Senate is the department of constipation. We keep feeding them and nothing comes out.”
After losing his seat, Walberg says he has a different perspective than other members. “Maybe it is because I lost. I had a death experience and came back to life,” he says. “I can take it a little better. What I’m responsible for, I need to be responsible and accountable for. What I can’t control, I can’t control. I am going to keep working. I’m not going to be part of the problem.”
Peters, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, says the Michigan delegation helped beat back efforts to cut 20 percent in funding for the $25 billion auto retooling loan program. They also helped Ford Motor Co. and other industrial companies win the right to continue to hedge financial risks as part of a compromise on the federal financial overhaul bill (Dodd-Frank). One contentious issue was whether Ford, John Deere, and others would be able to use financial instruments known as derivatives to hedge risks. Derivatives are financial instruments whose values are determined by the future price of a commodity or other financial entity.
“They aren’t speculating,” Peters says. “They are not part of the casino-type atmosphere that we saw on Wall Street. What they are doing is legitimately hedging business risk. They don’t try to make profits on crazy derivative synthetic strategies.”
In October, the Senate approved a bill to crack down on Chinese efforts to lower the value of its currency, a bill Stabenow has been pushing for five years. She and Levin argue that the Chinese currency policy amounts to improper manipulation that makes it cheaper to produce goods in China. They say it has cost tens of thousands of jobs in Michigan.
But the House shows no signs of taking up the bill.
As the primary season heats up, even pundits are left to wonder what American voters will do come Nov. 6, Election Day. Most agree the 112th Congress and the White House don’t have much to show in terms of progress. Whether that translates into a wholesale change in Washington remains to be seen, but all bets are off for a rerun. db