Opinion
12:40 pm
Thu December 9, 2010

Commentary: Michigan Power

Who are Michigan’s most powerful people in Washington? For decades, the same names have come to mind. First, Dearborn’s John Dingell, the longest-serving congressman in history.

For many years, Dingell was either the chair, or ranking Democrat, of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.  Then come the Levins. Younger brother Carl is chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Older brother Sandy this year became the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Then there is John Conyers, who has chaired the House Judiciary Committee for the last four years. These men are icons. 

But they are aging icons, and when the Republicans take over  the House next month, Conyers, Dingell and Sandy Levin will lose power and status, because they will be in the minority.

But Michigan will have two newly powerful representatives in key positions, men who are far less well known statewide -- but whom we ought to get to know better.

They are Congressman Dave Camp of Midland, who is about to replace Sandy Levin as chair of Ways and Means, and his fellow Republican Fred Upton, who will chair the Energy and Technology Committee. They are different from the leaders we’re used to in a number of ways. They are Republicans, of course.

And they’re from outstate Michigan, rather than the Detroit area. Upton’s from St. Joseph in the southwest corner; Camp from Midland, whose district sprawls across the middle of the lower peninsula. Both men are far more conservative than the Levins and Dingells, though Upton has had problems with fellow Republicans who have worried that he isn’t conservative enough.

And they are much younger. Both Camp and Upton are fifty-seven. If that doesn’t exactly sound like a youth movement, consider that they are easily young enough to be Dingell, Conyers or Dale Kildee’s sons.

Put another way, Camp and Upton might easily still be in Congress fifteen years from now. The Democratic leaders we’ve grown up with aren’t going to be.

Dave Camp, the new head of Energy, has been more of a workhorse than a show horse since arriving in Washington twenty years ago. He’s a social conservative, but has also worked hard to make it easier to adopt children from other nations, and has a reputation for helping put together compromises behind the scenes.

He also pushed though a bill to protect Michigan’s lighthouses. Fred Upton, like his district, isn’t quite as conservative as Camp; he has been a supporter of embryonic stem cell research, for example. He also has been a moderate on issues like climate change and has favored limiting automatic weapons.

But he may owe his energy chairmanship to this year’s oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The man who would have been chair, Joe Barton, shot himself in the foot by bizarrely apologizing to British Petroleum because they were being criticized over the oil spill.

The Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks don’t like Upton, but he doesn’t seem troubled by that. It may be a while before we know much about what either man may be able to do for Michigan or the nation. But we do know this: They are going to be worth watching in the months and years ahead.