When Sen. Carl Levin (D–Mich.) and Rep. John Dingell (D–Mich.) step aside from their congressional positions early next year, there may be more to forfeit than personal legislative clout.
With almost a century of combined experience on Capitol Hill, Dingell and Levin’s retirements could also signal a period of waning Washington influence for Michigan. With federal research dollars and other policy initiatives on the line, their retirements have an equally significant effect on the University.
Aaron Kall, director of the University’s debate team and expert on election politics, said the departures would have a lasting impact.
“Any time you have such long-serving members of Congress retire, it’s inevitable there would be some decline in influence,” he said.
However, clout is difficult to measure, as connections with political leaders are difficult to replace and dependent on personal relationships. An ear at the White House or connection to committee chairs or members of the leadership carries weight and provides additional entry points to trumpet the state’s priorities. Levin has also been a fixture of the Sunday morning political talk show circuit — representing the state on millions of screens across the country.
“Those things are invaluable,” Kall said. “Phone calls, communication could lag a little bit if those kind of connections are lost with these retirements.”
Cynthia Wilbanks, the University’s vice president for government relations, said she is confident that Levin and Dingell’s successors will champion the state’s priorities and it’s public institutions upon entering their respective positions.
“I’m reluctant to say we’re going to falter,” Wilbanks said. “It’s important of course to recognize we are losing longevity and very long influence on the part of two members of the delegation. They have been great friends of the University and they’ve always been ready to roll up their sleeves and work tirelessly on behalf of many of the issues we care about deeply. But I’m also prepared to say those who will follow in their shoes are going to be eager to be effective as quickly as possible.”
She added that the University’s government affairs team will immediately begin developing relationships with the new members, just as they have done with any new addition to Michigan’s congressional delegation. Wilbanks said the members of the entire Michigan congressional delegation are assets of the state and its public institutions.
“Of course they have differing views and many have differing priorities, but I don’t think you ever want to fail to stay connected and to be sure that your message — the advocacy we think is important on any number of issues — is shared with every member of the delegation,” she said. “How they approach those policies and priorities is of course up to them, but we cannot fail in maintaining and strengthening every relationship we have.”
Wilbanks cited federal research funding as a top concern. Over the past few years, the funding was threatened by sequestration measures. Federal support makes up 62 percent of the University’s research budget.
Though Wilbanks said Levin and Dingell have been helpful in lobbying on behalf of the University’s research interests, she added that maintaining funding is a challenge that spans across terms and administrations — a difficulty that will continue in the future.
But even with two top-tier retirements, the University and the state have several powerful legislators to lean on. Two Republicans, Rep. Dave Camp (R–Midland) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R–Brighton), chair influential and prestigious house committees and Michigan’s soon-to-be senior senator, Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.), chairs the Senate’s Agriculture Committee.
In a statement to the Daily, Stabenow lauded Levin and Dingell’s commitment to the state as she prepares to carry on where they left off.
“Carl Levin and John Dingell dedicated their lives to public service,” she wrote. “They have been champions on so many issues important to the people of Michigan, from standing up for the auto industry to protecting our Great Lakes, to making college more affordable for students. It has been an honor to work with them to fight for Michigan families.”
Last month, Stabenow facilitated the passage of the Farm Bill, one of the few major bi-partisan pieces of legislation to pass through both houses in recent months. Kall said her stewardship of the bill and the presence of President Obama in East Lansing for the bill signing, serve as testaments to Stabenow’s own influence.
Though the two announced candidates angling for Levin’s Senate seat — Rep. Gary Peters (D–Bloomfield) and Terri Lynn Land, the Republican contender and former Michigan Secretary of State — would be new to the upper house of Congress, Wilbanks said becoming acquainted with the winner would not pose much of a challenge.
During her time as vice president of governmental relations, Wilbanks said she has worked closely with both of the candidates and is confident either could serve the University’s interests well.
“These are all smart people and many we’ve had a relationship in the past. I’m not sure I’m ready to concede we’ll miss a beat,” she said.
Additionally, Kall and Wilbanks said if elected, Debbie Dingell, John’s Dingell’s wife and the Democratic candidate running to fill his seat, will likely carry on the brand and networks formed during her husband’s record-breaking length of service in the House.
Debbie Dingell spoke at the Rackham Auditorium last week to encourage more women to run for political office.
But despite the inevitable change in leadership, Kall said the transition might matter less than it would have during other periods of history before additional congressional regulations placed limits on a legislator’s pet projects.
The retirements also arrive as many long serving members of the House and Senate are exiting amid a culture of partisan rancor.
“It’s part of a larger trend nationally, of the increasing political partisanship nationally that’s causing people to think they can more change outside of Congress,” he said. “It’s slower governing almost to a halt and ultimately a lot of the losers of such a process are the American people.”
The departures also occur on the tail end of an economic recession that required federal action to bailout Detroit’s auto industry — a move pushed for and won in part by Levin and Dingell.
“This is a key turning point, not just in Michigan, but nationally,” he said.