Michigan Republicans adjust to life under Speaker Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi | Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Not long ago, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton ran the powerful U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose sweeping jurisdiction has been famously described as “everything that moves, burns or is sold.”

Things have changed dramatically since then for the St. Joseph Republican, who’s entering his 17th term on Capitol Hill in the minority.

Fred Upton | Ken Shipp, DOE Photo, Wikimedia Commons

Upton, who represents a swath of Southwest Michigan from Kalamazoo to the Indiana border hugging Lake Michigan, handed over the full committee gavel in 2017 after he reached his term limit as chair.

And in November, his party lost control of the U.S. House. That paved the way for the first female U.S. House speaker in U.S. history — Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who served from 2007 to 2011 — to ascend to that position again.

That’s also given Democrats the power to set committee agendas, issue subpoenas and decide which legislation gets a vote on the House floor.

“You don’t have the gavel; that’s the biggest thing,” Upton told the Michigan Advance in his Washington, D.C., office last week when asked about the downsides of being in the House minority.

Upton, who has been in the U.S. House since 1987, is one of two Michigan Republicans who have served in the minority before. The other, U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, served his first term from 2007 until 2009 under Democratic control before losing his slot to now-former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer (D-Battle Creek).

Tim Walberg

The five other Republican representatives from Michigan have only served under GOP control: U.S. Reps. Justin Amash (R-Cascade Twp.), Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet), John Moolenaar (R-Midland), Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden) and Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland)

Michigan’s delegation to the House is now evenly split 7-7 as Democrats flipped two seats on Nov. 6 that had been held by the GOP. Now-U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) knocked off now-former U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) in the 8th District and now-U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) won the open 11th District slot.

From 2013 until 2019, Michigan Republicans held nine of the delegations’ seats compared to Democrats’ five.

Power shift

But Upton and some of his colleagues aren’t sweating the power shift — at least not publicly.

U.S. Capitol | Creative Commons

They say they’ll look for opportunities to work across the aisle on issues where they can find common ground and on legislation that can benefit their home state.

The GOP was in the minority for the first eight years of Upton’s tenure, ahead of the 1994 Republican Revolution that flipped control of the U.S. House.

“I never, ever thought that I’d be in the majority because for my lifetime I had not been,” he said.

He recalled getting a speech from U.S. Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.), who was vice chair of the House Republican Conference.

“She met with all the freshmen Republicans and said, ‘Folks, two things are going to happen: your bills are either going to get defeated, or they’re going to get stolen. You’re a bump on a log.’”

Upton thought at the time, “Not me.”

He pointed to one of his first big legislative achievements, an effort with then-U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) that gave a tax credit for small businesses that needed to make changes to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“Kweisi came up to me after it was done and he grabbed me — he’s a good guy — he grabbed me by the lapels on the floor and said, ‘Upton, you have ruined my reputation. I used to be a zero with the Chamber [of Commerce] and now I’m like a 12. I don’t know if I can get re-elected.’ He said that in jest.”

Jack Bergman

Other Republicans are just learning what the minority is like.

Bergman, whose district encompasses the entire Upper Peninsula and much of northern Michigan, was elected in 2016 and had only served in the majority until this year.

“To be in the minority just gives me a chance to lead from a different direction,” Bergman told the Advance.

“My first priority coming here two years ago was to build relationships with all of my colleagues, both sides of the aisle,” he said. “The idea is that now in the second term, my party is in the minority, but our sophomores now are still working together, Democrat, Republican, to do good legislative work, policy work. So it’s just a question of, somebody’s got to be in the majority.”

Defying the party

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Cascade Twp.), a libertarian-leaning West Michigander known for his willingness to defy his party, doesn’t expect his life to change as much as some of his Republican colleagues.

Justin Amash | Wikimedia Commons

I’ve always served in the minority, to some extent, because I’m more of a libertarian and have some significant differences and disagreements with our party leadership,” he told the Advance.

“In a sense, I’ve been used to being on the losing end of some votes and a lot of my colleagues who vote party line are not used to that. They’re used to coming to work everyday and essentially winning, even if not the way they would have liked,” he added. “Now they’re on the losing of a lot of these votes, so it’s very different for a lot of them.”

Amash lamented the “tremendous amount of partisanship” in the House. When he talked with the Advance earlier this month, he expressed some optimism about Pelosi’s leadership and didn’t mince words about the GOP former House speaker from Wisconsin.

“It’s hard to do worse than Paul Ryan,” Amash said.

Republicans, he said, are being asked by their leadership to vote no on legislation that they would have supported before the chamber flipped.

He cited the battle over funding to reopen the federal government, which has been shut down for the longest time in U.S. history, as a prime example.

U.S. Capitol | Creative Commons

“Republicans would have easily supported an appropriations bill just a few months ago,” he said. “What’s changed is the Democrats are in charge now and they want to play politics with the appropriations in ways that they didn’t before. And of course the Democrats do the same thing. … [B]oth parties play these sort of games.”

Amash previously told the Advance that it would be a “huge mistake” for President Donald Trump to declare a national emergency to secure funding for a border wall with Mexico.

Donald Trump | Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons

“It would be a massive executive overreach,” he said. “There’s no national emergency. Obviously, there are problems at the border, but to declare a national emergency — and assume all sorts of powers — would be way beyond what I think is authorized.”

Michigan delegation

The Michigan congressional delegation is scheduled to meet this week alone for the first time, so lawmakers — including the rookies — can meet each other and scope out areas where they might find common ground.

Last month, before Democrat Gretchen Whitmer took office as governor, she met with members of the delegation about the farm bill, PFAS standards and Soo Locks.

Upton sees plenty of room to compromise on issues like fighting Asian carp in the Great Lakes and constructing a new lock at the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie. He calls U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) “one of my best friends.”

Debbie Dingell

Amash anticipates he’ll be able to work with Democrats on civil liberties and foreign policy issues where Republican leadership opposed his views.

“There’s a larger group of Democrats who will be supportive of my positions and approach on those issues. I think I can get a larger coalition together to make a go of some things,” he said.

Bergman readily offers his cell phone number to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“I’m not going to call you, but if you want to ask me about anything, I’ll be more than happy to take your call or have a cup of coffee with you. That’s extended to both Democrats and Republicans,” he said.

The sophomore Republican joked that the worst part of being in the minority so far has been the downsized conference room where the caucus holds its meetings.

“The room they give you when you’re the minority is a little crowded,” he said. “Some of my colleagues, I think, could use hearing aids, but they haven’t gotten them yet. Vanity, I think has played a role.”

They’re working on the acoustics, he added, to make sure everyone can hear.

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

Robin Bravender
Michigan native Robin Bravender is the Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit news publications, including the Michigan Advance. Previously, Robin was a reporter for Politico, E&E News and Thomson Reuters.
Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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