Super committee members Dave Camp and Fred Upton hold two of the most influential gavels in the House — but it’s their history of voting with the president on issues important for their home state of Michigan that may make them the lawmakers to watch as the budget debate engulfs Washington yet again.
That two of the three House GOP Representatives on the super committee are from the Wolverine State is largely accidental. Camp and Upton were ostensibly chosen to serve on the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction because of their chairmanships and their loyalty to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). But Michigan’s decline over the past decade has made them apt to buck their party on issues of importance to their constituents.
For example, both broke with their party to support the bailout of the automobile industry and the Cash for Clunkers program in 2009.
Camp also split with many in his party by supporting an unemployment benefits extension in April 2010, and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) praised Camp on the Senate floor Monday for his bipartisan approach to trade issues.
In public statements about the super committee, Camp and Upton have addressed the dire economic conditions in their state and the need to turn the economy around as a driving purpose of their membership on the panel.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Michigan’s unemployment rate in August was 11.2 percent, with Kalamazoo and Benton Harbor, two main areas in Upton’s district, logging rates of 9.5 percent and 10.8 percent, respectively, in July. The BLS did not break out any cities in Camp’s sprawling north-central Michigan district.
Those following the pending budget debate, however, are reluctant to predict how exactly Michigan’s amplified economic needs might inform its two members on a panel tasked with finding at least $1.2 trillion in savings over the next 10 years. President Barack Obama also explicitly asked the committee to find the offsets to pay for his $447 billion jobs plan.
“There’s actually a lot pressure on them, high expectations in Michigan. It’s about having something that’s fair and focuses on jobs, as well as deficit reduction,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said in an interview. “Nationally, it certainly raises up Michigan’s conference, which is great.”
“Everybody who cares in Michigan will be involved in communicating with them about what they think ought to happen,” she added.
Sources who follow Michigan and Congressional politics think Camp and Upton’s state ties could push them one of two ways: The lawmakers could give the super committee’s Republicans more credibility in rejecting Obama’s suggestions because they have already sided with the president on occasion, or the duo’s ties could make them more likely to play ball with Democrats.
Either way, it may be a difficult balancing act. Upton, for example, faced a primary challenge from the right in 2010, defeating a tea party candidate 57 percent to 43 percent. That, and a desire to obtain the Energy and Commerce gavel, forced the centrist-minded Upton to move rightward. In 2008, his district also broke 54 percent to 46 percent for Obama. More recently, Upton faced a contentious crowd at a town hall in August where constituents yelled “Bring back jobs!” as the veteran lawmaker calmly tried to continue his conversation on the economy.
Camp, who heads the Ways and Means Committee, has been getting attention back home this week as House GOP leadership has sought to take $1.5 billion from the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing loan program, which aims to help car manufacturers retool plants to build more energy-efficient vehicles. GOP leaders have proposed using funding for ATVM to instead pay for disaster relief funding. According to the Detroit Free Press, Michigan-based Chrysler Group applied for $3.5 billion through the loan program. The proposed cuts would eliminate about half of the program’s remaining funds.
Neither Upton nor Camp would tip their hand as to how they might square their responsibilities to both the House GOP Conference and their ailing state.
“This committee was established with a clear goal — that goal is reducing the deficit, which will create some economic certainty and help spur the job creation we need and get the country back on track,” Upton said in a statement provided to Roll Call. “Michigan has faced 32 straight months with unemployment in double digits, and the current rate is about 11 percent — we can’t afford to lose any more jobs because of unsustainable debt or the threat of higher taxes and economic uncertainty that keeps job creators on the sidelines.”
Camp’s office was equally vague. “Given more than two years of double-digit unemployment in Michigan, it comes as no surprise that Camp has said that he will view the final product of the joint committee through the prism of job creation and ask, ‘Will these recommendations help or hurt job creation now and in the future?’” a Camp spokesman said.
Bill Ballenger of the political newsletter Inside Michigan Politics observed, “I don’t see how they come out of this as heroes unless the super committee pulls a rabbit out of a hat and comes up with some way to figure out how these cuts can be made in a way they get a lot of credit for.”
“I think the opposite is more likely, where you might hear moans and groans from tea party types ... who are already suspicious,” he added.
Ballenger noted both men got positive press for being named to the panel when the announcements were made last month. And other political observers suggest that by serving on the panel, the two could become important 2012 election surrogates for the party on economic messages in a bellwether state that votes more by its pocketbook than by its ideology.
These same sources noted that Democrats would be smart to try to find specific jobs provisions that could present stark choices for super committee Republicans, such as drawing lines specifically between jobs and the auto industry.
When asked about Obama’s call for the panel to find offsets for his jobs program, Camp was careful not to dismiss the prospects out of hand while also emphasizing that the alternative — the failure of the group — would be worse for everyone.
“I think we need to look at what the Budget Control Act gave us as a responsibility, which was $1.5 trillion. If we don’t, there’s sequestration that would occur, and I think we need to look very hard at how we get to that $1.5 trillion,” Camp told reporters last week in the Speaker’s Lobby.
“If in fact we get there, then I think you can maybe look and see what, above and beyond that, you can do,” he added. “But at this point, I don’t see us surpassing that requirement yet.”
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.