Michigan’s newest members of Congress baptized by fire as shutdown rages

By: - January 24, 2019 9:21 am

Elissa Slotkin’s ceremonial swearing in, Jan. 13, 2019, Lansing | Andrew Roth

Michigan’s four new members of Congress — all Democrats — have taken their place on Capitol Hill at a pivotal moment in its history, having immediately been tasked with addressing the longest government shutdown in history.

Haley Stevens

“We just flipped the House of Representatives; we’ve ushered in a lot of new voices, and that was to reclaim and restore the trust in our government,” said U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills), who represents Wayne and Oakland counties.

President Donald Trump has declared that he will not reopen the government unless and until Congress appropriates $5 billion to build a wall on the country’s southern border.

Stevens and U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) flipped two seats in Michigan on Nov. 6. Slotkin unseated now-former U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) and Stevens won the district left open by now-retired U.S. Rep. Dave Trott (R-Birmingham).

The other two new members of the congressional delegation won open seats previously held by Democrats: U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.), who succeeded his father, now-former U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Royal Oak), and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), who triumphed in a seat left open by U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit), who resigned in a sexual harassment scandal.

The Michigan congressional delegation is now split 7-7, after three straight terms of being divided 9-5 in the GOP’s favor.

U.S. Capitol | Susan J. Demas

For the first time since 2008 — when then-U.S. Reps. Mark Schauer (D-Battle Creek) and Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) won seats — all of the newbies are Democrats. And they all represent parts of Southeast Michigan, although Slotkin’s 8th Congressional District seat also encompasses part of mid-Michigan with Lansing.

Tlaib has, perhaps, nabbed the most media attention of the new members, starting with her profanity-laced remarks about impeaching Trump during her first week in office. She also slammed legislation countering the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement regarding Israel’s West Bank settlements, which won her criticism from Republicans and groups like the Anti-Defamation League.

She’s been working to put a “human face” on the partial federal government shutdown by holding events with those impacted by it.

“There are countless people in this state who are impacted by this government shutdown,” she said at a Jan. 8 press conference in Detroit. “Numbers are one thing, but it is important for all of us to hear what this means for the day-to-day lives of those in the 13th Congressional District and across this country.”

Rashida Tlaib | Ken Coleman

Tlaib said she believes border security can be negotiated after the shutdown ends.

Slotkin, a former intelligence officer, said she is willing to make a deal with the president that would involve increased border security, but she doesn’t believe the nation needs a wall.

“I’ve worked on securing our borders my entire life — preventing homeland attacks — so if we need some additional fencing and barriers in certain areas, do it. If we need more technology in certain areas, do it. If we need more border agents, hire them,” Slotkin said. “But this idea that we need a wall from sea to shining sea, I think, is more of a political point than a true, needs-based assessment.”

Other Democrats have tossed around the idea of giving the president $5 billion of wall funding in exchange for codifying Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) into law, so that some who were brought into the United States illegally as children have a path to staying here.

Andy Levin

But Levin said that Trump can’t be trusted to stick to negotiations.

“He’s already proposed various deals on DACA and whatnot and then he just changes his mind and backed out of them,” said Levin, who represents Macomb and Oakland counties. “We are the only democracy in the world, as far as I have been able to find out, where the president shuts down the government over a policy disagreement.”

Ultimately, Slotkin said that both sides of the aisle want to work together to end the shutdown.

“There’s a group of us, many of us Republicans and Democrats, who have been talking in different combinations quietly about what might a deal look like, how would we get it done, how we would lobby within our own caucuses. So there is gridlock, but there’s also a lot of people who are also just not going to accept that this is the way Washington is,” Slotkin said.

Trump has floated the idea that he could declare a national emergency to get the border wall built. That’s something that even some Republicans like U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of Cascade Twp. have taken issue with.

Slotkin said that if Trump attempted that, he would be taken to court. But she hopes it doesn’t reach that point.

Elissa Slotkin’s ceremonial swearing in, Jan. 13, 2019, Lansing | Andrew Roth

“The idea that he would declare an emergency and take money out of the Department of Defense budget and use it for something else, to me … puts us in the category of a different type of government,” Slotkin said. “I studied autocratic regimes my entire life. I’ve studied how they use national emergencies to get what they want and contravene democracy. I very much hope it does not come to that.”

Some Democrats, including Stevens, have taken to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to call for an end to the shutdown.

“I rise for the TSA agent who had questioned how he would put gas in his car on Monday; it is now Thursday,” Stevens said in an impassioned speech on Jan. 17. “The American worker, the American taxpayer is wondering when their government will reopen.”

Elissa Slotkin, Andy Levin, Haley Stevens and Debbie Dingell at the 2019 North American International Auto Show in Detroit | Nick Manes

“I rise today because this is unacceptable,” Stevens continued. “I have acted, and acted, and acted to reopen the government, and now I, from this great body, this U.S. House of Representatives, I implore my colleagues from the Senate to do the same.”

But even with the shutdown, Democrats say they are making headway on their other policy priorities.

“Obviously, having shuttered agencies affects some of the work that I want to do in the district through grants management, leveraging federal resources that could be coming into the district,” Stevens said. “But I still co-sponsored universal background check [firearm] legislation; I co-sponsored legislation to protect the ACA [Affordable Care Act]. We’re moving forward; we need to be.”

Levin agreed and tossed in some sharp words about Trump.

“We are not letting one person’s tweets or crazy ideas about an ineffective and expensive project that experts don’t believe will be helpful derail us. We’re going full steam ahead,” he said.

Not only did Democrats flip the House in 2018, but they did so with one of the most diverse freshman classes in the history of Congress. That’s apparent in Michigan’s cadre, as well, which includes three women and one man. Tlaib is the first Palestinian-American and one of the first Muslim women to join the U.S.House.

“Get ready for a new Congress not only to ‘look’ differently, but to feel & serve differently. I can’t wait to serve you and raise the bar of what we expect from our members of Congress. #13thDistrictStrong,” Tlaib tweeted on Dec. 27.

Stevens lauded the “first-time, glass-ceiling-breakers in their respective districts and for the country — the first two Native American women coming in, the first two Muslim women coming in, the largest number of dual income households represented in Congress, the largest number of members with school-aged children, lowering the median income by almost half, [and] increasing the millennial representation by 420 percent.”

“Congress has never been more important to the American people,” Stevens added. “… It’s evident that change has come, that new energy is here and that vibrancy is also here to deliver for the American people.”

Having all those new faces in Congress means lots of new dynamics within the Democratic caucus, Slotkin said.

“I think that the freshman class is huge and extremely energetic. We all have things that we want to do. We all have a fire under us to get something done, so that amount of energy creates some interesting waves in Washington,” Slotkin said. “In some ways, the established leadership are still trying to figure out how to handle us. I think that we have a lot of diversity within our own caucus.”

But ultimately, having a Congress that is more representative of the country that they serve is important in and of itself, Levin said.

“What it does in practice is it makes being in Congress feel like being in America,” he said. “It’s not just a bunch of older white men making the rules.”

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Andrew Roth
Andrew Roth

Andrew Roth is a regular contributor to the Michigan Advance. He has been covering Michigan policy and politics for three years across a number of publications and studies journalism at Michigan State University.