After Gerald Ford resigned in 1973 to become Vice President of the United States, VanderVeen was elected in a special election on February 18, 1974, to fill Ford's seat in the 94th Congress. VanderVeen's election from the heavily Republican district was seen as a stunning upset for the Republican Party. He is the only Democrat to be elected to Congress from the Grand Rapids area since 1912. The Republican candidate, Robert VanderLaan, was the Republican leader of the Michigan Senate and, up to that point, had never lost an election. VanderVeen turned the election into a referendum on the increasingly unpopular U.S. President Richard Nixon. He stopped campaigning directly against his opponent, and instead took out newspaper advertisements "in which he promised to do his utmost to dislodge Nixon and turn the presidency over to Ford, a political folk hero in the district." This upset caused a panic in the Republican Party leadership, as it appeared to foreshadow more losses for the party in the November elections. Political analyst Larry Sabato writes that VanderVeen's capturing of Gerald Ford's solidly Republican district after Ford had been elevated to the Vice Presidency, was an electrifying victory that foreshadowed the Democratic Watergate landslide of November 1974.
VanderVeen was reelected in November 1974 to a full term in the 95th Congress, but lost in 1976 to Republican Harold S. Sawyer. In 1978, VanderVeen ran for the United States Senate, but lost his bid for the Democratic nomination to Carl Levin (who went on to win the general election in November).
VanderVeen formed two environmental companies: Resource Energy and Enigered. In 1990, he founded Ryerson Library Foundation, and served as its president.
After his service in Congress, VanderVeen served as a member of the Michigan State Waterways Commission. VanderVeen died of prostate cancer at his home in East Grand Rapids at the age of 83.