It’s hard to see clearly through the wreckage of the House transportation bill, but Speaker John Boehner’s actions last week—saying his chamber would work with legislation put forth by the Democratic Senate, “or something like it,” and asking Railroad Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster to lead the way—suggest the speaker might actually be looking to win minority votes on a bill he touted as a boon for long-term job growth.
The stunning turnaround came as Boehner at last admitted defeat on the unpopular five-year legislation he and transportation chairman John Mica put forth. Reminiscent of the FAA showdown, which left congressional leadership singed, the current transportation authorization expires March 31st, and has already been extended eight times since its expiration in 2009.
There was plenty not to like in the House bill, which would have paid for transportation in part with a controversial extension of oil and gas drilling and would have exiled transit projects from the highway trust fund, undoing a legacy left by Ronald Reagan. Conservatives complained that the price tag was too high, while moderate metropolitan Republicans chafed at the snub to mass transit funding. U.S. Secretary Ray LaHood, himself a former Republican congressman, repeatedly trashed the bill as "lousy," "terrible," "the worst bill in decades" and "taking us back to the horse and buggy days."
Even had it passed the House, the Boehner-Mica bill’s severe provisions would have guaranteed a showdown with the Senate, almost surely leading to gridlock and brinkmanship. This just as independent voters are recoiling even further from what they see as congressional dysfunction and party extremism.
In the absence of consensus among Republicans, Boehner’s decision to shelve the bill seems apt. More telling, though, was his move to bench Mica and enlist Shuster. Congressional Quarterly, in initially reporting the decision, painted the hand-off as a rebuke of Mica, presumably for failing to gather and hold Republican support. The speaker’s office insists that wasn’t the intent, however, and indeed an alternate narrative seems plausible: Boehner is trying to reach across the aisle.
Going bipartisan would be so unusual for House Republicans, many activists fear it's a feign or a trap. But if Boenher wanted to use the week long recess to regroup and try to shore up Republican support, he could have easily stuck with Mica, who authored the bill to Boehner’s liking and who has repeatedly bent loyally to the prevailing conservative winds in the House. Instead, the speaker tapped Bill Shuster, a moderate on transportation who hails from Pennsylvania, a half-urban, half-rural state that relies fairly heavily on rail (and which produced the pro-transit Senator Rick Santorum).
Perhaps more importantly, Bill Shuster is a Shuster. His father, Bud Shuster, chaired the House transportation committee from 1995 until he resigned from Congress in 2001—largely because a party policy on term limitations for committee heads forced him to give up his beloved chairmanship. Bill took Bud’s seat in a special election later that year.
During the six-year Shuster chairmanship, as with the six-year reign of Don Young that followed, the task of transportation lawmaking was carried out with great bipartisan comity and, not unrelated, rampant earmarking. The chairmen got their pork—Young his infamous Alaskan bridges to nowhere and the senior Shuster the irregularly numbered Interstate 99, now the “Bud Shuster Highway”—but so did their colleagues.
The last two long-term surface transportation reauthorizations happened under these men’s watch, and in those votes and several since the players who are today taking center stage showed their colors. When Bud Shuster sponsored TEA-21 in 1998, Mica voted for it, and Boehner voted against it. When Young sponsored SAFETEA-LU in 2005, Mica and Bill Shuster voted for it, and Boehner was one of only nine who voted against it. In 2008, when the new Democratic chairman Jim Oberstar pushed through Amtrak reauthorization, Mica and Bill Shuster voted for that too, and Boehner voted against it.
To his credit, Boehner has been consistent in pining for fundamental changes in transportation funding. In 2005, sore about earmarking in SAFETEA-LU and Ohio’s status as a “donor state” (one that pays more into the Highway Trust fund than it gets back from Washington), he argued that “in a perfect world, the states would keep the taxes they collect and the federal government would only get involved in those projects that are inherently federal.”
By contrast, Mica spoke in favor of SAFETEA-LU’s increased funding, though he wanted more donor/donee equity, then he boasted of the money he brought home. In 2007, after the I-35 bridge collapse, he was thinking big, meeting with President Bush to explain the urgency of a national infrastructure effort. Shortly after, he told the Texas Transportation Summit that the nation’s infrastructure needed dramatic overhaul, even mentioning high speed rail and inland waterways, two sectors that probably weren’t represented in Texas enough for this to be considered pandering.
As we know, Mica’s excitement about high speed rail waned after the 2010 midterm elections made him chairman. He cooperated with his party leadership’s efforts to constrain the budget and defeat President Obama’s infrastructure initiatives. But Bill Shuster hasn’t been quite so loyal. He has parted ways with Boehner and Mica when necessary to support transportation funding, and he has often prevailed. In 2007, Shuster voted against an unsuccessful Republican effort to defund Amtrak by half a billion dollars; the other two voted for it. In 2008, Shuster was the only one of the three to support Oberstar’s National Highway Bridge Reconstruction and Inspection Act, which passed the House 367-55.
Shuster’s rhetoric has also been maverick -- for a Republican. In 2005, when both Boehner and Mica publicly complained about the federal redistribution of state tax revenues, Shuster actually defended the doner/donee designations, and called out Mica’s home state in the process.
"It has been the wise practice in surface transportation reauthorization to take into account that some regions are saddled with greater needs than others and need a larger rate of return to maintain our national transportation system,” he said on the floor of the House.
Pennsylvania “ranks third in the amount of through truck traffic that neither originates nor terminates in the State. Pennsylvania receives little benefit from such commerce traveling through our State, yet States such as Florida, which is able to get its goods to the large Northeastern markets, benefit, while we still suffer from the constant pounding and damage caused by this through traffic.” Apparently Shuster didn’t get the memo.
Given Shuster’s moderate views and votes, it’s hard to imagine that Boenher would swap Mica for Shuster if the plan was for Republicans to hold their ground and fight. At any rate, Democrats are taking the Pennsylvanian's new prominence as a good sign. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had kind, hopeful words for Shuster. “His father I knew very well,” he told The Hill. “If his son is anything like the dad, it will help get this bill done.”
And if the son is shopping legislation that’s a little more like his dad’s, that’ll probably help too.
(Hat tip to the essential Project Vote Smart)