All eyes on Bill Shuster, new transportation chairman

Bill Shuster is shown here in this reenactment of his swearing to Congress. | AP Photo
Members on both side of the aisle have high expectations for Bill Shuster. | AP Photo
A mountain of expectations await incoming House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, who’s taking the gavel from John Mica after two years of legislative success and partisan sniping.
Conservatives want to be sure the Pennsylvania Republican holds the line on taxes and spending. Democrats want to see a return to the bipartisan legacy of his father, Bud, who chaired the committee until 2001. And everyone expects Shuster to come up with a solution to the country’s struggling federal infrastructure funding stream.
Shuster says he’s up to the tough task and is already separating himself from Mica (R-Fla.), whose hard-line stance on not raising the federal gas tax contrasts with Shuster’s openness. Shuster wants to explore — but not necessarily enact — a bevy of funding opportunities, including the gas tax, more tolling, a miles-traveled fee for vehicles and tying energy production to infrastructure. He’s also ready for the House to take the mantle of chief transportation-writing chamber of Congress. The House’s reputation took a dive this year when the Senate’s bipartisan maneuvering outpaced Mica’s transportation bill, which Democrats boycotted and failed to attract 218 Republican votes. Shuster said in an interview he has good relationships with both liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and House conservatives, which will help navigate the rocky politics that billion-dollar bills like those he will write are sure to elicit.
“Transportation is not inherently a partisan issue,” Shuster said.
With the White House, however, Shuster may continue Mica’s adversarial posture. Asked if he believes President Barack Obama needs to give formal direction to Congress on long-term legislation, which the White House has yet to do, Shuster said: “They haven’t taken the lead on much of anything around here in this town. So I’m not sure.”
Still, Shuster’s generally been a hit with Democrats. Boxer, in charge of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee that handles the most significant parts of the upper chamber’s transportation legislation, had nothing but praise for the new chairman. Boxer said they have a “very nice working relationship” and have already talked about sitting down to lay groundwork for the next bill, which both lawmakers hope will be longer than the 27-month law signed by Obama this summer.
“It seems like he thinks everything should be on the table, which is good. Because we really have to open our mind to various ways to do this,” Boxer said in an interview.
And while Democrats like Boxer and top House transportation Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) laud Shuster’s flexibility, Republicans in the House believe the new chairman is also a friend of fiscal conservatism. Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), a vocal negotiator on the most recent transportation law, said Shuster is no squishy Republican.
“He’s not really viewed as a moderate Republican. He’s viewed as conservative,” Ribble said. “When he speaks to the conference, the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which I consider myself a part of, listens to him.”
One exception might be hard-liners who want to wind down the federal gas tax and devolve transportation functions to the states. Shuster strongly opposes such a scenario, though Heritage Action for America said it expects to lobby him nonetheless.
“Mr. Shuster may not be a fan of turn back [to states], but we anticipate having open and honest discussions with him about the proper role of the states in transportation,” said HAA spokesman Dan Holler. Shuster is also more tapped into House leadership than Mica, serving on the whip team, and one well-connected transportation lobbyist said that could deliver more autonomy.
“I think that he is motivated by using his position in the majority and with the blessing of leadership to really get something done,” the lobbyist said.
Rahall told POLITICO his relationships with Shuster and his dad are “excellent” and that he hopes Shuster’s closeness with top GOP brass will give him the green light to run the committee his own way.
“By his own admission [Mica] didn’t run the show. And I’m looking forward to Mr. Shuster running the show,” Rahall said. “It’s my hope that he will have more autonomy. I recall his father bucking the leadership on their side, i.e. Mr. [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich, from the get-go. And winning.”
Words like “detail-oriented” and “reasonable” pop up when members of Congress talk about Shuster — but there’s a wait-and-see approach to whether Shuster’s chairmanship will include “bipartisan.” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said Shuster’s already assured him of some level of cooperation with the minority — though Mica maintains he tried to work with Democrats as much as possible.
“He doesn’t want to do it the way it happened this last time where the Democrats get presented a finished bill written by some outside group,” DeFazio said, though neither he nor Rahall explicitly predict two years of Kumbaya on the committee.
That’s because the to-do list is long and the political atmosphere in the Capitol on spending — unavoidable when infrastructure or transportation topics come up — is so toxic that there are bound to be stumbles. Shuster will oversee a water resources bill early next year and a new plan for passenger rail, not to mention the big one: a long-term effort to shore up the country’s roads, bridges and transit.
He will also have to find a way to pay for infrastructure without infuriating his own party and without earmarks, which previous chairmen like his father and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) were able to wield in a way that eased passage of complex transportation bills. Mica’s long said that passing the $118 billion surface bill without earmarks was one of his most difficult tasks — and no one expects it to get any easier in 2013.
Shuster said he feels the expectations, but it’s a job he’s always wanted and he’s ready for it.
“A lot of people look back at what my father was able to accomplish. So yeah, that adds extra pressure,” he told POLITICO. “But this is not your father’s Congress. And I have license to say that.”
Kathryn A. Wolfe and Adam Snider contributed to this report.