What Kind of Leadership Would Bill Shuster Bring to the Transpo Committee?

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) could be the next chair of the House Transportation Committee. Photo: Office of Rep. Bill Shuster.

This is the first of two posts examining Rep. Bill Shuster’s candidacy for the chairmanship of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. We’ll post the second one, focused on his positions on bike/ped programs and funding issues, tomorrow.

Over the next few weeks, we could see a shake-up on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the House. Current Chair John Mica (R-FL) has been the top Republican on the committee for six years, and according to GOP rules, that’s the limit. While Mica is asking leadership for a little wiggle room, his deputy is making the case for his own candidacy. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) announced late last week that he would seek the chairmanship.

If that name rings a bell, it may be because his father was a legend on Capitol Hill. Evoke Bud Shuster’s name in Washington and you’ll hear story after story of the deal-making he pulled off when he chaired the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure from 1995 to 2001. He brought home more bacon to his district in rural Pennsylvania than it could even handle, according to a profile that ran in the National Journal as his Congressional career came to an end.

Bill Shuster took over his father’s seat in Congress in 2001, and soon joined the committee his father presided over. Now he could take over his dad’s gavel, too, when the new Congress is seated in January.

Mica is meeting with Republican leaders this week to discuss the possibility of getting a waiver to the six-year rule. Rep. Paul Ryan is expected to receive such a waiver, so that he can go on serving at the helm of the Budget Committee. But does Ryan’s exception mean Mica will get one too? Unlikely. Last spring, rumors circulated that Republican leaders were fed up with Mica’s inability to pass a transportation bill and were looking to Shuster to step in. Those rumors were somewhat overblown, but may indicate that leaders aren’t looking for two more years of John Mica at the gavel of T&I.

Shuster, meanwhile, has excellent relationships with House GOP honchos. And as chair of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, he put his own stamp on the reauthorization process. He, with Mica, inserted a highly contentious “red meat” provision (later dropped) to privatize Amtrak’s profitable Northeast Corridor service, and he supported the inclusion of automatic approval for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Shuster also serves on a whip committee to drum up votes for Republican initiatives – a job that eventually proved impossible for the House GOP’s first and only stab at a transportation bill of their own, H.R. 7. The bill was too brazen an attack on transit to win over urban Republicans, while the freshman Tea Party class was loathe to approve a spending bill, and the earmark ban tied the hands of would-be deal-makers.

But Shuster won points from both GOP leadership and party freshmen by carefully explaining the ins and outs of transportation policy to the new arrivals and by working hard to get a bill passed.

One point Shuster had to sell to the extreme right wing of the party is that transportation and infrastructure are, indeed, a “core function” of government. While some conservatives think the federal government should get out of the transportation business, Shuster tells them that even the godfather of capitalism, Adam Smith, said transportation was one of the three essential functions of government, along with security and justice. Shuster says the government has been carrying out the task of expanding and improving the transportation network for 200 years — often under Republican presidents.

Democrats are “cautiously optimistic” that a Shuster-led committee could be less polarized than it was under Mica. The T&I committee was until recently viewed as a model of bipartisanship, but became sharply divided after Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) left in 2010 and Republicans took control of the House. Democrats complained through the entire session that they were shut out of everything, never consulted or even allowed to see draft legislation before it was made public. While House Democrats served on the conference committee that eventually hammered out a compromise bill, the real negotiations were always between Senate Dems and House Republicans.

Could the committee turn around under a Shuster chairmanship? His colleagues call Shuster “approachable,” “likeable” and “collegial,” with a leadership style that’s markedly different from his father’s, which was described as “ruthless.”

“For those of us that are somewhat new, he’s very approachable and he is extremely pragmatic when it comes to understanding the issues,” Representative Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican elected in 2008, told Bloomberg News. Shuster himself said his leadership style was somewhere on the middle of the spectrum between “hammer” and “hugs.”

Advocates are also hopeful that Shuster’s abiding interest in rail and “outside-the-box” thinking could lead to a positive session. “He seems like a thoughtful person who has genuine interest and expertise in the issues,” said David Goldberg of Transportation for America.

The stakes are high. Shuster looks forward to crafting a new surface transportation bill in the next session, if he becomes chair, as well as working on a new rail authorization. And he could bring some contentious ideas to the table.

Shuster believes high-speed rail should be limited to the Northeast Corridor, which he says is the only place in the country with the appropriate conditions for it. He says high-speed rail is a “terrible idea” in California, even calling it a form of blackmail since the state will then be on the hook to finish the project. He’s called for taking the federal money allocated to California HSR and giving it to the NEC. For the rest of the country, he says “frequency and reliability” are what matters for increasing ridership – not 150 mile speeds.

But his idea for “fixing the administration’s mishandling” of high-speed rail would be not only to focus “like a laser” on the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s most successful route, but to privatize it. Experts and Democrats said the privatization plan he crusaded for is unworkable and could actually lead to more government outlays, not less.

Still, he does bring a passion for rail transportation and a genuine desire to see it thrive. He helped author the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, even then showing his desire for more private sector involvement in rail by writing a section establishing “a public-private partnership opportunity for high-speed rail development.”

“I believe bringing competition to passenger rail is the way to save it,” he said.

When the Obama administration announced a plan to invest $53 billion in Amtrak’s high-speed rail capacity, Shuster called it “insane.”

“It just prolongs the inevitable by subsidizing a failed Amtrak monopoly that has never made a profit or even broken even,” he said. “Government won’t develop American high-speed rail. Private investment and a competitive market will.”

In a hearing early last year on the Northeast Corridor, Shuster called himself a “poster child” for good Amtrak service, saying he used to be “somebody that 20 years ago said, `I’ll never get out of my car again to go on the rails, I want to use my car with flexibility.’” But he was proven wrong by reliable and convenient service on the Keystone Corridor, which persuaded him to quit driving to Philadelphia from his district. And he urged his fellow Congress members to keep up with Europe and Asia on high-speed rail. “Our competition in the world is doing it,” he said. “We need to keep up with the competition.”

Shuster also introduced the “Bus Uniform Standards and Enhanced Safety (BUSES) Act,” which became part of MAP-21. The law cracks down on unauthorized intercity bus operators, a priority of both the corporations and unions that make up the authorized bus companies.

Tune in tomorrow for what Rep. Shuster would mean for bicycle and pedestrian issues and more.