Jonathan Allen, Kathryn Wolfe and John Bresnahan
The most familiar name in highway politics — Shuster — is emerging as the best bet to run the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee next year.
The current chairman, John Mica of Florida, is term-limited at the end of this Congress, and he’s looking for a new perch — at the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in a couple of years if all the chips fall into place.
His departure creates a window for Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), son of legendary wheeler-dealer Bud Shuster, to leapfrog into the chairmanship his father held.
For most lawmakers, it’s a bit premature to think about a chairmanship shuffle that will be far less interesting for Republicans if they don’t hold on to the House. But several senior lawmakers are now maneuvering to get a chairmanship — or keep one.
For Shuster, the transportation gavel is a birthright that is moving closer to his grasp.
“Someday,” Shuster said, when asked if he was interested in running the committee. That day may be soon, according to senior members of the House, leadership aides and lobbyists who closely monitor the Washington power game. Right now, Shuster said, he is “100 percent focused” on helping finish a House-Senate conference on a reauthorization of the nation’s surface transportation laws.
The GOP’s three-term limit has put Mica in a bad spot at a bad time: He’s in the race of his life in Florida, hoping to fend off freshman Rep. Sandy Adams in a redistricting-spurred primary. He’s about to lose his chairmanship at a time when his power in Washington would otherwise be a strong argument with voters.
Mica has another option: He’s second in line at the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and actually has more seniority than that panel’s current chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
But after the two men discussed the situation, Mica said he wouldn’t challenge Issa.
Instead, Mica hopes for a reprieve in 2013 and is plotting for 2015.
“Darrell came to me first, and I am very pleased with his work. And when he completes his term, I will be chairman,” Mica said.
In the meantime, Mica said, he’ll seek a waiver to stay at the helm of Transportation and Infrastructure — but GOP sources said that’s not going to happen.
One big question is whether Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will find a soft landing if he’s forced to abide by the GOP’s term limit.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is expected to grab for the gavel of the Science Committee, where he could be in competition with Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Dana Rohrabacher of California.
All of the decisions will be made by the Steering Committee, which comprises party leaders and regional representatives from delegations around the country.
That’s a good thing for Shuster, who serves on Steering, where he’s had a chance to learn how lawmakers influence one another . He’s also managed to develop strong relationships with House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, who dominate the secretive panel’s discussions and who don’t always see eye to eye to eye on who should run which committee.
Earlier, there was rumbling about replacing Mica with Reps. Tom Petri of Wisconsin, Sam Graves of Missouri or even Steve LaTourette of Ohio. That chatter has ceased, as most insiders believe the job has been Shuster’s for the taking all along.
Veteran GOP Rep. Don Young of Alaska — he was first elected to the House in 1972 — is next in line behind Mica on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but even he admits that he is not likely to get the gavel.
“I would always be interested in chairing a full committee, but the chances of that occurring are pretty slim,” Young said.
Young supports Mica getting a waiver to seek another two-year term. But he acknowledged that even if that were to happen, junior members of the panel would make a bid to take over.
“I think John ought to be given a chance for a waiver, but that depends on the leadership,” Young said. “There are a lot of young bucks” who would seek to take over as chairman.
Shuster is No. 1 on that buck list.
Like most newcomers, Shuster started out with a local focus. But in early 2011, after he grabbed the chairmanship of the transportation subcommittee on railroads, he began a coordinated and meticulous campaign for national relevance.
“It’s been very strategic from the beginning,” said one infrastructure lobbyist. “He’s an easygoing car salesman that’s placed himself in this position — and he’ll do what leadership tells him and be able to sell things well.”
Shuster hasn’t had the best luck with stand-alone bills — in his career he’s introduced more than 50 bills, just five of which have been enacted into law.
But he was instrumental in writing the rail title of the surface transportation bill, which included a red meat provision that would’ve opened Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor to competition. It ultimately collapsed amid opposition from transportation unions and a wary freight rail industry — but showed Shuster has a privatization streak that appeals to business interests.
Shuster also pushed an industry-friendly version of a bill related to bus safety that was incorporated into the House’s failed transportation bill. And he backed off of an attempt to change the way aviation rule-making is done in the face of a bruising public backlash from safety advocates — including the families and friends of those killed in a 2009 regional jet crash near Buffalo, N. Y.
He has a jock’s mien, but that belies the smarts and political sense of a savvy institutional player. He has earned praise during his decade in the House for his willingness to take on tough tasks — including acting as a liaison between the leadership and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during the tense and unsuccessful effort to pass a multiyear highway bill.
“Shuster is the ultimate team player,” a former leadership aide told POLITICO. “He has always been willing to help out no matter what it is in terms of the team.”
He is reliably conservative — he earned a 75 percent rating from the American Conservative Union last year — and though he believes in fiscal conservatism, he rejects the tea party ideology of turning transportation spending over to the states.
Graves, a close friend of Shuster who outranks him by one seat on the panel, gave his endorsement to the Pennsylvanian in an interview with POLITICO.
“Bill would do a great job,” Graves said, adding, “I would” support Shuster if he ran. Graves is chairman of the Small Business Committee and ranks second on Agriculture.
Shuster also has developed a good reputation among some of the committee’s many freshmen, which will work in his favor if he has to try to write another transportation bill next year.
Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) said Shuster has been “very helpful to me, passionate about transportation. He’s got a great relationship with the conference and can work both sides of the aisle, which I think is really important in transportation. We’ll see, but I think he’d be terrific.”
And Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), who vanquished the former chairman, Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar, said Shuster’s a “great guy” who “lives, breathes, eats transportation.” He echoed the sentiments about Shuster’s relationship-building, saying he “has very good relationships within the committee, with everyone as a person.”
Though far from assured, if Shuster were to take the gavel, and the Senate tip to Republican control next year, the wheels on a transportation bill might be greased even further. Shuster and Oklahoma GOP Sen. Jim Inhofe, the once and perhaps future chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who would be tasked with writing the meat of the bill, have a warm relationship — friendly enough that an infrastructure lobbyist suggested “they’d probably preconference the whole thing.”
“It may be a match made in heaven that you haven’t seen since the Bud Shuster days,” the lobbyist said. “They’re going to use each other to their mutual benefit, and they’re going to be hand in hand and it’s going to strengthen the party. House and Senate working together, actually getting something done. And member-level decisions will be settled over a beer.”