Standing before a group of shippers last week, Rep. John Mica didn’t even wait for the first question to finish before he shot back a definitive answer.
“Regarding the gas tax … ,” an audience member began, raising the transportation industry’s favorite topic.
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“It’s off the table,” Mica snapped. He repeated the line several times as the questioner stammered to finish the sentence.
The Florida Republican didn’t stop there, practically ordering the shippers in a rapid-fire lesson on the political landscape not to “fantasize” about raising fuel taxes and “deal with the reality we have.” But he also pleaded with them to “stick with me … I need you guys to help me push the bill.”
It was the sort of performance the transportation world has been seeing a lot of in the three months since Mica took over the chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Mica has the position at an uncertain moment in Washington, amid deep partisan and ideological divisions. But he is seizing the job with uncommon intensity, seemingly trying to bridge those ideological gaps while trying to bring back to Congress a responsibility for transportation planning that had been ceded and scattered in recent years.
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As the head of Congress’s main transportation panel, he must guide the committee — including 19 new GOP members elected in the anti-spending wave last year — to write the government’s most sweeping infrastructure spending bill. He also must work with Democrats who were severely chastened in last year’s election but are pushing back against his “do more with less” agenda, and who have replaced the committee’s former solidarity with public barbs and opposition votes.
“Nothing like a challenge, to stimulate,” he told The Journal of Commerce recently. “You just have to be more creative ... And I think sometimes when you do things under hard times, and you succeed, you have a greater sense of satisfaction.”
Mica’s biggest achievement so far has been limited to setting and then racing through an ambitious agenda of hearings, public listening sessions and private meetings. Those aimed at keeping transportation and infrastructure high on the list of public priorities, and finding common ground between anti-spending intransigence and those who believe big ambitions come only with big dollar signs attached.
Mica’s plea is to “stick with me,” as he told the National Industrial Transportation League’s Washington Freight Policy Forum last week, but he also has key forces in his favor.
The Obama administration is finally ready to work on a major transportation bill, an effort it shrugged aside in the previous Congress, when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. Until recently, Obama’s team focused on using its 2009 economic stimulus package to bolster transportation programs that simply have not kept up with infrastructure needs. Now, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has offered a bold $556 billion outline and wants Congress to send the president a final bill by autumn.
The T&I chairman also starts with a good initial relationship with his main Senate counterpart — Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee that takes a lead role in shaping highway and related programs. They paired up for “date night,” when they sat together for President Obama’s recent State of the Union speech and co-hosted a town hall meeting in Los Angeles.
Mica’s chances are enhanced as well by the soft economic recovery. With stubbornly high unemployment nearly two years after the recession hit its nadir, both Mica and LaHood see the transportation bill as a major source of job creation.
Without a multiyear federal program already locked in so states know how much federal money will be coming their way, Mica said states “have had to do a hiccup approach. They are doing sidewalks and small projects, repaving, and a lot of the major stuff has been cast aside. But if we can do that, I think it’ll be one of the biggest things Congress can do” to create jobs and strengthen the economy.
Mica’s T&I challenge mirrors the broader challenges in Congress and in his own party, as Republican leaders try to manage the reins of majority rule in the House in a traditional way, while respecting the fervor of Tea Party-fed freshmen who oppose compromise and even some spending aimed at their own districts. Yet Mica already has one victory on that scorecard, and points to it as he urges transportation advocates to follow his lead.
In passing an extension of highway spending programs to Sept. 30, Mica got the House to separate that spending from broad continuing resolutions. Ongoing CR confrontrations threaten to starve many federal agencies of spending authority. It’s that kind of legislative success, he suggests, that is more important than the charts, numbers and arguments that make up most pleas from industry groups for greater federal transportation spending.
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In speeches to industry groups anxious over transportation spending, Mica lays out his principles while giving few details of what his legislation will hold.
He won’t say how big his bill will be, but says it will go well beyond highway programs. “I want this to be multimodal as far as I can go,” he said.
He talks at length about trimming fat from current programs — “We’ve spent a lot of taxpayer money artificially subsidizing failure” — but said Congress must “stabilize” trust fund receipts now built on diminishing per-gallon fuel taxes. He has some ideas on how to address the funding gap, but won’t give them yet.
“I don’t have a bill in my back pocket,” he told the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials last month. “My position does not come with an operator’s manual,” he added. “We’re flying pretty much by the seat of our pants.”
He preaches a gospel of making government get more construction bang for the buck, unearthing buried earmark funds that sat unused for years and leveraging more use of government loan accounts or bonding incentives instead of relying as much on direct-pay federal grants that drove DOT stimulus programs the past two years.
“The days of just taking the money off the manna tree are over,” he told another group. “I’ve told folks the manna tree in Washington has died, and that’s part of the challenge we face.”
He warns audiences that from all the “new kids on the block” in House GOP ranks, and from public comments at numerous field hearings around the U.S. in recent weeks, “people want the spending and the debt brought under control. It’s a very, very clear message. If you haven’t gotten it and you’re in Congress, you won’t be here long.”
His punchy delivery is part of his character. He laces both public and private comments with blunt, sometimes earthy language, so much that in a hearing on the administration’s intercity passenger rail push, he said he was struggling to criticize the program without using terms his wife had cautioned him against.
He dismisses talk about a short-term spending bill with a wave of his hand. “We’re going to do a six-year bill,” he told AASHTO. “Anyone who talks about anything less, I’ll take you outside and beat the c--p out of you. I want to make that perfectly clear.”
He wants to force open a little-used but potentially huge loan pool for rail projects. And he will try to force the government to spend billions of dollars now hoarded each year in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. But “I’m not talking about transferring it to some other mode, so don’t get your shorts all bound up by this,” he said.
Mica and LaHood show a lot of respect for each other, which can be a crucial element in this year’s legislative effort. Mica still bristles about the administration “cutting the knees out from under” his predecessor as T&I chairman, Rep. James Oberstar, when the Minnesota Democrat pushed his own $500 billion transportation bill but the White House opted to wait.
This time, the administration is offering a $556 billion outline. But it’s only a broad list, without a plan for getting enough revenue to double the spending from the last highway bill. So T&I planners say they are holding judgment until they see a detailed legislative proposal. Mica, in a sharp break with Oberstar’s methods, will guide a committee bill-writing process rather than simply present his own plan.
April will be for drafting a bill, he said, and he plans to get a vote on it in May. It will be combined with a Senate bill over the summer, and on the president’s desk by Sept. 30.
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To do that, however, he’ll have to corral a committee that barely resembles the transportation panels of previous years, when members genially traded projects and federal spending programs back and forth.
Mica’s set of field hearings and listening sessions targeted districts of many GOP members, but in a bid to foster bipartisanship they began in Beckley, W.Va., the home town of ranking T&I Democrat Nick Rahall. Yet when Mica’s committee held its first “markup” session Feb. 16 to vote on an aviation bill, Rahall led a series of time-consuming roll call votes to get Democrats’ objections to the GOP bill on the record, far from the normal voice votes in committee. Later, Mica told the JOC that “we had more votes in that markup than we’ve had in four years, I think — recorded votes. But I’m working in a bipartisan manner, so if they want to have votes, we’ll have votes.”
After another dust-up in the committee over distribution of a policy paper, Mica literally reached out to Rahall, putting his hand on the Democrat’s shoulder and saying, “I do apologize for any delay in getting it to you. I can assure you, Mr. Ranking Member, I didn’t see it before the time you saw it … We do respect your views on this.”
With 33 GOP members and 26 Democrats, Mica has plenty of room to push legislation through his committee over minority objections. But since getting any bills passed into law also requires him to work with the Democratic-controlled Senate, it helps to have T&I Democrats on board when possible.
But the hardest work is about to start on the pivotal piece of legislation that can define his success as chairman.
“It’s exciting. I love it,” he said. Even before he went to Congress “I’ve loved transportation,” Mica said. “I was a onetime small developer, and (now) I get to work on major projects.”
But he isn’t ready to call the push — a push that will take him through political minefields under a grueling schedule — fun just yet. “It’s a challenge,” he said. “I’m hoping we’ll get fun down the line.”
Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.