Oberstar’s End of the Road

Oberstar’s End of the Road

Congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton choked back tears as she paid tribute recently to Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Oberstar, who lost his re-election bid, is leaving Congress after a 40-plus year career on Capitol Hill. Norton, chairman of the transportation subcommittee that counts the naming of public buildings among its responsibilities, said a movement was afoot to put Oberstar’s name on the Department of Transportation’s headquarters in Southeast Washington.

Oberstar, however, would want to be remembered for something else, she said. “I think Jim wants his legacy to be the transformational transportation bill that he fought mightily to bring to the floor,” Norton said. “I pledge to you to do all that I can to see to it that your prodigious work on that final, brilliant transportation authorization bill shall not have been in vain.”

Those are strong words from a loyal lieutenant, but the Republicans will be doing the transforming in the 112th Congress. Oberstar introduced his sweeping bill in July 2009 to streamline the DOT and authorize the agency to spend $500 billion over six years to build and repair highways, bridges and transit systems. The bill never made it to the House floor.

“I think there’s a big hole in the legislative agenda, having not completed that work,” Oberstar told a Nov. 16 press conference. It was his biggest piece of unfinished business.

With Republicans controlling the House, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., becomes transportation committee chairman. In directing his own vision for a six-year transportation bill, he will face many of the same obstacles that stymied Oberstar.

Oberstar’s bill foundered because Congress couldn’t find ways to pay the $500 billion tab. It’s nearly double what the last transportation bill allowed, but it was consistent with recommendations from two federal commissions on infrastructure and financing.

“We had this perfect storm,” said Jim Berard, Oberstar’s press secretary who served 22 years on his staff. “We have an infrastructure deficit and a budget deficit and a bad economy all at the same time. All of the solutions that could have been otherwise available to us just aren’t there.

“We can’t turn to the Treasury to deficit-spend, because the national deficit is so large. We can’t go to the taxpayers and tell them to pitch in more,” Berard said. “But we’ve let our infrastructure slide for so long, we can’t allow it to continue without serious consequences.”

Kerry O’Hare, senior policy adviser for the Building America’s Future coalition, said any transportation bill from Mica’s committee will not be as sweeping as Oberstar’s. “Chairman Mica has made it pretty clear that the deficit is overhanging everything that’s going on in Washington, and that means Congress has to live within its means,” O’Hare said. “I’m sure he’d like to see a robust bill, but under current circumstances, where is the money going to come from?”

Pete Ruane, president of the American Road and Transit Builders Association, says Oberstar’s thinking will still influence lawmakers but he said there is a deeper loss in a more fractured and partisan Congress. “In my opinion, if you go through the ranks of Congress today, you don’t see a whole lot of folks who are known for their in-depth knowledge, and a passion and advocacy for an issue that transcends their political office,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is getting Congress to focus on transportation as a national priority in the early months of this new Congress, and not spend the first 100 days dealing with a lot of partisan and ideological issues,” he said.

Janet Kavinoky, director of transportation policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Mica’s approach should closely parallel Oberstar’s because they both think strategically about transportation policy. Mica will be as concerned with performance: When states get federal money, they will spend it on projects that benefit the nation as a whole.

“The theme of performance will carry through,” she said. “I think we will see it in terms of focusing federal dollars to solve problems that are determined to be in the federal interest to solve.” Congress will have to expand the opportunities for alternative infrastructure financing. For starters, Kavinoky said the federal government should make sure all states’ laws are aligned to allow public-private partnerships.

Raising the motor fuel tax to fund the Highway Trust Fund has been a politically contentious issue for two years, but the fund now will be solvent for the next two years. That’s a blessing and a curse: It will buy time for Congress to find alternative sources of money, but there won’t be the urgency that comes when the fund nears bankruptcy. Congress voted twice to transfer general revenue to bolster the fund, but in today’s political environment, lawmakers aren’t likely to do so again.

“In the second year, they’re going to be faced with the huge challenge of renewing a long-term bill, because it’s imperative,” Ruane said. “They have no way of doing anything unless they go along with a 30 percent or
40 percent cut in the program.”

He said the industry must maintain its push for a long-term transportation bill even against vigorous opposition from lawmakers.

The best approach, Kavinoky said, would be getting members to agree on the benefits of an investment in infrastructure before raising the question of funding. “The House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats, need to arrive at the conclusion that investing in infrastructure is good for jobs and the economy. If they can arrive at that conclusion, they can craft a bill that’s compelling,” she said. “Then we can talk about revenue.”

For Oberstar, financing “is the Gordian Knot of the future of surface transportation financing. I think the future of transportation is less dependent on the financing mechanism than on the policy issues themselves.”

In the next Congress, he said, “I think you’ll see a lack of institutional understanding, and an unwillingness to follow seasoned leaders. There is little appetite for or appreciation of the broader policy questions that the nation faces in transportation. Absent ideas, the process will founder.”

The institutional memory and the depth of knowledge will be Oberstar’s legacy, and it will likely keep him in the transportation policy debate.

“Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican coming into Congress, you should take a page out of Jim Oberstar’s book, and realize that sometimes you have to dig in deep and become an expert,” Kavinoky said.

Contact R.G. Edmonson at bedmonson@joc.com