Nick Rahall knew exactly what he wanted to do when West Virginia sent him to Washington in 1976, and almost four decades later he is still on that path.
Rahall’s longtime goal has been to help his state take advantage of its bounty of natural resources and get the assistance it needs for building infrastructure in its mountainous terrain.
Accordingly, he sought positions on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (then called Public Works and Transportation) and the Natural Resources Committee (then called Interior and Insular Affairs). When he came to Congress, no West Virginian was serving on Transportation.
“I saw that as a real hole in our representation,” said Rahall, 64, who was born and raised in Beckley, W.Va., a town he still calls home.
As a past president of Beckley’s Key Club and an active participant in community projects, he knew well the importance of transportation, and the committee was a natural fit. He rose through the ranks to become the chairman of Natural Resources in 2007, and then gave up his membership to become the ranking member on Transportation after the House changed hands and then-Chairman Jim Oberstar of Minnesota was unexpectedly defeated in 2010.
“When you look at our infrastructure and the tremendous costs in a rural mountainous area such as I represent, it presents unique challenges,” Rahall said. “It’s a vital need in our area to connect the rural parts of this country with the major markets of the world.”
Rahall’s roots in the state are deep. His paternal grandfather immigrated from Lebanon to West Virginia in the early 1900s and made a living selling linens to coal miners, eventually opening a women’s dress shop. He made enough money to bring his wife to America and ultimately used the shop’s profits to launch a radio station, WWNR. The business blossomed into a publicly held firm called the Rahall Communications Corp. The lawmaker describes his family history as the “American dream come true.”
He attended Duke University and worked on the staff of powerful Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., with whom he maintained a close relationship the rest of Byrd’s life.
Rahall’s stint as the top Democrat on Transportation hasn’t been without challenges. He publicly complained that the previous chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., was playing politics with the surface-transportation bill and hadn’t reached out to Democrats. He also worries that the ban on earmarks—which have traditionally been a cornerstone of transportation legislation—has taken an outsize toll on states such as West Virginia that have trouble attracting private financing.
“An earmark … can be the spark that ignites some major projects for our people, especially in rural areas where the public-private relationship … or the public infrastructure bank of ideas may not work as well, because they require a revenue stream and we often don’t have that in rural sections of this country,” Rahall said. The mountainous topography makes it expensive to build highways, and without the option of adding tolls, “you don’t have that revenue coming in that attracts the private sector.”
From 2008 through 2010, when reforms to the earmark system began, including mandatory disclosure, West Virginia was always in the top five states for per capita earmark spending, according to data compiled by the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
“The equalizer for areas like West Virginia is earmarking and getting the funds that will get equal miles—however, at a much higher cost than in non-mountainous areas,” said former Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va. He also said Rahall is well regarded among local leaders in the state. “We certainly have had that capability, because of Nick’s service in Congress.”
Rahall praised the reforms to boost transparency by then-Chairman Oberstar, and he argues that the current ban on earmarks is tantamount to Congress’s reneging on its constitutional power of the purse. But he also says the best strategy to help his state is to have input on the legislation that does pass by fostering a good working relationship with Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa. Rahall describes that relationship as “excellent.”
Even political opponents praise Rahall’s work as an advocate for his state. “He’s a very thoughtful man,” said Jim Coon, the former staff director for the committee who left earlier this year to become the executive vice president at the National Air Transportation Association. “I think he appreciates the privilege of being a member of Congress and works to put his constituents first and understands the economic driver that infrastructure brings, especially to West Virginia.”
In many ways, Rahall is a good fit for a committee that doesn’t have a history of partisan posturing. He is one of the few Democrats left in Congress with a conservative streak; he opposes abortion rights and gun-control measures, for example. Rahall also opposes citizenship for illegal immigrants, at a time when much of the Democratic Caucus advocates such a pathway.
Rahall is one of only five Arab-American lawmakers in Congress, giving him a unique perspective on the Middle East.
“It has given me an insight, I feel, into all sides of the conflict in the Middle East, and a greater appreciation from whence those sides come and the difficulties in reconciling the conflict,” he said. “It also has instilled in me a recognition that we have to start at a young age to ensure that today’s youth are not bitten by the hatred of the past, but rather given the building blocks for a future peaceful coexistence with their neighbors and cousins. Peace in the Middle East is in America’s best interest, and we have a role to play.”
With a long history of electoral success—his 54 percent winning percentage in 2012 was the lowest he’d seen since 1990—Rahall isn’t likely to be leaving Congress anytime soon. Earlier this year, he passed on the chance to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Jay Rockefeller. And he still has work to do on several upcoming bills, from the Water Resources Development Act to railroad reauthorization and another highway bill.
“Our mountains may be high,” he said of his home state, “but so are our aspirations, and we love the challenge of overcoming our hurdles.”
This article appears in the July 25, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Rahall’s Representation Means Fighting for Resources.