When Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., was elected to lead the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee late last year, the first thing he did was call the panel's ranking member, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and invite him to dinner. The two transportation gurus, who have known each other for 40 years, dined at the Capital Grille in downtown Washington with their respective staff directors and chatted about the committee.
Did Rahall have complaints for the chairman-elect? "Sure, but I can't share them with you," Shuster said in an interview with National Journal Daily.
The private nature of their conversation hardly matters. What does is that Shuster wanted to start off his tenure on a different note, and the dinner with Rahall was a formal gesture that signaled a serious attempt to build consensus. Committee members in both parties say the attempt seems to be working. Staff members are in regular contact about pending legislation. Rahall describes his relationship with Shuster as "excellent." And the two men talk almost daily when Congress is in session.
"The message has been delivered, I think, to all of us that they want us to work together," said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., the ranking member on the Aviation Subcommittee. "Where we have differences and we can't reconcile them, we'll deal with it, but those aren't going to be driving the personality of the work of the committee."
While these are welcome developments—minority complaints about being shut out were loud in years past—it will take more than camaraderie to meet the challenges facing the committee. Infrastructure is an issue that can lend itself to bipartisan action, but the panel is operating under severe financial constraints and without some of its traditional tools—namely earmarks—that helped lubricate the legislative process.
Moreover, the legislative slate planned for the next 18 months is ambitious. On tap is a water-resources bill that hasn't been reauthorized since 2007, a passenger-rail bill that last saw action in 2008, and a surface-transportation bill that can cause bitter division. In better fiscal times, the highway bill traditionally spans five years; last year, after painful negotiations and endless stopgap extensions, Congress managed to pass a bill that funds highways, rail, and transit for only two years.
And it won't be any easier this time around.
In National Journal's special report, Fawn Johnson discusses the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the troubles that plague it. In the video above, go behind the special report on the House committee.