By the time House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster was 16 years old, he had birthed calves, butchered cows, and castrated bulls. He says his job running a congressional committee whose jurisdiction literally touches every lawmaker’s district is easy stuff after working on his family’s beef farm in southeastern Pennsylvania.
“There’s no comparison,” he said in an interview in his Washington office. “Farming is far more difficult.”
Shuster, 52, took the committee helm at the beginning of the year, when Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., stepped down because of term limits. Shuster is a newbie by the standards of committee veterans. He has been a member since he was elected to Congress in 2001. By contrast, his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, has been on the panel for 36 years.
“I’ve got the great fortune to have three former chairs, two Republican chairmen, sitting on the committee—great fortune. I can call any of the three, talk to them, get their advice. Sometimes I have the misfortune to have the former chairmen, because they call me up and tell me, ‘Hey, you should be doing that or this,’ ” Shuster said.
The two former panel chairmen are Mica and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska—the king of earmarks and author of the famous “Bridge to Nowhere” project that came to define the 2005 highway and transit bill. The other ex-chairman whom Shuster consults regularly is his father, former Rep. Bud Shuster, who spent two decades on the committee in the minority party before taking the Transportation gavel under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. The elder Shuster was at one point one of the most powerful men in Washington, famously bucking both President Clinton and Gingrich in the 1997 budget negotiations over how gas-tax revenues would be used.
But times are different, and his son doesn’t have anywhere near that kind of power. Unlike in the salad days of the 1990s, Bill Shuster is governing the committee in an era when little federal cash is available to play with and a chairman has no ability to exert influence by authorizing special projects for lawmakers. The younger Shuster is wielding more charm and less raw strength.
“In the past, it was more of a power game,” said Shuster, who was once a car salesman. “Now it’s more of a finesse game.”
He’s good at it. Shuster is popular in the GOP Caucus. He coaches the Republicans’ congressional football team and is a starter on the congressional baseball team. For the annual Congressional Baseball Game, a charity event sponsored by Roll Call, he wears the uniform of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ AA minor-league affiliate, the Altoona Curve.
Shuster also has a political edge in being close to House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. He is a senior member of the House GOP whip team and spends a lot of time communicating with members outside the committee. Those relationships can help smooth the sometimes treacherous path of legislation from committee to the House floor, where debate scheduling can be a nightmare and hundreds of members are asked to understand a bill in a short period of time.
Cantor is searching for floor time for the committee’s first priority, a water-resources bill that would streamline project approval for the country’s waterways and ports. The panel’s markup of the bill is likely to be timed so that only a few weeks go by before the full House votes on it, probably in September. It’s the kind of coordination that requires the leaders and the chairman to be comfortable talking candidly about where they are in the legislative process, snags and all.
Shuster grew up respecting the bipartisan tradition of the Transportation Committee, courtesy of his father, who was famous for cutting deals with Democrats. Since the younger Shuster took over in January, Democratic members say the atmosphere has been markedly different from that of past chairmen.
“There have been meetings, actual meetings, before a bill is introduced to discuss provisions of the bill and the differences we have, which is the way we used to do it,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. “When the Republicans took over this last time [in 2011], all discussion came to a halt. We were not included in a single meaningful discussion during the debate of the [surface-transportation] bill.” (It’s worth noting that Republicans had the same complaint under Mica’s predecessor, former Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., who was chairman from 2006 to 2010.)
But honeymoons always end, and the committee under Shuster has yet to grapple with the tough stuff. The surface-transportation bill that passed the committee in a highly partisan fashion last year must be reauthorized next year, and there will be no more spare cash than there was the last time around to handle gaping infrastructure needs. Shuster might be able to change the initial tenor of the debate by inviting committee Democrats to a few more planning meetings, but he likely won’t be able to pull off a deal that meets conservative demands for fiscal soundness while answering Democrats’ calls for more investment.
He will certainly try. Asked if it’s his goal to pass a bipartisan surface-transportation bill, Shuster replied: “My goal is to have a successful surface bill, one that does a lot of important things, and that probably means that it needs to be bipartisan.”
It’s not in Shuster’s DNA to make ultimatums when drafting legislation, and he asks others to refrain from doing so as well. He hopes that this technique will take him far down the legislative path, perhaps further than his predecessors, before his colleagues start drawing lines in the sand. He likens the transaction to selling a car. “If I wanted $20,000 for a car, I didn’t always get $20,000. So what can I do? What can I do to figure out how we can come together?”
Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., has known “Billy” for decades, a name Shuster says is reserved for family and longtime friends. LoBiondo said Shuster is the kind of guy who holds his philosophies close to his heart but doesn’t let them get in the way of finishing a deal. “He’s just a real guy. He’s down to earth, and he’s interested in results,” LoBiondo said.
Shuster is still feeling out his role. The first major committee markup he chaired was a highly partisan effort to approve the plan for the Keystone XL pipeline, a top political priority for Boehner. The House passed the bill a week later. Rahall, one of the Democratic supporters of the pipeline, called the legislation a “mockery” of the issue because it would eliminate permitting requirements.
The Keystone proposal was probably more blatantly political than anything else the committee will take on, but the markup was good practice for Shuster. “How long did we last in there? Four hours? Something like that. Hey, it’s experience. It gives me experience running that committee on a markup that’s controversial.”
The way Shuster handled that markup is how he purports to run the committee. “You try to be respectful to people. But, on the other hand, they need to be respectful to the rest of the committee. So everybody pretty much knows that I’ll give a little bit. But at some point, enough.”
This article appears in the July 25, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Working on the Charm Offensive.