Capitol Hill institution is a phrase that some incoming freshmen Members may not appreciate or find at all useful. After all, some of them are arriving with the intent to de-institutionalize the place.
Democrat Jim Oberstar was de-institutionalized on Election Day. He lost his re-election bid as did some other senior congressmen, including two other committee chairs. Gene Taylor (D-MS) of the Seapower Subcommittee was one.
The chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee is both an institution and a creature of one, where he spent 36 years representing his Minnesota district. He started on Capitol Hill in the early 1960s as a staffer for an earlier iteration of that committee. His remarks the other day to reporters (as reported by Sarah Abruzzese of E&E) reflect a perspective born in another time that looks out of place in the litmus-test politics of today.
“I think you will see coming in a lack of institutional understanding and also it appears a lack of willingness to follow seasoned leaders,” Oberstar said.
That’s speculation on his part but not without cause. A real question giving those of us here pause is how well the 112th Congress will function and, therefore, govern. Many of us end the 111th Congress with doubtful expectations for the next one. (Paul Page of the Journal of Commerce wonders about the prospects for governing also.)
Not to suggest it is the center of the policy universe but in the transportation sector there is much at stake. Here are three instances. Long pending aviation program and policy legislation has been immobilized and needs to reach the President’s desk. Likewise, the significant surface transportation “reauthorization” legislation—to include reforms that hopefully will make up for the excesses and diversions of SAFETEA-LU—is overdue and guaranteed to take at least another year to address, if we are so lucky. Whether this next “TEA” bill will contain the multi-modal sensibility, including marine elements, that many of us look for, is one of the consequential unknowns. And speaking about bills that are rarely on time, how will the Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works program–the basis for navigation infrastructure and commerce since the nation’s founding days–be made to function well in the next decades if Congress does not take up water resource (WRDA) legislsation?
There are bigger fish to fry in this town, of course – the government’s off-balance fiscal policy, the economy, and our international presence. But let’s consider the prospects on a smaller and more easily understood scale of those, nonetheless significant, challenges that face the transportation and public works panels of the House and Senate. There is much to do in part because not much has been done over the years to address the nation’s infrastructure deficit or to focus on neglected sectors like the U.S. maritime. As for the incoming class, Jim Oberstar’s conjecture is reasonable.
Among the members-elect, “there is little appetite for or appreciation of the broader policy questions that the nation faces with transportation,” he said — emphasizing that this was his opinion from reading about election outcomes across the country.
[Oberstar] expressed admiration for Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who served as the committee’s ranking member and is now almost certain to take over as chairman. “Mr. Mica and I developed over these four years a very close working relationship,” Oberstar said. “He and I were both quick to say we have disagreements on policy issues, but we found a way to mitigate those differences.”Oberstar listed multiple bills that the two parties were able to come to an agreement on and shepherd out of the committee, including a Water Resources and Development Act that successfully overcame a presidential veto, an Amtrak bill that the president signed, an aviation authorization bill (twice), and a Coast Guard authorization bill.
“I would have brought to the new Congress that history of cooperation and seeing and trusting, that’s even more important, trusting my partner in this process,” Oberstar said. “Going forward, you’ll have to rebuild all those personal relationships and committee structural relationships. And that will take time and will take something out of the process.”
How true. While still holding out hope for what is to come, we will miss Jim Oberstar, the institution and that diminishing breed. Good luck, Chairman Mica. Pbea