Blair County Republican congressman Shuster ready for road ahead
Bill Shuster is his own man.
The Blair County Republican congressman, who will chair the powerful House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure beginning in January, is assuming a leadership post his father, Bud Shuster, held for more than six years.
The similarity ends there.
Make no mistake, both men are thrilled that the family legacy will continue, said the elder Shuster, who gushed during a Tribune-Review interview that he “couldn’t be more proud.”
But his son will run a markedly different committee, with tight budgets, no directed spending through earmarks and no appetite among the electorate for anything resembling taxes or “pork barrel” spending.
“All options are on the table,” said Shuster, 52, of Hollidaysburg, regarding how to find money for highway and bridge repairs in a country with a crumbling infrastructure.
He said he’d consider bucking the Republican Party line of “no new taxes” to fund transportation projects.
Shuster believes the chairman’s most important role is to listen — to constituents and colleagues.
“Transportation is not a partisan issue,” he said. “All Americans care about the safety of roads and bridges and waterways. Everyone is similarly impacted, every single day, and that is going to be a key part of reaching across the aisle.”
Bud Shuster, 80, who represented the 9th District from 1973 until his son succeeded him in 2001, honed in on projects that benefited his constituents, and the cash flowed home easily through earmarks, said Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College in Lackawanna County.
“The son’s interests lie in rebuilding the entire national infrastructure — that includes not only bridges and roads but ports, freight transit and waterway systems — with a goal to make it all more efficient,” Brauer said.
The elder Shuster retired in January 2001, hours after being sworn in for his 14th term, citing health concerns. Some speculated that GOP leadership term limits and a nagging ethics investigation contributed to his resignation.
The last transportation bill that Bud Shuster pushed through was a six-year bill in 1998 for $218 billion. By contrast, the bill lawmakers authorized for 2013 and 2014 totaled $105 billion.
Same work ethic, different environment
When he assumes the committee chairmanship after the 113th Congress is sworn in, Shuster will be the first House member from west-central Pennsylvania in a position to direct money to the state since the 2010 death of Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, who chaired the defense appropriations subcommittee.
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, considers Shuster a friend despite often-hostile relationships between lawmakers in opposing parties.
He believes there are similarities between the Shusters: “They both earned the respect and willingness of both parties to work together to get things done.”
Doyle said House GOP leaders appear unwilling to grant extra money toward the nation’s surface transportation system, “a total contrast to the days when his father ran (the committee).”
As chairman from 1995 to 2001, the elder Shuster often put himself at odds with President Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich on spending, Doyle said. “But when it came to projects, it was business before ideology. And he always got them through.”
Part of the problem today, Doyle said, is that the Highway Trust Fund — for construction or maintenance — is funded by a federal gasoline tax that collects less because of fuel-efficient vehicles. “Plus, people are driving less because of high fuel costs,” he said.
In 2010, President Obama’s bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission recommended a 15-cent federal tax increase on a gallon of gas to boost the transportation fund. No legislation resulted. Congress last raised the gas tax in 1993, to 18.4 cents per gallon.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates a $105 billion to $110 billion shortfall in highway and transit funding by 2022.
Large task to tackle
The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s oversight goes beyond trains, planes and automobiles to several missions of the Coast Guard, disaster preparedness, flood damage control, several aspects of the Army Corps of Engineers, and clean water and wastewater management and pipelines. The latter four directly affect the shale gas industry.
Shuster said he would take a hard line with agencies if he perceives they are attempting to expand their reach. Last year, when he chaired a subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials, he fought to restrict the role of the Army Corps, which oversees permits for pipelines that cross streams.
“Their expansion of power is just a play by them to justify their existence,” Shuster said.
A spokesman for the Army Corps said the agency would not comment.
Shuster doesn’t intend to overlook transportation on inland waterways, critical to keeping costs low for consumers and businesses.
“The harbors and ports of this country are very vital,” said Shuster, who grew up in McKeesport.
He cited the nine locks and dams on the Monongahela River, which maintain navigable waters for 129 miles from around Fairmont, W.Va., to The Point in Pittsburgh. The system “needs about $3 billion to completely rebuild and refurbish it,” Shuster said.
“He has his work cut out for him,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a Squirrel Hill Democrat. “But he gets it, and he’s his own guy. He understands the importance of the locks and dams, and the amount of economic wealth for the area through good barge transportation, the airport (and) the shale industry.”
Salena Zito is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at [email protected].