On April 1, 1998, Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) rammed through the House a highway bill far larger than either the White House or his own leadership wanted.
On Friday, Shuster’s successor as Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman, Don Young (R-Alaska), watched as the House approved a measure $100 billion smaller and significantly narrower in scope than the Alaskan originally hoped to enact.
While all agreed a lot has changed in six years, House Members and aides offered a variety of different explanations — including leadership style, the fiscal environment and the occupant of the White House — for why Young was unable to replicate Shuster’s accomplishment.
This year’s $275 billion bill passed the House 357-65, with more than enough support to override a threatened presidential veto. Final passage came after a tumultuous week, during which many lawmakers loudly complained about how Young had distributed the money. Many of the “no” votes came from Members who felt their states had fared poorly, including Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
But for Young, the real setbacks occurred before the measure — likely the most important he will shepherd in his tenure as chairman — ever hit the floor.
“It’s the circumstances, not the personalities, that have been the reason for the big change,” said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), a veteran Transportation member.
Boehlert’s argument was echoed by a number of other Young supporters and more neutral observers.
Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), who helped write the bill as chairman of the Transportation subcommittee on highways, transit and pipelines, gave a simple explanation: “There’s a Republican administration in the White House.”
In 1998, President Bill Clinton also made noises about vetoing the highway bill. But few on the Hill took that threat very seriously, and while Republican leaders wanted a smaller bill, they also had no interest in going out of their way to do the administration’s bidding.
“Clinton wouldn’t have vetoed that highway bill,” said Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio).
This time around, President Bush let it be known early that he wanted a $256 billion highway measure and that Young’s initial price tag, $375 billion, would never fly. With Bush on the ballot in November, GOP leaders had little interest in straying too far from the White House’s wishes.
“The leadership made a decision not to get crossways with the president in an election year,” said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio). “[Young’s] hands were tied.”
And in the wake of conservative discontent over last year’s Medicare bill and the steady growth of government spending, Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue were wary of putting forth a budget-busting measure that would further inflame the right.
That fear was particularly acute given that the House recently passed a budget that Republicans trumpeted as one that would help reverse the government’s slide into the red.
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the Transportation subcommittee on aviation, said the main reason for Young’s inability to get a larger bill was “the half-a-trillion-dollar deficit.”
Boehlert added that the war in Iraq and the huge increase in spending associated with the broader effort against terrorism also pushed highway funding further down the list of priorities.
Yet even with a Republican White House and a shortage of money to play with, many Republicans argued privately that Young had badly misplayed his hand leading up to last week’s debate, hurting his own chances of scoring a victory similar to Shuster’s.
Young’s first misstep came last year, when he first revealed his $375 billion target and, more importantly, pushed for a hefty gas tax increase to pay for it.
With both the White House and the Republican leadership firmly opposed to tax increases of any kind, Young’s proposal got him off on the wrong foot.
As his committee’s consideration of the bill approached, the White House and Republican leaders gradually revised down the amount of money Young would have to play with. Whereas Shuster had enough lawmakers who supported him — or feared him — to push back against the leadership, Young was not able to martial a similar counteroffensive.
Adding insult to injury, Young was not even able to use the final product to punish his most strident critics. When the Alaskan first proposed the gas tax increase, opposition to the idea was lead by freshman Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), who complained Young had tried to intimidate her on the House floor.
Subsequently, Young left $14 million in projects requested by Musgrave out of his bill, only to be forced by GOP leaders and the White House to fund the Colorado lawmaker’s projects through a manager’s amendment.
Yet even many who concede the differences in style between Young and Shuster said that they were not the deciding factor.
“I don’t believe that that’s relevant,” said Rep. Bill Lipinski (Ill.), one of the top Democrats on the Transportation panel.
Lipinski said the unity between GOP leaders and the White House made it unrealistic to think Young could have muscled his way past both groups to pass a much larger bill.
Even with all of Young’s setbacks, the bill will go to conference with the Senate set at $318 billion, giving him a chance to boost the final number above what the House passed.
“Everyone has their own style, but Don is a very experienced chairman and a wily one, too,” said Petri. “As he has said, the game’s not over.”