Skip to content

Transportation: Five Hill Aides to Know

There’s a bipartisan consensus that it’s past time for comprehensive plans to repave worn highways, upgrade stressed subways, rebuild aging bridges and expand overcrowded airports. But there’s nothing close to a deal on how to pay for jobs-boosting public works programs, which is why they’re likely to end up in a legislative dead end this year — with only a one-year spending bill in their place.

Dena Baron

Majority clerk, House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development

After a dozen years as a staff aide on the panel, Baron took the top staff position a year ago when the Republicans took control of the House and Iowa Rep. Tom Latham became the subcommittee chairman. Her new role has transformed Baron, who prefers to remain out of the public eye, into one of the Hill’s most powerful gatekeepers for transportation policy — not only advancing the GOP’s goals but also reining in President Barack Obama’s most ambitious aspirations: creation of a high-speed rail network and a national infrastructure bank.

Baron’s workload will surely be intense this year, regardless of whether Congress is able to come to an agreement on a long-term rewrite of policies and priorities for highway and mass transit projects. The mandatory spending ceilings for the various accounts in the highway bill are almost always lowered as part of the annual appropriations process. And Baron will be under pressure to repeat her work of last fall, when negotiations with the Senate on the THUD bill were done early enough that it could play the anchor role in the three-bill minibus enacted in November, a month before the rest of the spending measures.

Not only that, but the bill made good on some of the new House majority’s deepest domestic spending cut aspirations, with a grand total that was 18 percent below what Obama wanted.

Republicans are likely to go after additional cuts this year. Latham is particularly close to Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), so his panel will be enthusiastic in rebuffing many of the president’s initiatives in this election year.

Baron — who has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota and a master’s degree from George Washington University — will also be influential in championing Latham’s stance against bailing out the Highway Trust Fund with general tax revenue. The fund is expected to run dry by the end of the year unless Congress defies expectations and enacts a new surface transportation bill.

— Jessica Brady

Jim Coon

Chief of staff, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

After a quarter-century working on transportation policy and six years lobbying Congress for two powerful forces in the industry — jet-maker Boeing and the commercial airline trade association — Coon’s political and legislative skills have more than earned this appellation: He understands how to make the trains run on time, literally and metaphorically. The airports and the subways and the interstate highways, too.

And he will get to put his expertise to work as never before as his boss, Florida Rep. John Mica, labors to advance much of the Republican election-year agenda in two sweeping transportation measures that have been grounded for years: a rewrite of Federal Aviation Administration programs and an update of surface transportation construction priorities and policies.

Coon acknowledged the difficulty of finishing either bill because of the lingering standoff over how to pay for new public works, but he insisted he welcomes the challenge.

“The deck of cards we’ve been dealt is certainly much different than those in past years, and we’ve learned to do more with less,” Coon said. “But I think it’s afforded me a great opportunity to craft effective policy.”

As the chairman’s right-hand man, Coon is automatically a force to be reckoned with, and in transportation circles, he’s know to mask his influence with a self-effacing and calm demeanor. “There have been a number of situations where we’ve tried to bring both sides together and find a compromise that were stressful. But I try to remove the stress from those types of situations,” he said.

Coon is as well-equipped to do that as anyone, having spent his entire career on transportation issues. After earning a degree in urban planning from Virginia Tech, he started his Hill career in 1983 as a legislative aide to two Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, first for former Rep. Bob Smith (Ore.), then for Rep. John Duncan (Tenn.). He joined the committee staff in 1995 and, despite his two turns as a lobbyist between 1998 and 2004, rose steadily to the top Republican staff position four years ago.

— Kathryn A. Wolfe

Alex Keenan

Majority clerk, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development

With budgets stretched thin and talk of raising revenues eliciting rancor from Republicans across the aisle, Keenan’s experience crunching numbers and helping drive budget decisions at a host of federal agencies — including the Federal Aviation Administration — have made him a go-to guy in the past three years for Democratic Senators looking to get a firm grip on the transportation funding process.

His two decades of experience in the executive branch will again be drawn on this year as Congress mulls how many of the nation’s infrastructure needs can be met now — and how to pay for the upgrades.

Just as transportation-focused lawmakers have struggled with financing multiyear reauthorizations for the FAA and surface transportation programs, appropriators are being asked by the Obama White House to increase spending on what is invariably referred to by those looking for more money as the “nation’s crumbling infrastructure.” Keenan’s boss, Chairwoman Patty Murray, will be directing many of those decisions as the fiscal 2013 budgeting process gets under way.

Before the Washington state Democrat hired Keenan as her subcommittee staff director in 2009, he was the chief financial officer at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, overseeing the Homeland Security agency’s budget at a time of growth and intense scrutiny from a Congress trying to balance security and budget concerns as the economy flagged. For nearly five years before that, he worked as budget director at the FAA — the last person in that position while the agency was operating with long-term authorization; since 2007, it has been governed by a series of short-term extensions, the 23rd of which was enacted this month.

Keenan earned extra credit on Capitol Hill while at the FAA for his dealings with Congressional committees, including the Appropriations panels. But his Hill cred stretches to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue as well. Before the FAA, Keenan spent more than a decade analyzing budgetary fine print for the Office of Management and Budget and at the Justice Department.

— Nathan Hurst

John Miceli

Legislative aide to Rep. Steven LaTourette

The House Republican transportation portfolio held by LaTourette has expanded steadily in recent years. And as the Ohioan’s influence has grown among fellow lawmakers, transportation experts and industry lobbyists, Miceli’s expertise — especially with the inner workings of the annual appropriations bill that governs both the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments — will be particularly helpful to the House majority as it squares off with Democrats in charge of the Senate over funding for infrastructure projects.

Miceli, a graduate of Ohio University, joined LaTourette’s staff three years ago after earning a law degree from San Diego’s Thomas Jefferson School of Law and working as a contract attorney for a few months. His first job was answering constituent mail as a legislative correspondent, but he was soon promoted to be a legislative assistant focused on financial services policy, agriculture issues and, as Miceli put it, “the HUD part of THUD.”

And it’s Miceli’s familiarity with the many quirks of that spending bill that makes him so valuable to his boss: LaTourette serves as vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, is close to Speaker John Boehner, a fellow Ohioan, and is an increasingly important GOP voice on infrastructure and transportation spending and policy.

Even as deep divisions over policy have stymied legislative progress, LaTourette has reached across the aisle on transportation issues. He was the first — and thus far only — Republican co-sponsor of House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Nick Rahall’s (D-W.Va.) measure that would expand Buy American provisions for public works projects. LaTourette also helped move bipartisan legislation — co-sponsored by Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) — that would allow more flexibility in subsidies for public transit agencies. The measure also garnered enthusiastic support from a number of transportation trade unions.

— Nathan Hurst

David Napoliello

Senior policy adviser, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee

Infrastructure runs in his family’s bloodline — his paternal grandfather was director of Delaware’s Port Authority — so it perhaps isn’t surprising that when Napoliello got a job offer from the Department of Transportation after graduating from George Washington University a decade ago, he jumped on it.

An Army brat, Napoliello moved around the country frequently, always in the car — and his parents insisted on using local transportation options wherever they landed. “When we went to New York, we took the subway. In D.C. we took Metro, or the trolley system in San Diego,” he recalled.

After 13 years of crunching numbers at DOT — his final job was budget chief at the Federal Highway Administration — he made his way to Capitol Hill, starting off at the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and House and Urban Development. A year ago he transitioned to his current post, where he serves as Chairman Barbara Boxer’s principal legislative counselor.

Napoliello says he uses the lessons he learned from grandfather Caesare Napoliello — who was also a local elected official in charge of public works — to help the California Democrat achieve her objectives, the most ambitious of which is, for the moment, an election-year rewrite of the surface transportation law. His grandfather taught him “compromise, trying to listen to both sides of the argument. Don’t always just listen to one side and go with it. … For every problem, make sure you listen to the arguments on both sides and try to find a compromise.”

Napoliello said that lesson served him well in his first big legislative test: negotiating a highway and mass transit policy rewrite in committee and ending up with a unanimous bipartisan vote at the markup in November.

“There were very strong differing opinions and we tried to work through those issues to find compromises. At times, that was extremely difficult,” he said, but the result was “very gratifying.”

This year, Napoliello will be getting more attention as he works against long odds to get a bill passed by the Senate and a final deal negotiated with the House and the Obama administration.

— Kathryn A. Wolfe

Recent Stories

Eight questions for elections in five states on Tuesday

Paul Pelosi attacker sentenced to 30 years in prison

House Over-slight Committee — Congressional Hits and Misses

Biden kicks off outreach to Black voters as protest threat looms at Morehouse

Editor’s Note: Stock market no panacea for Biden, Democrats

Photos of the week ending May 17, 2024