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End of the Road for the Highway King Shusters

For the first time in 46 years, south-central Pennsylvania will not send a Shuster to Congress

Bud Shuster, right, wipes his eye as he congratulates his son, Bill, for winning the Republican nomination to fill his seat in 2001. (Gary M. Baranec/AP)
Bud Shuster, right, wipes his eye as he congratulates his son, Bill, for winning the Republican nomination to fill his seat in 2001. (Gary M. Baranec/AP)

EVERETT, Pa. — Bud Shuster leaned away from a desk in his farmhouse as he considered the differences between his chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and that of his son, Bill, who succeeded him in Congress and retires at the end of this session.

In his six years as chairman, the younger Shuster checked off all the major items in his committee’s jurisdiction, shepherding long-term authorization bills for roads, transit and aviation and three consecutive water resources development bills to enactment. In an era when Congress was known more for dysfunction and gridlock than delivering major legislation, that was no small feat, and it set a record unmatched since his father’s stint as chairman from 1995 to 2001.

“Bill I think had a much more difficult time than I did,” Bud Shuster said. “I’m amazed that he was able to accomplish as much as he was, given the terrible partisan environment.”

Next year, for the first time in 46 years, south-central Pennsylvania will not send a Shuster to Congress. Both Congress and the district have changed considerably over the years since Bud first took office, became a powerful committee chairman and ceded his seat to his son Bill.

Over those decades it became much more difficult to deliver for a district that grew from a depressed and relatively isolated area into one well-connected enough to become home to distribution hubs of major corporations. Its transformation was accomplished largely due to federal largesse brought by one Shuster chairman who bluntly used the tools of his day and another who, understanding the changes in Congress, developed different skills.

Bill Shuster’s era, which began when he succeeded his father in 2001 and ends when he retires after this term, was a marked departure from his dad’s. While the elder Shuster used earmarks to cultivate a power base capable of beating his party’s relatively neophyte leadership in the House, his son relied on personal relationships on both sides of the aisle in a more polarized political environment.

“One of his main tools was an earmark,” Bill Shuster said of his father. “He used it as a hammer. My major tool is a hug.”

Both proved successful.

“I think that part of Pennsylvania is going to miss the Shuster family,” said Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on House Transportation and Infrastructure and a panel member since coming to Congress in 1987. “I never counted up the projects, but I understand there’s been quite a bit of federal investment in that area.”

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On Nov. 6, voters in the district that went from the 9th to the 13th under a court-ordered redistricting elected Republican John Joyce, a dermatologist, to fill the seat. Of the eight candidates running, friend and foe alike said Joyce represented the closest thing to another Shuster. Perceived as more moderate than his GOP opponents, Joyce ran promising to be a “common sense conservative.”

But political observers of the area between the Maryland border and Altoona, Pennsylvania, are anxious about the loss of influence.

Bill Shuster, as a committee chairman, has obvious influence — the relationships he’s built since he’s been down there, and some of which he inherited from his father,” said Mike Ross, director of the Franklin County Area Development Corp. “Anytime you go from having that level of involvement and influence to having a freshman … to lose our guy, it’s going to be difficult.”

In the district’s business community and among Capitol Hill veterans, Bud Shuster is a legend. One of the last House chairmen to wield independent power in the chamber, he held enormous sway over a bipartisan group numbering near 100 members.

Bud Shuster was one of the most formidable figures in the House outside of the Republican leadership in the sense that Bud had his own power base, had his own coalition,” former Rep. Phillip S. English said in an interview. English, also a Pennsylvania Republican, was an ally of both Shusters during his 14-year House career. “At a time when the institution was becoming more polarized, he had the ability to straddle both sides of the aisle and take on the House Republican leadership and win.”

He became chairman in 1995, after the Newt Gingrich-led wave elections put Republicans in power in the House for the first time in more than 40 years. Shuster, who first came to Congress and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in 1973, had worked with Democrats for years and was able to draw on that good will as chairman.

Besides using the earmark process to reward allies and win support for his own priorities, he also benefited from relatively weak House leadership. Finding themselves in control for the first time in decades, Republican leaders didn’t have the iron grip on power to prevent ambitious chairmen like Shuster from exercising their own.

Past and current House members interviewed for this story agreed House leadership has grown stronger — at the expense of committee chairmen — following the GOP’s first few years back in power.

“Probably one of the reasons is because of my father,” Bill Shuster said. “After that first tier of chairmen, they slowly started to chip away.”

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 1: Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., is interviewed in his Rayburn Building office on November 1, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Bill Shuster is interviewed in his Rayburn Building office on Nov. 1. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

‘A powerhouse’

The elder Shuster used his position to transform a region in decline. He wasn’t particularly interested in transportation, he said, but “it was a no-brainer” to join the committee because of the glaring needs facing his district.

At the time, Pennsylvania’s 9th District, about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh, was disconnected from much of the nation’s transportation network, creating a hurdle for economic growth. After his election, Shuster met with business leaders around the area, who pressed the need for transportation infrastructure, said Marty Marasco, the former president of the Altoona-Blair County Development Corp.

Coal mining, steel production and railroads were historically the main employers in the area, and all experienced downturns that hurt the local economy.

“We were kind of a depressed area for a long time,” Marasco said.

Shuster made the construction of Interstate 99, which in Pennsylvania runs from Bedford north through Altoona to State College, a priority. Over time, Walmart, REI and Sheetz placed major distribution centers in the area, boosting employment in the area by thousands of jobs.

“All of that happened in the [I-99] corridor because of the transportation network and because we were able to accommodate sewer and water needs, electric needs and the gas needs of a growing company,” Marasco said.

Democratic Gov. Bob Casey Sr. would later designate a portion the Bud Shuster Highway.

Bud Shuster retired in February 2001, a few months after being rebuked by the House Ethics Committee for his close ties to a transportation lobbyist.

Bill Shuster — who acknowledged having a personal relationship with an airline lobbyist in 2015 but denied any wrongdoing and was never the subject of an ethics investigation — announced in January that he would retire after this term. With or without a rebuke, term limits would have prevented him from continuing as chairman of T&I after the 115th Congress.

Losing the 46-year run of Shusters could mean losing some of that attention to basic infrastructure and economic development.

“This is a period of time that is historic and we will probably never see — certainly in my lifetime — a powerhouse like that,” said Bette Slayton, executive director of the Bedford County Economic Development Corp. “Economic development is going to be more difficult without them.”

8/25/98.SHUSTER--U.S. 220/I-99, the
The “Bud Shuster Highway” is photographed in 1998, looking north just south of Altoona, Pa.. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

King of earmarks

In 1997, Bud Shuster led the passage of a law requiring that all federal gas tax revenue go into the Highway Trust Fund, bucking his own party leadership and a Democratic White House. A portion of the revenue had been reserved for deficit reduction. The move also strengthened Shuster’s power, since the new revenue could be spent on projects earmarked by his committee.

By the time of Bill Shuster’s chairmanship, such a move was near impossible. When the younger Shuster floated a gas tax increase earlier this year, for example, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan shot it down the same day. The proposal went nowhere.

Largely driven by tea party conservatives, Ryan’s predecessor as speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, oversaw a conference rule eliminating earmarks after the 2010 elections. The move further eroded the power of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in particular.

Despite — or perhaps because of — their ability to grease legislation, enticing members to take tough votes on bills that also contained federal funding in exchange for treasured projects back home, earmarks had become associated with government waste and political self-dealing.

“I did a couple of things that the good Lord ought to strike me dead for,” Bud Shuster said.

One cringe-worthy earmark he allowed, Shuster said, was $50 million for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland to benefit Republican Steve LaTourette, who represented a district the GOP was struggling to hold.

“There was a popular belief once upon a time that earmarks help you get re-elected, but I don’t think that’s true anymore,” said Andrew Roth, vice president of government affairs with the conservative Club for Growth. “That’s why party leaders banned it. They didn’t do it because they didn’t like earmarks, they did it because the voters hated them.”

Voters today are more concerned with candidates’ ideology than their ability to bring home federal dollars, Roth said.

Though he disagrees with Roth on the value of earmarks, English agrees about earmarks’ diminishing popularity among voters.

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“The voter no longer recognizes the value of some of these core investments in the community,” English said. “Our politics has kind of retreated into something less substantial or even nationalized that no longer ties itself to local needs.”

Without earmarks to provide an independent power base, Bill Shuster had to forge close relationships with Republican leadership and the rank and file of both parties.

“When I say hugs, I really kind of mean that,” he said, referring to his reduced legislative toolkit. “I don’t know if I ever really hugged a member, but I’d put my arm around them. And I’d have to really spend a lot of time, myself and my staff, a lot of time educating them up.”

If, as English said, Bud Shuster straddled both sides of the aisle in an increasingly partisan era of Congress, the same could be said for Bill. Despite a generally conservative voting record and a need to maintain close ties to his leadership, he kept good working relationships with Democrats, said DeFazio, in line to become committee chairman in January.

Bill Shuster also gained a reputation as someone who could get things done, especially after his first major bill as chairman, in 2014, became the first water resources bill in seven years. He cemented his reputation with the passage of a transportation bill in 2015 and another water resources bill in 2016.

But bipartisan relationships contradict the general trend in Congress, which has become more polarized, leaving Shuster open to attacks from the right.

New playing field

The Pennsylvania congressional map was upended this year when the state Supreme Court rejected one drawn by Republicans and substituted its own. The new map was seen as more favorable to Democrats, but the 13th District that encompasses most of the old 9th remains a Republican stronghold.

If voters are more attracted now to ideological purists than members who can deliver tangible benefits to a district, the Republican primary in that district proved an anomaly. Joyce won the nomination narrowly and then the general election by a wide margin.

Through a spokesman, Joyce declined to be interviewed for this story and didn’t respond to written questions.

In nominating Joyce, GOP voters opted for a “common sense” conservative over a crowded field of more ideological candidates, including second-place finisher state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., a consistent Shuster foe over the years.

To win his seat in 2006, Eichelberger defeated longtime state Sen. Robert Jubelirer, the president pro tem of the state Senate who partnered with Bud Shuster to bring infrastructure and economic development to the area for many years.

Conservatives in the 2018 open race split the vote, which allowed Joyce to succeed with less than 22 percent of the vote, just ahead of a slew of farther-right candidates.

“I don’t think [either Shuster] is a true conservative,” Eichelberger said. While voting on the conservative side of issues like guns and abortion, the Shusters’ passion is clearly on transportation and economic development, which rubs social conservatives like Eichelberger, who leads the state Senate’s anti-abortion caucus, the wrong way.

“Never have I seen them really advocate for those issues,” Eichelberger said, referring to the Second Amendment and abortion. “I’ve never seen any evidence they’re really for small government.”

Bill Shuster disputes the characterization he’s not conservative and said he’s instead realistic about what can be accomplished. And he’s adamant that transportation, along with national defense, is a core constitutional responsibility of Congress. He routinely quotes from memory parts of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which calls for establishment of post roads.

The day after Joyce won the primary, Shuster’s House GOP colleagues in Washington swarmed him on the floor to congratulate him. He and his father kept their distance from the campaign, but Joyce is a friend of both and was their choice to succeed Bill. The outgoing chairman said Joyce has the right approach to the legislative process.

“He’s a sensible fiscal conservative, as opposed to a right-wing crazy,” Bud Shuster said of Joyce.

Bill Shuster has pledged to be available to Joyce as he settles in. Still, no matter how much they’re aligned on issues, the new congressman will face a learning curve.

The district still faces transportation challenges, but Joyce might be a better fit for another panel such as Energy and Commerce, Bud Shuster said.

After Democrats won control of the House in this month’s elections, the possibility of at least a partial restoration of earmarks appeared to grow. In September, House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland endorsed their restoration, arguing that they would ease legislative gridlock. Rather than lawmakers choosing projects under an earmarks system, the administration now has more control under competitive grant programs.

That realization has led members to reconsider the ban, which could come in a new transportation bill due in 2020, said Adie Tomer, a fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “I think it’s absolutely on the table,” he said.

Whatever forces support a return to earmarks, others will fight it. One opponent, Steve Ellis, vice president of the anti-earmark and spending group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said Bill Shuster proved why they’re not needed.

In 2013, while many members, especially appropriators, were still lamenting the loss of the earmarks, Shuster “rolled up his sleeves” and figured out a way to pass transportation bills without them, Ellis said.

For his part, Shuster said his approach as chairman was formed in part by recognizing early that he couldn’t borrow much from his dad’s playbook.

Asked how he passed as much legislation as he did where previous chairmen couldn’t, Bill Shuster paused. “I don’t know for sure,” he said. “What I think is that I fully understood that this place is different.”

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