The impending retirement of House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio at the end of this year has spurred what promises to be a heated race between two veteran Democrats to replace him.
Regardless of which party takes the House in November, House Democrats will choose between Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C. and Rep. Rick Larsen of Washington state for the top Democratic position on the 69-member panel, which has jurisdiction over transportation, the Coast Guard, federal management of emergencies, flood control, federal buildings and pipelines.
It’s an unusual time to take the gavel: Congress just passed the most ambitious transportation and infrastructure bill in generations, and the onus for the new chairman will be oversight of the bill’s implementation. The Federal Aviation Administration, however, will be up for reauthorization in fiscal 2023.
On the Republican side of the aisle, Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., who will have served four years as ranking Republican on the committee, will have two more years to serve as leader under GOP rules if he chooses to, meaning he is in a position to serve as ranking Republican or chairman depending on the outcome of the November’s elections.
Norton, 84, was first elected in 1990. She is chair of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. Larsen, 56, was elected in 2000 and is the chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation.
Here’s a look at the two:
Other than DeFazio, Norton, a 30-year veteran of the committee, has the most seniority among Democrats on the committee, but she acknowledges that’s not always the decisive factor.
“It’s necessary to talk about what you’d like to do on the committee,” she said.
For her, that means a continued focus on climate change and a progressive push similar to DeFazio’s, prioritizing reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It also means democratization of the committee process; she’s concerned that it’s too top-down, and is hopeful that giving subcommittee chairs more power might reduce some of the fractiousness in Congress right now.
Still, her seniority may be especially crucial this year. Seven current members of the committee are retiring, including DeFazio, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who is the third senior Democrat on the panel, and Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., who is seventh in Democratic seniority.
She said she’s also spent time talking about the crafting of the most recent infrastructure bill. The House Democrats’ bill was far more ambitious and transformative than the final version that passed Congress.
“The bill we would’ve passed would have not allowed an increase in highway traffic,” she said. “It would’ve said, ‘fix the highways and you have to use alternative modes of transportation. That’s the way to approach climate change and the fix we’re in on where to spend the money.’
While she said she was “glad” to get a bill passed, “frankly, it was not our bill.”
“Our bill on climate change was far better and in many of the areas was far more progressive, looking to the future, preparing us for the future,” she said. “But we were forced to accept what the Senate had done or nothing.”
If picked, she said her focus will be on oversight of the bill’s implementation. She said she’d quickly have implementation hearings if she were chair, and said her top legislative priority would be climate change.
She said she is also interested in developing a sustainable path forward on paying for the highway system. The federal gas tax has not been increased for more than 30 years and is no longer sufficient to pay for the Highway Trust Fund. In the meantime, automobiles have become far more fuel efficient, meaning gas taxes don’t generate the revenue they once did.
But even though she sees the need to raise the gas tax (“it’s a vital and desperately needed source of revenue,’” she said), it’s hard to imagine it getting done.
“Frankly, the Congress is so divided I’m not sure this is the time to make that kind of change, as badly as it is needed,” she said.
If picked, Norton would be the first D.C. delegate to serve as chair of a major legislative committee, though her predecessor, Walter Fauntroy, had influence as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
She said her district reflects the wide expanse covered by the committee, with transit, air, highways and federal buildings.
It’s that diversity, she said, that she stresses when she talks to members about her desire to be chair.
“I’ve gotten good feedback,” she said. “You can never tell until this process is over.”
Larsen, currently the fourth senior member of the transportation panel, will be the second senior member after DeFazio and Johnson retire.
In the days after DeFazio announced his retirement, Larsen said he’d either “talked to, emailed, phoned or texted” every member of the caucus that he thought would return.
“I’ve had a lot of conversations since, and what I can confidently say is that seniority has been a factor, but it will not be the factor in this race,” he said.
That’s because of his work on the committee — he’s helped write everything from pipeline safety legislation to Coast Guard bills to pieces of the surface transportation bill and water resources bills, as well as helped spearhead the 2018 FAA reauthorization bill, including fighting off attempts to privatize air traffic control.
Most recently, he worked with DeFazio on investigations of the 737 Boeing Max crashes, including the writing of the FAA certification overhaul bill that passed Congress in 2020. His Washington district includes the Boeing factory in Everett, and he has said that he represents more Boeing employees than any other member of Congress.
His candidacy also drawn the attention of stakeholders — among those to endorse him was Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, who did so in a Dec. 2 tweet, saying “Big shoes to fill, but no one is more prepared or experienced than @RepRickLarsen.”
If picked, he said he’d approach the committee in a manner similar to how he approached the aviation subcommittee: “We need to think about what transportation is going to look like in 2050 and start investing,” he said. “And there are plenty of people to help us do that.”
His next priority, he said, is safety, followed by oversight of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. “We’re going to need to continue to ensure that the administration understands congressional intent on the bill, as well as the opportunity for members to help shape its implementation,” he said.
He said diversity in the transportation workforce as well as fighting climate change are also top of mind.
But first, he has to convince Democrats to choose him. He said his campaign to lead Democrats on the committee is heavily reliant on talking to members about their needs.
“I am learning this country one infrastructure project at a time,” he said.