Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who'd been waiting three years for the House to take up long-term highway legislation, was wary when he saw nearly 300 amendments had been filed on the bill he'd helped draft. An added challenge: The bill was scheduled to hit the floor during Speaker Paul D. Ryan's first week on the job.
"I thought, 'Wow, that could be a little bit of a struggle,' " the Transportation and Infrastructure chairman said in an interview on Nov. 6. "But it ended up working out fine." Maybe more than fine. The 363-64 vote last week on passage of a six-year highway bill was a big win for Shuster, who had to negotiate with his own members, Democratic counterparts and colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the Senate. It also was a win for Ryan, who was elected speaker on a promise to open the legislative process.
It was an overwhelmingly bipartisan victory for legislation that typically falls victim to scrutiny by fiscal hawks who think infrastructure spending is best left to states.
"I believe I quarterbacked it across the goal line," Shuster said.
Members Weigh in on Ryan's First Week
In Ryan's first test as speaker, the Wisconsin Republican proved he could empower members — 126 amendments were made in order — while keeping proceedings under control. Shuster said there were many things working in Ryan's favor.
As Ways and Means chairman plodding away at rewriting the tax code, Ryan worked extensively with Shuster to advance both of their legislative priorities, which are closely linked. That meant Ryan knew the issues.
"The demands are very different — being a committee chairman and being a speaker," Shuster said. "Paul is very much a policy person, he understands the policy, but he also gets the politics very well."
In helping move the highway bill, Ryan had an advantage as a former committee chairman who understands "regular order and committee process," Shuster said. And even though Ryan had the final say on which highway amendments were debated on the floor, Shuster said he never felt marginalized or disregarded.
"It's a give and take," he explained. "[Ryan] listened, and sometimes we agreed. Sometimes I prevailed, sometimes he prevailed. ... I'll credit Speaker Ryan's openness, not only to the conference but to committee chairmen to say, 'This is something I want, this is something that's gonna cause some problems.' "
Ryan shares the trait of having held a committee gavel with his predecessor John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who was chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee before ascending to leadership. Boehner helped steer to passage George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education plan.
Boehner was still in charge when the groundwork was first being laid out earlier this year for the highway bill to come to the floor. Though Ryan pledged his speakership would usher in a new and unprecedented era of member participation and collaboration, Shuster said he was confident Boehner would have also facilitated an open amendment process if he stayed in office.
"Well, maybe not as open," the Pennsylvania lawmaker conceded.
As for the new speaker, Shuster considers Ryan a longtime friend. Their relationship extends beyond the Capitol steps, even to Ryan's intense workout regimen, though the Transportation chairman admits he's not kept pace with the speaker.
"I’ve been lax in doing P90X with him down in the House gym," Shuster said.