All Roads Lead Through Here

Posted February 27, 2009 at 1:47pm

As Washington, D.C., insiders mused on whom President Barack Obama would select for his Cabinet in the weeks following November’s election, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) seemed to be on everyone’s short list for Transportation secretary.

After all, the 18-term Congressman is a leading expert on all facets of transportation, the result of the many years he’s spent on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which he chairs.

But in an interview late last year, Oberstar said that while he was honored to be a candidate, he was concerned about the diminished portfolio that would accompany the job, which would have meant “a substantial surrender of authority and things that I’ve worked on my whole career.” For example, the Department of Transportation does not oversee many areas that his committee handles, including the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Clean Water Act, and public buildings and grounds.

The Cabinet slot ultimately went to former Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), and Oberstar is currently enmeshed in a busy agenda that reflects the broad jurisdiction of his committee. At the panel’s first meeting in January, Oberstar said boosting infrastructure and transportation safety will be the guiding principles underlying its work, as well as improving the environment and addressing global warming.

The committee already played a major role in crafting the $787 billion economic stimulus bill, which contained tens of billions of federal dollars for road building and other infrastructure improvements, and Oberstar has made clear that job creation will be a recurring theme of the 111th Congress.

First up for the committee after the stimulus is a key piece of unfinished business from the previous Congress — reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. The House passed an FAA bill last year, but the measure stalled in the Senate, prompting an extension of the current law until the end of this month.

Oberstar and Subcommittee on Aviation Chairman Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) last month introduced a four-year, $70 billion FAA reauthorization bill (H.R. 915) that is largely similar to the one passed last year. A key point of contention remains a provision that voids a 2006 air traffic controller contract with the FAA and replaces it with a dispute resolution process favored by the controllers’ union. Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member John Mica (R-Fla.), who has criticized the provision as too costly, last month called it the “two-ton elephant in the room” and urged its removal.

Mica also opposes what he calls “half-baked” provisions related to inspection of foreign repair stations, requirements for the use of insecticides on planes and federal worker safety standards for flight crews and other aviation workers. However, GOP opposition is unlikely to impede passage of the bill.

After completing the FAA bill and legislation reauthorizing the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which pays for water quality improvements, the committee will turn its attention to the mammoth transportation reauthorization bill. The once-every-five years, nearly $500 billion bill serves as a blueprint for federal transportation programs and spending priorities.

Oberstar has said he intends to use the bill to continue the recovery efforts started by infrastructure spending in the stimulus, while also modernizing the nation’s surface transportation systems. A key issue in the debate will be overhauling the financing mechanism that pays for road construction and other surface transportation programs.

Rounding out the transportation agenda will be a focus on rail issues and reauthorization of the Federal Maritime Commission and National Transportation Safety Board.

Oberstar also plans to pass a second Water Resources Development Act, a multi- billion authorization bill that funds federal water projects, as well as legislation that would negate a controversial Supreme Court ruling that some environmental leaders say narrowed the reach of the federal Clean Water Act. However, that bill is strongly opposed by business interests and property rights groups.

The committee’s jurisdiction also extends into a host of federal agencies, and included on the reauthorization to-do list are key Environmental Protection Agency offices, including the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program; the General Services Administration, which manages thousands of federal office buildings nationwide; and the Economic Development Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department that promotes regional growth.

Increased autonomy for FEMA — which has been strongly criticized after Hurricane Katrina — is another priority. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who chairs the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, said recently she’d like to remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security but will pursue more autonomy for the agency within DHS as a fallback position.