Minnesota Democrat James Oberstar, the 36-year veteran legislator who has used his encyclopedic knowledge of transportation issues to shape generations of highway legislation, bid an emotional farewell in an hour-long conference with the transportation press yesterday afternoon.
Rep. James Oberstar talks about Minnesota transportation projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act during a 2009 press conference..
Rep. James Oberstar talks about Minnesota transportation projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act during a 2009 press conference..

Oberstar, who lost his bid for re-election earlier this month, chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is responsible for drafting the House version of key transportation legislation.

His likely replacement as chairman is the current ranking member of the committee, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., but no one will take his place as Congress's transportation historian.

For instance: Yesterday Oberstar explained that the T&I Committee is the successor to the first committee of the first Congress, the Committee on Rivers and Harbors.

"The first act of that committee, in September of 1789, was to authorize the establishment and maintenance of a lighthouse at the entrance to Hampton Roads (Va.)."

It's the kind of detail that illustrates a vision.

"So all of the history of this committee, and intertwined with it my service to Congress, has been for movement of people and goods safely, efficiently and effectively for the greater good of the nation," Oberstar said. "And in the process to aspire to have some of that same vision that those founding members of Congress had to understand that we needed investment in structures of transportation to maintain strong, healthy, growing, mobile economy."

Gordian Knot

Investment in the structures of transportation is the "Gordian Knot" of today's legislative impasse, as Oberstar put it.

He and his colleagues last year drafted a bill outlining a new six-year federal highway program to replace the current program, and he pushed for funding driven mainly by raising the fuel taxes that feed the Highway Trust Fund. But neither the White House nor the Senate will support a fuel tax increase.

President Obama has stuck to his campaign pledge not to raise taxes, and the only support for an increase on the Senate side came from Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio., Oberstar said.

He sees a deterioration of the sense of greater good that animated earlier Congresses on the issue of highway user fees. Three Republican presidents have supported fuel tax increases, he said - Eisenhower after the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, Reagan with his 'nickel for America' in 1982 and the first Bush in 1990.

"But that apparently is not good enough for today's Republican conference." He said that even though the Republican conference cannot get behind an increase, many individual Republicans would support raising the fee.

Leaving congress without that bill being passed leaves a big hole in the legislative agenda, Oberstar said. He holds out faint hope that when President Obama and the newly elected congressional leaders meet today they may come to an agreement that would clear the way for passage of highway reauthorization in the lame duck session.

Failing that, Oberstar would like to see a one-year extension of the current program, rather than a series of short extensions. That would give legislators time to come to agreement on financing for a six-year bill, he said.

The Earmark Debate

He also talked about earmarks. There have been excesses, he acknowledged, mentioning the 27,000 earmarks in the 2006 highway bill. "But that was an exception," he said. "The other end of the spectrum is the rather simplistic notion that members of congress should not have a role in designating investment of federal resources. If you subscribe to that notion, then the executive branch at the national or state level makes all those decisions, and the people that members of congress represent are without voice."

He said his solution as chairman has been to require committee members to sign a document that says they have no personal or family financial interest in the project, and have a local sponsor to provide non-federal financial match. This information is posted online for anyone to see.

In the near term, the T&I Committee is going to have to take some time to rebuild personal and structural relationships in the wake of the election, Oberstar said.

He and Ranking Member John Mica have developed a close working relationship based on trust and cooperation, he said. "We have disagreements on policy but we found a way to mitigate those differences and reach agreement."

"Even though the new House seems to be composed of much more conservative ideology than current Congress, I could have played a beneficial role in negotiations because of that record of trust and cooperation."

Looking ahead, do not expect to see Oberstar step through the Washington revolving door. "You will not see my name on a lobbying firm," he said - quickly adding that he has nothing against them and that they provide a great service. Instead, he said he wants to be of service in the policy arena, particularly with respect to his longstanding interest in safety.

He came close to tears, thanking the transportation media for their coverage of the committee.