The Highway To Nowhere

AT 1:30 in the morning on May 22, freshman Republican Kay Granger of Texas trudged wearily down the long hallway of the Russell House Office Building to a meeting with Bud Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. The House was debating a controversial Shuster proposal to add $12 billion more to proposed transportation spending, a cheeky power play that frantic House leaders warned would demolish the fledgling budget deal.

thwtnwShuster told Transportation Committee members such as Kay Granger –who, as a candidate, had relied on Shuster’s promises of money for a major highway expansion in her district — that he expected their support. Rep. Granger sat across from the 65-year-old chairman, perhaps the most feared chairman in the House, and told him she had made up her mind: She would oppose him. “For all of us, what you bring home for transportation is very important to whether or not you get elected,” she explained, a point her apprehensive staffers had repeatedly stressed to her. “But in this case, I said the most important thing was to do what I said I was going to do: balance the budget.”

So it went for Shuster, who suffered eight defections from his committee early that morning and lost barely — by just two votes. For all the complaining by conservatives about the budget deal, it was Shuster, transportation-spending czar, who mounted the most serious challenge to it. The Republican leadership was able to contain him — and the traditional congressional appetite for spending on pork-barrel projects that he represents — but perhaps only for the time being. Shuster will be back in March when the House takes up a revised transportation-spending plan.

Shuster is exactly the kind of committee chairman Speaker Newt Gingrich hoped to make obsolete after the 1994 elections: a congressional baron who skillfully uses the power of his chairmanship to bend members to his will and frustrate the larger goals of the leadership. Committee chairmen did get shoved aside in the early days of the GOP Congress, but now they’re back, and for Bud Shuster that creates the possibility of making increased transportation spending a GOP congressional priority.

Shuster dresses with the pin-striped precision of a Fortune 500 CEO — he made a killing in the computer industry before coming to Congress in 1972 — and carries himself with an affable ease, but he is a man who savors a good old-fashioned barroom brawl. His fitness regime is itself worthy of a heavyweight champion; he eschews the three-martini lunches and steak dinners of the Washington establishment, instead rising early to jog on the Mall, and he is a fixture in the House gym.

His tangles with the House leadership reflect a formidable pugnacity. He openly blasted the leadership’s balanced budget deal, calling it “UNACCEPTABLE” in an intemperate memo sent to each leader. Shuster presides over the largest committee in the House, and he rallied its 73 members to pressure Speaker Gingrich to keep his word and grant a vote on Shuster’s spending proposal earlier this year. A harried Gingrich talked about ousting Shuster, but he nonetheless relented and granted the vote. Majority Leader Dick Armey was furious, and this proved to be one of the key unilateral Gingrich decisions that precipitated the aborted coup against him a few months later.

Shuster says now that the leadership never intended to have a fair vote. He claims that he was ahead by a margin of 40 that afternoon, and it was only after calls from President Clinton, an emergency GOP conference that night, and prolonged arm-twisting that he was beaten back. “There were four members on the floor ready to change their votes [to yea],” Shuster griped. “And they were gaveled down. I was promised a fair shot — only as long as they were sure I’d lose.”

FOR the rank and file, the spending proposal presented one of the most wrenching dilemmas of this Congress. Shuster’s committee Republicans believe he keeps “The List” — that is, a list of special transportation projects requested by members — and follows their votes with great care. “The first thing I heard was that Transportation was a black-dot committee — vote against them and that stain is with you forever,” recalled New York Republican John McHugh. “It’s legend.”

For those who have defied Shuster, the expectation of less money to bring back home is automatic. Mississippi Republican Mike Parker, a Shuster critic, has to depend on the Senate Majority Leader, a fellow Mississippian, to protect his projects. “If Trent Lott dies, I’m going to jump into the grave with him,” Parker says, flashing a broad grin. “As a matter of fact, I’m trying to get him to watch his diet. And if he starts smoking, I’ll kill him.”

Shuster, for his part, dismisses the notion of retribution, with a statement that sounds a bit like a threat. “I defy anybody to step forward and say I threatened them with retaliation, because it didn’t happen,” he has said.

But some who have provoked him in the past have felt his wrath, such as Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida. After deriding Shuster’s pilot projects a few years ago as “giant hogs,” Graham discovered that 14 such projects in Florida had been scratched. Graham, not surprisingly, quickly placated Shuster and preserved the projects.

Indeed, Shuster is so formidable a figure in the House that I could find only a handful of Republicans willing to talk about him. Is Shuster simply out of place in the fiscally conservative Republican Congress, I asked the quotable Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma. “I’m not prepared to answer that,” he answered curtly, before ducking onto the House floor.

Why did you vote against his amendment? I asked another Republican.

“I’m going to respectfully decline this interview,” he answered.

“How about talking on background?”

“I’m going to respectfully decline this interview.”

“OK, let’s go off the record.”

“Thanks anyway.”

Even among the reform-minded freshman and sophomore GOP revolutionaries, there is a keen awareness of the popularity of transportation projects and the benefits of good rapport with Shuster, the rainmaker. Rep. Joe Scarborough (R., Fla.), who had said he would not have voted for Shuster’s transportation bill “if he ran a road from Pensacola to Key West and called it the Joe Scarborough Highway,” needed a half-million for dune repairs and had found the usual channels no help. So he approached Shuster, whom he’d never met, “ready to kowtow.”

“He said, ‘Fine,’ Scarborough recalls. “It was over so fast I thought I’d misunderstood him. But the next day, the call came: ‘You’re taken care of.”‘

The need for these kinds of projects among his fellow Republicans will give Shuster crucial leverage in the spring when he makes his pitch for more spending. It’s a pitch that will come straight from the heart — no one doubts Shuster’s faith in all transportation projects, great or small, necessary or frivolous.

Shuster makes an impassioned case for the Republican Party’s long-standing commitment to infrastructure, from Lincoln and the transcontinental railroad to Teddy Roosevelt and the Panama Canal to Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system. He is armed with statistics to pinpoint America’s growing infrastructure deficiencies relative to other industrialized nations. And he knows how important such projects can be back home — from experience.

Altoona, the biggest city in his hardscrabble district in central Pennsylvania, had been built around commerce generated by the Pennsylvania Railroad early in the century. Residents bristled at having been passed over for a much-needed highway connection to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. When Shuster finally secured the necessary funding for the four-lane road in 1994, he achieved, as one resident told me, “sainthood.”

The road is named the “Bud Shuster Highway.”

But that’s not all Shuster has tried to bring home. In 1992, his support for a $30-million automated sidewalk in Altoona to bridge the railroad bed running through downtown caught the attention of humorist Dave Barry. (“I don’t know about you, but as a taxpayer, I am outraged to discover that, in this day and age, Altoona residents are still being forced to walk around on regular low-tech stationary sidewalks,” Barry wrote.)

A lingering distaste for that sort of pork among Republicans is an obstacle to Shuster’s plans. As are the various ethics charges he faces. Shuster is under federal investigation for allegedly intervening to procure monetary compensation for two campaign contributors who surrendered land for the $10-million-multi-lane tunnel in Boston known as “The Big Dig.” The feds are also investigating his close relationship with a top aide of 22 years, Ann Eppard, now a transportation lobbyist with regular business before his committee (Shuster has not denied sleeping at her $823,000 waterfront home in Alexandria). But if Shuster is nervous, he doesn’t let it show. When a dogged reporter from the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call staked out Ann Eppard’s home and was spotted by the pair as they left one morning, Shuster drove around the block and returned — to invite the reporter in for a cup of coffee. He breezily dismisses the various charges and investigations with a one-word summary: “Baloney” (made, of course, of pork).

Meanwhile, Shuster is busy preparing the renewal of his transportation-spending battle with the leadership in 1998. He negotiated an extension of current spending levels contingent upon a renegotiation during election year, a canny bit of maneuvering. At election time members feel particularly compelled to bring home, well, concrete achievements. And next year anticipated budget surpluses will be up for grabs. Shuster believes the argument that the balanced budget hangs in the balance won’t be as convincing next year, and the coffers will open for him.

John Kasich, leader of the balanced-budgeteers, concedes that even he isn’t willing to count Shuster out. The pressure for transportation spending never recedes, he told me, describing the coming showdown in medieval terms. “There is always going to be a Washington establishment attacking our majority, trying to get us to be like the Democrats,” Kasich says. “People are coming over the walls. We’re standing on the top, and we keep knocking the ladders down. . . . Bud almost got over the wall last time. And he’ll be back. We’ll just have to try to knock the ladder over again.”

Shuster responds that it won’t be just him on the ladder, but governors and mayors and “an overwhelming majority” of House Republicans. “We’re on the side of the angels,” he says with a devilish chuckle. “And we’re gonna win.”

One Response to “The Highway To Nowhere”

  • Terry Mannix:

    WTF is what I say to this. Pork is so prominent, still, in this country, that I’m shocked that nothing has changed.

    Thank God for this “stuck congress”. At least we don’t have to deal with idiots like Shuster anymore. Unrestrained government is death!

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