It's been called the surprise of the night.
Out of nowhere, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), the 18-term chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, was edged out of office by 4,000 votes to a political newcomer in the biggest midterm shift of power in 70 years.
The defeat ends Oberstar's 30-year tenure on the committee, raising renewed concerns about the future of transportation infrastructure.
"Who comes next is the question," says Christian Klein, vice president of government affairs for Associated Equipment Distributors. He posited that Democrats Peter A. DeFazio (Ore.) and Jerry F. Costello (Ill.) may get the nod to replace Oberstar, but he also acknowledged that "it's not an issue people have talked much about because nobody expected him to lose."
American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Executive Director John Horsley says he thinks the Democratic caucus will elect its senior member - Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Va.) - who in May 2008 said he would urge President Obama to appoint Oberstar as secretary of transportation. Obama chose Oberstar's former colleague, former Representative Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), for the cabinet job.
Rahall, who chairs the Committee on Natural Resources, is the senior Democrat on the House T&I Committee.
Meanwhile, John Mica (R-Fla.), who has served as the ranking member under the Democratic majority, is expected to be elected to Oberstar's now-former post as chairman once the 112th Congress convenes Jan. 3, 2011. Although the House immediately begins adopting resolutions assigning its members to committees, the process usually lasts through January and has lasted in recent years into March.
"Mica is highly regarded for the role he's played as ranking member. There's a consistent pattern of bipartisanship in this committee that we hope continues," says Horsley, who calls Oberstar "a terrific national leader on all facets of transportation."
In 2009 Oberstar proposed a $450 billion, six-year federal surface transportation bill in conjunction with the Obama administration's push for an 18-month extension of the existing law. The bill - a 57% increase over the $286.5 billion bill approved in 2005 - would have set aside $87 billion in highway trust fund money for transit, would have consolidated the current 108 programs by eliminating or combining 75 of them, and would have established a national infrastructure bank.
Few lawmakers expected it to pass. "Power was ceded from committee chairmen to (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's) office, so transportation infrastructure hasn't been on anyone's agenda," Klein says.
But Klein is optimistic that the shift in power - and ideology - may move the issue to the forefront.
"The big issue is how to pay for a new bill," he adds. "They're also going to have to address other issues such as whether the next bill will be designed to expand capacity or maintain the current system, and whether it will improve urban mobility to the disadvantage of rural economic development."
Klein is optimistic about full reauthorization in the next two years rather than more one-year extensions. He expects the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works to have a renewed focus on transportation with well-regarded conservative and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) working closely with Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who has recently backed down from her push for climate change legislation.
"If there's anyone on Capitol Hill in the Senate who can build a bridge from Barbara Boxer to some of these new Republicans, I think Jim Inhofe is the guy to do it," Klein says.
The extension of the bill expires Dec. 31, but Horsley, too, is optimistic that a full reauthorization may pass in the 112th congress. "The fact that the president has weighed in twice - on Labor Day and then Columbus Day - is helpful. Rep. Mica has spoken of his desire to move this legislation. Sens. Boxer and Inhofe also have made commitments to move legislation as well, so there's great interest in a new bill," particularly because Mica's home state of Florida remains one of the fastest growing in the nation despite the recession. So any bill under his leadership likely will focus on increasing capacity.
No matter what the committee comes up with in the next two years, lawmakers will still have to figure out where to pull the revenue from. That issue falls under the jurisdiction of the House Ways and Means Committee, currently chaired by Sander Levin (D-Mich.) but likely to be chaired by current ranking member Dave Camp (R-Mich.).
One likely scenario, according to Klein, is that the Senate passes a consensus bill and sends it to the House, where a possible bipartisan coalition will approve it. "The bottom line is that the highway program has had a terrible PR problem (think the 'Bridge to Nowhere')," Klein says. "But Mica is the guy who can turn that around. The Republicans need to restore confidence in the federal highway program. It's sort of like when we said only Nixon can go to China. Well, only the Republicans can get a highway bill done."