CONGRESS: The Glare in Don Young's Rearview Mirror
When Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, takes his chairman's seat in the House
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing room and glances at
the wall in front of him, he sees portraits of the committee's past
chairmen staring back. The most prominent one, by far, is of Bud Shuster.
In it, Shuster, looking about 15 years younger than his current age of 70,
sits comfortably on a desk with a gavel by his side, shooting a knowing
gaze over the room.
Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, built quite a legislative record
during his tenure as chairman from 1995 to 2000, although he was plagued
by ethics problems. In 1998, he paved the way for a six-year, $218 billion
highway bill (called the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century,
or "TEA-21"), which showered funds on states and road builders.
Two years later, he helped pass a $40 billion airport construction bill
(dubbed "AIR-21"). Perhaps most significantly, he directly tied
spending in both of these measures to the revenues from gasoline and
airline ticket taxes, which prevented these funds from being spent for
Term limits forced Shuster to relinquish his chairmanship, and he retired
in January 2001. Young, who gave up his gavel at the House Resources
Committee to move into Shuster's seat, has been busy over the past year.
After September 11, he helped craft legislation to bail out the airline
industry and to beef up airport security. Now, he and his committee have
turned their attention to restoring the Bush Administration's proposed
budget cut in highway spending, and to reauthorizing TEA-21 and AIR-21 in
2003. But as he works on these and other issues, Young's greatest
challenge, transportation experts say, may be in trying to measure up to
the Shuster portrait that hangs on the wall.
In a recent interview, Young, 68, insisted that the comparisons with
Shuster don't matter. "People can compare," he said. "I
don't really care, as long as I know in my heart that I am doing the best
I can." Yet in today's environment-with a flagging economy,
smaller-than-expected gas-tax revenues, and a focus on the war on
terrorism-Young's best might be less than what transportation advocates
President Bush's budget in early February proposed cutting nearly $9
billion in federal highway funds (from $31.8 billion in fiscal 2002, to
$23.2 in fiscal 2003). The Administration cited the poor economy and
declining tax revenues from gas and truck sales-the revenues that, under
TEA-21, were directly tied to highway spending. Because the level of
highway spending in fiscal 2003 will serve as the budgetary baseline for
the next highway reauthorization bill, many experts believe that the price
tag of the reauthorization will be much smaller than predicted just a year
"This is a devastating thing for the highway program," said one
Senate Republican aide. "I don't think the next reauthorization bill
will look like TEA-21.... Young will get measured on how he responds to
Young is hardly to blame for these circumstances. Indeed, the budget
surplus and the soaring economy of the late 1990s were keys to Shuster's
success with TEA-21 and AIR-21. "Young is under pressure to show that
he is as tough as Shuster was, but the expectations need to be
reset," a House Republican staffer said. "Everything is
different about the environment that Young inherited."
Nevertheless, Young has already written a bill to restore $4.4 billion in
highway funds by tapping into the Highway Trust Fund's $20 billion
surplus. This bill has 281 House co-sponsors. Young also says he might
tinker with the highway funding formula, and perhaps encourage states to
increase their gas taxes, to produce a hefty highway reauthorization in
2003. "We expect to have a very large bill," he said. "I
think, overall, the general support for transportation improvement has
increased, not decreased. We have seen the vulnerability of our
[transportation system] because of 9/11."
As Young tackles the difficult task of restoring these highway funds,
transportation experts have already noticed some similarities between him
and Shuster. They note, for instance, that Young has run the committee in
the same bipartisan manner that Shuster did; after all, as the saying
goes, there's no such thing as a Democratic or a Republican bridge.
Earlier, there were questions about whether Young would embrace
bipartisanship, given that he came from the mudslinging Resources
Committee. Young admits that the more congenial tone at Transportation has
been good for him: "It has given me more of a willingness to go to
work in the morning than I had during the constant war at
Transportation Committee members are eager to praise Young. "I think
he's done a good job and has been a joy to work with," said Rep.
Thomas E. Petri, R-Wis. Added Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla.: "He has
provided strong leadership and direction."
But the two chairmen also have some stark differences. For one thing,
observers remark that Young's top aides-Chief of Staff Lloyd A. Jones and
Chief Counsel Elizabeth R. Megginson, whom Young brought over from
Resources-are very determined and capable, but don't have the expertise in
transportation arcana that Shuster's people had. "They don't know the
programs like [former Shuster aides] Jack Schenendorf and Roger Nober
did," remarked one Hill staffer.
Young, of course, sticks up for his top aides. "Institutional
knowledge is very, very important, but there is no one that can't be
replaced," he said. "And I am very pleased with Liz's work, and
... Lloyd is doing well."
Another difference is that Young has avoided the ethical problems that
clouded Shuster's reign. Throughout his tenure as chairman, Shuster was
attacked by critics for his ties to special interests and to Ann Eppard, a
Washington lobbyist who previously was his longtime chief of staff. Those
complaints culminated in October 2000 with a letter of reproval from the
House Standards of Official Conduct (Ethics) Committee, which condemned
him for bringing "discredit to the House."
Although Young has stayed clear of an ethics investigation, he has seemed
to engage in some questionable behavior of his own. Last October, while
unveiling the House Republicans' airport security bill (which prevented
the full federalization of airport screeners), Young turned over his press
conference to a lobbyist representing the private security screening firms
-the same firms that had an obvious financial stake in the outcome of that
legislative fight. "It [was] quite inappropriate," Meredith
McGehee of Common Cause told National Journal at the time.
Furthermore, Young revealed his sharp temper on the House floor as he
tried to get unanimous consent to pass a $15 billion bill to bail out the
airline industry just three days after September 11. Rep. Lloyd Doggett,
D-Texas, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. "Bill"
Young, R-Fla., objected because they thought it was important to debate
the issue longer. On the floor, an angry Don Young declared: "Those
in Texas will not fly; may you walk and may you die in the desert.... I am
the chairman of the Committee on Transportation, and if my colleagues
decide not to support this bill, then [I say] ... ride your horses, paddle
your canoes, and go where you think you may go." (Congress passed the
bailout a week later.)
"Shuster could be prickly," one transportation industry official
noted. "Young is exceedingly prickly."
A final difference, transportation experts say, is that Young's committee
doesn't appear to be as "ruthless" as Shuster's was. The former
chairman frequently used the size of his unified, 75-member committee-the
largest in Congress-to threaten House Republican leaders if he didn't get
his way, and he also used his power of earmarking pork barrel projects to
reward supporters and punish opponents. "They were ruthless,"
said a House Republican aide who does not work for Young's committee.
"There is no doubt that they were the most ruthless committee I have
This aide points out, however, that Young's committee is much easier to
work with. "The culture there is one that is more willing to discuss
things and analyze things. They are not as willing to threaten."
Young himself agrees with that depiction. "I sometimes may not be as
tough as Bud was," he said. "I am more of a negotiator. But I am
also one that will defend the committee and the process."
Yet critics argue that Young has lost some legislative fights that Shuster
might have won. For example, in the conference report on last year's
Transportation appropriations bill, appropriators raided $423 million from
federal highway funds to pay for other programs. In addition,
transportation advocates desperately wanted to include a plan to increase
highway spending in last year's House Republican economic stimulus bill,
but that proposal went nowhere. If Shuster were running the committee,
some observers speculate that he might have prevented those defeats.
"The end result on some of that stuff might have been the same, but
there would have been blood on the floor," a transportation lobbyist
In the upcoming battle to reauthorize TEA-21, Young insists he is eager to
unleash his powers as Transportation chairman. "I will use the
earmarks," he said. "I would be silly not to use them. And I
will also use the pen [to eliminate projects] if I have anybody saying,
`No, we shouldn't be spending the money on highways.' "
And he concludes with a statement that would make Shuster proud.
"Everybody on that committee has something they want," Young
said. "And as long as I'm the chairman and they don't have a coup and
throw me out, I've got a lot of power over every member of that committee,
and I'm not above using it."