Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Politics PA Profiles Congressman Shuster

Politics PA, a premier political blog focused on Pennsylvania politics and government, recently profiled Congressman Shuster. The article is posted below, and can be found here.

Out of Father's Shadow, Bill Shuster Looks to the Fast Lane
By Louis Jacobson
Special to PoliticsPA

Just eight years into his Congressional career, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) is quietly gaining stature in Washington – and stepping out of the long shadow of his father, former House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.).

The younger Shuster got an early start in leadership, taking the chairmanship of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management less than four years after taking his father’s old seat in May 2001 a special election. That led to a seat on the Select Committee on Hurricane Katrina and a role negotiating legislation to overhaul the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

After the GOP lost its majority in 2006, Shuster became the ranking Republican on the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee. From that perch, he helped shape a bill that included an Amtrak reauthorization and rail safety provisions. The measure was eventually signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Shuster also serves on the most sought-after T&I subcommittee -- Highways and Transit – and helped write a bus safety measure that is poised for inclusion in an upcoming surface transportation bill. Separately, he serves on two other full committees, Armed Services and Natural Resources.

It’s an impressive lineup of assignments for a junior lawmaker.

“If you compare him to his Dad in terms of how much power he has, he pales in comparison,” said Muhlenberg College political scientist Christopher Borick. “But by other standards, you’d have to consider him a fairly active and engaged Member of Congress. By no means is he just taking up a seat on Capitol Hill.”

Observers describe Shuster’s approach to legislating as workmanlike rather than showy.

“I witnessed both Bill and his father in Congress, and I think he is a quiet player -- not the kind of guy who needs to be in the spotlight all the time,” said one transportation lobbyist in Washington. “The longer he’s reelected to Congress, he may have a shot at being chairman of one of those committees.”

One veteran political observer from western Pennsylvania added that Shuster “impresses me as a guy who was schooled in the old ways of the House. You go to D.C., you go along, and you take care of your district. Eventually, you will get to be significant on issues beyond your district.”
Shuster acknowledges that the possibility of a chairmanship has crossed his mind.

“I don’t want to sit here and say I’ll be chairman or ranking member a few years from now,” Shuster told PoliticsPA. “But it’s a real possibility if you work hard and if you learn the subject matter and if you move legislation through. And you need to work with the team and help elect Republicans by raising money for candidates and the party.”

Those who have watched the Shuster family in action see some differences in father and son, at least at this stage of the son’s career.

At his apex, the elder Shuster was able to wield the power of his committee and his position freely, with his interests zealously guarded by his top aide (and later a prominent lobbyist) Anne Eppard. Transportation legislation often micromanages routing and funding priorities, and the chairman wields enormous influence over those details.

“Most members of T&I are there because of the chairman's insistence that they promise to be inconsequential ciphers if allowed on in exchange for extra earmarks,” said Ronald Utt, a transportation policy specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The younger Shuster has nowhere near enough juice to match his Dad’s, both because his father had greater seniority and because the Republicans are now in the minority. But several sources said that Bill Shuster has used good relations with fellow lawmakers to advance his district’s interests. He’s known as personable -- a natural politician who is able to work his district and the Capitol well.

“Bill seems to project a nicer image,” said one Pennsylvania political veteran. “Bud managed to step on a whole bunch of toes. Bill seems to be willing to be conciliatory.”

The younger Shuster – who essentially won his seat in a Republican convention heavily influenced by his father and his allies -- doesn’t deny that he’s benefited from being Bud Shuster’s son.

“Anybody who doesn’t utilize the experiences and the friendships that a father or mother in Congress has is missing the boat for the people they serve,” Shuster said. “It presents some challenges -- people look at me and expect that either I’m going to be just like Bud or not at all like him. … He’s a tough act to follow.”

Bill Shuster said he does periodically pick the brains of his father, who, according to one source who knows the family, has eschewed the prospect of being a big-time lobbyist, instead “teaching, serving on a few boards -- a small university, an advisory board to the World Bank – and taking an interest in a few companies and consulting for a few entities, as well as working on his farm.”
Shuster said that his father is “one of my constituents, and sometimes I call him for advice. Sometimes he calls me to offer advice. But I’ve found over the last eight years, the thing I really talk to him about is the other Members and their personalities. This is a people business. When you go into talk to a Member who’s important on a certain committee, it’s good to know what that person is like.”

It was all but predestined that Shuster would zero in on transportation. Not only did he have a leg up given his family history and a career as a car dealer, but transportation is also a longstanding priority for the Keystone State. The elder Shuster was most closely associated with highways -- one of which in the Altoona-based district is now named for him – but the district is also dependent on hundreds of train-related jobs for Norfolk Southern and a host of short lines.

Traditionally, T&I is less partisan than other committees because all committee members agree on the need for spending; the divides are usually geographical rather than ideological. But today, the harshly partisan atmosphere has tested that comity.

“I still think T&I is fairly bipartisan, but it has been strained -- no doubt about it,” the Congressman said.

For a Republican on T&I in this climate, the biggest challenge may be retaining one’s fiscally conservative credentials despite seeking to spend federal dollars on infrastructure. Shuster has been careful not to desert the GOP on most issues, but sometimes that has proven difficult.

For instance, earlier this year, Democrats attacked Shuster for claiming credit for projects in his district that were aided by President Obama’s stimulus bill – a bill Shuster voted against.

“He’s by no means out of step with the GOP, but he’s also clearly the type of Pennsylvania political figure who’s willing to work with and make deals with people who are not traditional Republicans,” Borick said.

Borick said that rail policy is one case where Shuster’s approach could prove important to the state’s future.

Fiscal conservatives are not wild about projects such as high-speed rail, but the reemergence of rail in a more carbon-constrained environment will, “in my mind, emerge as one of the key focal points of transportation policy and infrastructure,” Borick said. “He’s well-positioned in Congress to be a bigger player as that issue moves forward.”

One factor limiting Shuster’s influence in the short term is that Congress is expected to do a short-term extension of the major surface transportation bill later this year instead of a major reauthorization. That will reduce the opportunities he’ll have to target provisions to his district.

“We will do three-month extension to take us to the end of the year,” Shuster said. “I don’t really see potential for a bill -- maybe late next year, because the Senate kicked it down the road.”
On the electoral front, Shuster seems safe, at least until after the 2010 Census. He narrowly won a 2004 primary, but otherwise has not faced stiff challenges.

“The area he is in is simply so Republican that I find it hard to think that the Democrats would really attempt a credible challenge,” said one observer in western Pennsylvania. “If he were to get in any general election difficulty, I would say that it would be after new lines were drawn.”

Louis Jacobson is a staff writer for PolitiFact, the website that checks the accuracy of comments by politicians and pundits. He is also a contributing editor at National Journal magazine, where he spent more than a decade covering politics, policy and lobbying. He has also served as deputy editor of Roll Call, the newspaper covering Congress, and as founding editor of Roll Call's legislative wire service, CongressNow. In 2004, he originated the Out There column on politics in the states, which has run in Roll Call and Jacobson has been a contributing writer for two editions of The Almanac of American Politics and has handicapped state legislatures for both the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report.

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