Former House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Jim Oberstar knows a thing or two about how difficult it can be to manage a massive transportation bill. So when he ran into the current T&I chairman -- and his former ranking member -- John Mica (R-Fla.) in a hallway in the Capitol a few weeks ago in the midst of a months-long fight over the reauthorization legislation, he knew just what to do.
"I looked at him and said it looked like he needed a hug," said Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who was voted out of office in 2010.
In fact, Oberstar noted, the road for Mica has been even tougher than it was for many of his predecessors, between fiscal concerns with the gas tax, an irritable far right wing in the House and the perception that higher-ranking House leaders, rather than the chairman, are driving the bus. In fact, stakeholders and current and former politicians say Mica was dealt an impossible hand for this authorization effort, though they question whether he could have done more to ease the drama.
"I think that Mica has for the most part been rendered irrelevant," said a transportation lobbyist who requested anonymity to speak freely. "If you talk to his staff, they don't know what's going on," and many decisions have come from leadership, he added.
Heading into a conference with the Senate -- where beginning May 8, the two sides will attempt to merge a House-passed 90-day extension with the Senate's two-year, $109 billion bill -- Mica's role will again be heavily scrutinized.
The T&I Committee has long been known as one of the most bipartisan in all of Congress, famously productive at churning out transportation spending and policy bills crafted by both Republicans and Democrats. But that legacy has all but gone out the window in the last two years, and some Democrats have blamed Mica for the shift.
Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) famously lashed out at Mica during a testy 18-hour markup of the transportation reauthorization bill and on more than one occasion has compared the committee to a dictatorship. Democrats groused that Mica had not given them enough time to read the committee's bill before that February markup and have lobbed many complaints at the leadership of the committee throughout the reauthorization process.
The process, said ranking member Nick Rahall, would have been easier if it had been bipartisan from the start, as previous bills had been. But, the West Virginia Democrat added, it is not fair to place the blame solely at Mica's feet.
"He's made every effort to be fair in our committee and at his level. The problem has been he's not always the one driving the vehicle -- by his own admission," Rahall said.
In fact, many of those who are set to work with Mica on the conference say they are optimistic about his efforts on the transportation bill. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is leading the Republican Senate effort on transportation, said his relationship with Mica has "always been really good" and that the two had spoken "quite a bit" and as recently as last week.
Inhofe added that both he and Mica, who served together in the House for two years, were both developers before coming to Congress, which gave them a unique shared perspective.
And Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who managed the Senate transportation bill, described her relationship with Mica as "very nice." The two held a bipartisan, bicameral hearing in Los Angeles and vowed to work together throughout the bill process, although they ended up on different legislative tracks.
"He's supported a lot of key policies in our bill, such as getting rid of earmarks and a greatly enhanced TIFIA [transportation loan] program," Boxer said. The two were even "dates" at President Obama's State of the Union address two years ago.
An impossible situation
While no House Republicans will praise the transportation bill process so far, many praised Mica's own work in navigating the obstacle course. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the rail subcommittee and presumed successor to the T&I chairman's seat -- his father, ex-Rep. Bud Shuster, previously held the post -- said Mica has "gone into this fight with not just one hand tied behind his back, but both hands tied behind his back."
The No. 1 problem in front of Mica was a lack of funding for the bill, given the dwindling receipts from the federal gas tax and fierce political opposition among Republicans to raising the user fee. A long-term bill would require Mica to either cut funding -- unpopular to all involved -- or find a new revenue source.
The latter option points to the second problem Mica faced: a larger-than-ever fiscal conservative wing in the House that would not accept a funding increase -- and several members who wanted to pare down federal involvement in transportation altogether.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), another senior T&I Committee member, said it would be "impossible" for anyone to get a transportation bill out with the "50 or 60 people in Mica's conference who are devolutionist." There has been a push from the right to insert language that would revert transportation dollars to the states, leaving decisions up to them, which DeFazio said was "crazy stuff."
Mica's first bill released last summer contained across-the-board cuts of upward of 30 percent and was widely panned on and off Capitol Hill. But several stakeholders off the Hill, speaking anonymously, said they thought that bill did not reflect Mica's vision but was written under pressure from leadership. One representative of a transportation interest group described the chairman as a "good soldier" in that bill and the subsequent efforts.
"I actually have some sympathy for him," said the stakeholder. "I think Chairman Mica is not an ideologue. ... I think he wanted to do a bill that looked much different."
Even Oberstar said that he had thought Mica would pick up a more robust and multimodal bill similar to the one he had written in 2010 but was surprised to see the bill Mica did come out with.
The eventual bill -- H.R. 7 -- would have run five years and cost $260 billion, with funding coming from new domestic energy production and another unidentified source. The bill also contained program reforms that some environmentalists called radical, along with a reduction in federal bureaucracy and cuts for Amtrak.
Although Mica is a strong fiscal conservative -- he has a lifetime 94 percent rating with the American Conservative Union -- he has not been seen as a close ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Throughout the process, he has deferred to leadership on scheduling and support issues and has implied on several occasions that shots are being called by his superiors.
During a weeklong struggle to pass a short-term extension just days ahead of the transportation program's expiration, Mica said that he was being given instructions "from above" and jokingly pointed to the ceiling. He has also taken to backing off any funding decisions and not commenting on policy matters under the jurisdiction of other committees, a sign to some observers that he was leaving the responsibility to others.
That is a shift from previous bill writing, said several observers, when leadership would defer to the transportation chairman to write and move the bill until it came to the House floor. Oberstar said previous chairmen had "the total trust of party leadership" and got no interference in crafting language. Oberstar himself said that the heavy spending in his own bill got questioned by the White House, but he pushed forward because he felt it was the best bill he could write.
Rahall said a bill written without interference from leadership -- as it had been in previous sessions led by both parties -- would have been fairer and more popular and said he hoped Mica would "exercise more independence" during the conference committee.
Many observers specifically pointed to language in the original House bill that would have stripped dedicated funding for mass transit, which cost the House GOP the support of several moderate and urban Republicans and key interest groups. That language, they said, appeared to come from leadership and reflected a lack of familiarity with the nuances of transportation policy.
A spokesman for Boehner's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The conflict to follow
Mica's troubles also won't stop if the transportation conference is a success -- he is facing a tough primary challenge from freshman Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.) after redistricting cost Mica a large chunk of his current district. Adams, a member of the Tea Party Caucus, has worked to tie Mica, a 10-term incumbent, to the establishment, even calling him "the personification of all that went wrong with our Republican Majority" in a recent fundraising letter obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.
Mica leads the fundraising effort by a wide margin ahead of the Aug. 14 GOP primary, but Adams has said in the press that she believes her ground effort will win out over Mica's deep-rooted base.
A legislative victory on the high-profile transportation bill could offer Mica a big boost -- and positive recognition -- going into his primary, but many observers are pessimistic, saying the odds may be against him because of the way the process has gone so far. The House has little leverage in the conference with the Senate, which passed a longer and more complete bill, and there are several contentious environmental issues on the table.
Oberstar said the process appeared to be a "formula for an additional, drawn-out conflict with the Senate and then another extension," saying an 18-month clean extension might be the best way forward.
But Mica, a self-described eternal optimist, said he is confident going into the conference that there can be a strong final bill that passes both chambers.
Yet even he has taken a good-humored approach to the nasty tone of the debate. In perhaps one of his most telling moments, when the latest 90-day extension passed, he looked at reporters, put both hands by his ears and said, "You didn't think I'd do it, did you? Nyah nyah!"