The voter tsunami that last night swept the Democrats out of power in the House of Representatives has claimed in stunning fashion the chamber's most influential player on transportation issues and a leading advocate for shipper interests.
Rep. James L. Oberstar, (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee since January 2007 and an 18-term congressman, lost his seat to a virtual unknown, Republican Chip Cravaack. With 98 percent of precincts reporting early Wednesday, Cravaack prevailed by just 4,000 votes out of more than 273,000 votes cast, according to an online report in the West Central Tribune (Minn.) newspaper. Cravaack's margin of victory was less than 2 percentage points, the paper reported.
Oberstar, 76, will be succeeded on the committee by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), its ranking minority member. Mica easily won re-election last night.
Oberstar's defeat, which two months ago seemed far-fetched at best, comes as Congress and the Obama administration debate funding for transportation infrastructure programs. Oberstar had been seeking a six-year, $500 billion reauthorization to rebuild the nation's infrastructure. The last multiyear reauthorization expired in September 2009 and the program has been living on short-term extensions ever since.
In September, President Obama proposed a $50 billion stimulus infusion into the program to be voted on by the House when it convenes for a lame-duck session beginning Nov. 15.
Oberstar had also become the lone supporter of language in a funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration that would have made the air express unit of FedEx Corp., FedEx Express, subject to the National Labor Relations Act rather than the Railway Labor Act (RLA), which currently covers the unit. Frederick W. Smith, FedEx's chairman and CEO, has warned publicly that the company would cancel multibillion dollar orders for up to 30 Boeing 777 cargo planes if the change in labor law classification took place. The Senate has refused to include the provision in its version, and it's now possible that Oberstar's ouster will end the debate and keep FedEx Express under the RLA.
The last FAA reauthorization bill was passed in 2007. As with the highway bill, FAA reauthorization has existed on short-term extensions; the current extension expires Nov. 30.
In September, Oberstar introduced legislation (H.R. 6167) that would dramatically reform the ocean shipping industry. The bill would eliminate antitrust immunity for ocean carrier agreements, which has allowed ocean common carriers to get together to discuss, fix, or regulate transportation rates. The bill would also change the mechanism under which ocean carriers levy surcharges. Oberstar said then that carriers impose surcharges on shippers after the freight rates are negotiated and that many surcharges are not "pass-throughs" of the carriers' own increased costs.
Oberstar has also voiced support for legislation currently in the Senate to reform the railroad industry. That bill, which has passed the Senate Commerce Committee, was introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). No companion bill has been offered in the House.
The current bill provides protections to "captive shippers" who cannot use any other transport mode; improves shippers' access to other carriers' trackage and terminals; and expands the membership of the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that rules on rail mergers, from three to five.
Shippers have lauded the bill as a way to open up competitive options for those who are captive not just to rail service in general but to a single railroad. The railroads have urged a balanced approach to the issue, but recently ratcheted up their opposition after a committee staff report said the industry is already immensely profitable and that their complaints to the contrary were a fallacy.
In an e-mail to DC Velocity, Bruce Carlton, president and CEO of the National Industrial Transportation League, one of the nation's oldest and largest shipper groups, said "it's impossible for every person or company with an interest in transportation to agree with every position Mr. Oberstar has staked out—the real world doesn't work that way. But no one can say he was not engaged in our issues. He did his homework, he tackled some of the toughest issues—like a new surface transportation authorization—and he was a leader, not a follower." Carlton would not comment on the policy or political implications of Oberstar's defeat.
James H Burnley IV, who served as secretary of transportation under President Reagan and is today head of the transportation practice at the Washington-based law firm Venable LLP, said it's unclear what, if anything, will change with Oberstar's departure.
"An all-Democratic government couldn't move forward on either aviation or surface transportation reauthorization, so it's not as if momentum is being broken," said Burnley. "It didn't exist."