On a frigid Washington afternoon in early 2010, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) uttered what may have been one of the funniest lines ever heard in the corridors of the U.S. Capitol.
Speaking to a group of state and local transportation officials, Mica joked that the weather outside was so cold that "Even Congress had its hands in its pockets." The room exploded in laughter.
Turn the clock forward 30 months or so. On a steamy afternoon in early July, President Barack Obama signed into law a 27-month, $109 billion infrastructure bill—something no one expected to see during an election year. By all appearances, this was a signal victory for Mica, who, as chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, had spent the better part of a year pushing for highway reauthorization legislation. Yet as we watched the drawn-out process unfold, we noticed a pattern that unfolded with it: that whatever the most powerful transport statesman in the land wanted, he couldn't seem to get.
For instance, Mica had sought a six-year bill that would provide $230 billion—not $109 billion—in funding for infrastructure programs. That was virtually dead on arrival in his own chamber, shot down by House colleagues who deemed it too much to spend in a climate of fiscal austerity.
Mica wanted to include language in the bill that, for the first time in 30 years, would raise the weight and size limits of trucks operating on the nation's interstate highway system. The proposed 17,000-pound increase in weight limits, which would have been a boon to shippers, never made it. Instead, Congress commissioned a multiyear study on the topic by the Transportation Research Board, a deliberative (some might call it slow-moving) body of academics, consultants, and engineers who've rarely met a topical idea they couldn't neuter into oblivion. As for the language that would raise truck length limits, it actually did pass Mica's committee but later fell by the wayside.
As deliberations dragged on, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) intervened several times to get his members on board, but even that wasn't enough. The House never did pass a bill; its conferees went to the table with their Senate counterparts just with an extension of the existing transport legislation.
Contrast that with what happened in the Senate, where Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) bridged their considerable political differences and got their 98 colleagues behind a scaled-down version that, while not perfect, seemed eminently livable. Boxer and Inhofe never wavered. They were never undercut. In an otherwise toxic climate, two ideological opposites came together and got the job done. In the end, the bill that became law was, for all intents and purposes, the Senate's handiwork.
Mica's supporters have lauded him for compromising on the legislation's size and financial scope in order to get a bill to the president's desk. They also applauded him for his willingness to take the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project off the table to clear the way for the bill's passage.
Those points are well taken. Knowing when to "fold 'em" is one of the keys to effective governance. One can argue that Mica acceded to reality and acted for the greater good of the country, a noble endeavor for any lawmaker and a quality in short supply in Washington right now.
Still, Mica had a wish list, and he had the power to pull from it. From where we sit, though, he couldn't get it done.
There will be another reauthorization cycle in September 2014. But Mica is restrained by the House's term limits from retaining the chairman's post. He may never have this chance again. But, in D.C., that's the way it sometimes goes.