Oberstar upset changes transportation dynamic in House
Rep. James Oberstar, the powerful chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a loud voice for infrastructure investment, has lost his bid for a 19th term in a close race.
With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Oberstar trails Republican Chip Cravaack by more than 4,350 votes. Cravaack has 48 percent of the vote in Minnesota's 8th district versus 47 percent for Oberstar. The Associated Press declared Cravaack, a former Northwest Airlines pilot and political novice, the winner this morning.
Oberstar has been a major proponent of increased spending on transportation infrastructure, endorsing more than $40 billion in the 2009 American Recovery Act and last year proposing a $500 billion plan to reauthorize surface transportation programs over six years. The bill includes a provision to create a dedicated freight fund and $50 billion for high-speed rail. Oberstar urged quick passage of the measure, but Congress has yet to take up the reauthorization bill, which expired more than one year ago. He also praised President Obama's recent proposal for $50 billion in infrastructure spending as a down payment on a full reauthorization bill.
This year he has led a legislative push to eliminate ocean carrier antitrust immunity for discussion agreements, arguing that competition is diminished and shippers hurt when carriers are allowed to benchmark rates and surcharges.
Oberstar has also been a strong critic of recent airline mergers, such as Continental and United, which he says have hurt consumers by concentrating market power in a few mega carriers that are able to reduce service and raise prices in many cities. He has called for the government to reregulate the airline industry.
He led the House passage of a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill this year that increases funding for aviation programs and also would make it easier for workers to unionize at FedEx. Oberstar wants to amend the Railway Labor Act to clarify that employees of an 'express carrier' are covered by the RLA only if they are employed as an airplane mechanic or pilot. The rule change, designed to even the playing field for rival UPS, would make truck drivers and package handlers fall under the National Labor Relations Act.
Pressure by Oberstar last year led the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to reform lax procedures for granting hazardous material permits and to propose tighter rules for carriage of lithium ion batteries by air, which the air cargo industry opposes as excessive.
Leadership of the T&I Committee is likely to pass to ranking Republican John Mica, who has questioned the need for a legislative solution to ocean carrier capacity and pricing fluctuations.
Mica favors investment in infrastructure, but criticized the stimulus bill for waste and said Obama's $50 billion spending plan is unnecessary at a time when more than 60 percent of stimulus infrastructure dollars remain unspent. He has proposed a fast-track process for getting infrastructure projects completed more quickly.
The Obama administration and congressional Democrats 'hijacked the $862 billion so-called stimulus, leaving less than 7 percent in the bill for infrastructure, and they failed to ensure that even this small percentage of funds would be spent expeditiously. Then the administration undermined their Democrat House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman and killed any chance for a six-year transportation reauthorization bill,' Mica said Sept. 7
The administration's priority should be to get the money in the stimulus bill spent by eliminating red tape, he said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Patty Murray, a strong supporter of port infrastructure and open trade policies, is neck and neck in Washington with Republican challenger Dino Rossi. With 65 percent of precincts reporting, both candidates have 50 percent of the vote. Murray is also the co-author of the SAFE Ports Act of 2006 that tried to strengthen cargo security programs such as the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, fund installation of radiation detectors at ports, increase money for port security grants and led to a limited pilot test of 100 container scanning in a handful of foreign ports. She recently offered a bill to reauthorize the SAFE Port Act and sunset the 2012 100-percent container inspection deadline imposed by Congress in 2007 if the Department of Homeland Security certifies that existing security programs are effective.
She has also called on the Obama administration to iron out differences with Mexico related to cross-border trucking so that Mexico can lift punitive tariffs on agricultural and other products that are hurting U.S. exporters. Prior to the tariffs, Murray was among a contingent in Congress that eventually forced the DOT to abandon a trial program allowing a limited number of Mexican trucks to make direct deliveries to customers in the United States. ' Eric Kulisch