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Top House Dem on Transportation, Nick Rahall, Lost His Seat. That’s OK.

3:08 PM PST on November 5, 2014

Four years ago, another stunning night of GOP victories took out Representative Jim Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who chaired the House Transportation Committee. Had Oberstar kept his seat, the new GOP majority would have cost him the gavel, but he would have continued as ranking Democrat. Instead, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia coal country took his place. Now, Rahall is out the door too.

Rep. Nick Rahall has lost his seat -- and therefore, the top Democratic slot on the House Transportation Committee. Photo: West Virginia Blue/Flickr
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Rahall has represented southern West Virginia for as long as I’ve been alive, and has served on the Transportation Committee the entire time. But State Senator Evan Jenkins easily unseated him last night, winning 55 percent of the vote.

In the long run, Rahall’s loss might be good news for sustainable transportation. Rahall was always more at home on the Natural Resources Committee, where he could subvert Democratic environmental goals by defending coal every chance he got. Insofar as he was interested in transportation, it was more about highways than transit, which is scarce in his district.

Recreational biking and walking, however, was a passion of his. Rahall was an architect of the federal Recreational Trails program, which was created in 1991 as part of the ISTEA transportation bill. He understood the economic value of active tourism. But that hasn’t always translated into a firm defense of active transportation. In 2012, when bike/ped provisions were watered down in MAP-21, first in the Senate and then in conference with the House, he didn’t hold the line.

The negotiation of MAP-21 in 2012 was a low point for bipartisanship on the House Transportation Committee. Though the Senate carefully crafted language both parties could agree to, the House wanted to start over with its own bill, was unable to, and instead went to conference with nothing but the Senate bill and a hatchet. And House Democrats -- even Rahall -- were completely shut out of the process.

It was infuriating to watch, but insiders say a different leader would have fought harder and raised a bigger stink about the exclusion. For example, Peter DeFazio of Oregon.

DeFazio is next in line for the top Dem slot on Transportation, if he wants it. Two years ago, he gave up the chance to serve as ranking member on the Highways and Transit Subcommittee to instead be the top Democrat on Natural Resources. (Members can only hold one chairmanship or ranking membership, so he had to choose.) He might decide to stick with Natural Resources, but many think he’ll choose T&I.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) could take over the top Dem spot on Transportation. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/bikeportland/4971881101/in/photolist-9SCrS5-ntb75k-8zmc2X-e18Bop-e1ef13-e18xVM-9jYGxn-9k2LmU-9jYFRX-9jYGar-9jYGvz-5mfs3t-5mfrnR-5mftaT-5mjH3N-5mjJV3-5mjK7f-5mfrcz-5mfrzR-5mjHRL-nbKZFf-8iTjKj-349yTL-8Ez67V-8EBrsQ-9Md3o4-9MfQqN-nbFMtj-nsTF9r-nsTFaZ-nbFB9a-nbFGAv-nr8Jjo-nbFQ59-ntb7hV-nbFPZE-nuX2r4-nbFHb8-nsU9aS-ntb7bn-nsTF2H-nsU8G7-ntb6YD-ntb7mx-nr8HNd-nr8JnQ-ntdsX7-nbFMay-35XJVB-9Szs4V##Jonathan Maus/flickr##
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) could take over the top Dem spot on Transportation. Photo: Jonathan Maus/Flickr
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DeFazio is combative by nature, which could be a plus as leader of the minority. Then again, Chair Bill Shuster is an entirely different beast than his predecessor, Rep. John Mica of Florida. Shuster has been careful to include Democrats and has already managed to pass several bipartisan infrastructure bills that both parties could feel good about. With bigger majorities, Shuster could become emboldened, but it’s hard to imagine him going Full Mica.

DeFazio is the only bike mechanic in Congress, a big advocate for biking and walking even in his rural Oregon district. He speaks up loud and proud for a federal role for transportation funding, resisting frequent calls to let the states handle it, and he promotes a fix-it-first approach to infrastructure. Highway expansion doesn’t fit his environmental frame of mind, but transit sure does. And he’s come up with his own proposals on how to fix federal transportation funding -- a greater mark of leadership than we ever saw from Rahall.

Overall, the bigger GOP majority is a setback for active transportation. Advocates had just gotten enough T&I Republicans on their side that they felt confident about getting some bills through the committee. With the new balance -- and with the loss of pro-bike Republican Tom Petri, who’s retiring at the end of this term -- they will have some work to do to rebuild that coalition.

In other House leadership news, budget hawk Paul Ryan is likely to switch to the Ways and Means Committee now that Dave Camp is out. In case you somehow thought a transportation funding solution might be possible in the next Congress: Be warned.

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