Rep. Bud Shuster of Everett, Pa., not only relishes his multibillion-dollar sway over the nation's infrastructure. He wants to be criticism-free. So, on Monday, he faxed me a "personal" message: "Bob, Bob, say it ain't so!" I was wrong, he said, to contend that he passed an airport bill breaking spending restraints and loaded with goodies for individual lawmakers.

But it is so. Contrary to protests from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, the $56 billion bill approved by the House last week makes a mockery of the 1997 balanced-budget agreement and imperils the Republican income-tax reduction. Furthermore, it authorizes a doubled ticket tax on overburdened air passengers. Finally, while other countries move toward airport privatization, Shuster is cementing the federal government's role in the airport business.

Despite perils in the Senate and President Clinton's possible veto, Shuster is fulfilling his promise that 1999 would be the "year of aviation" (following his notorious 1998 highway-spending bill). Grim-visaged Majority Whip Tom DeLay has been designated the uncrowned king of the House by frightened liberals, but he was powerless in the June 15 floor debate when he declared that "this bill . . . goes too far," its backers having "overstepped their bounds." A smiling Shuster reminded DeLay that "he speaks for himself here today; he does not speak for the Republican conference."

Indeed not. The airport bill was supported on final passage by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey and many vociferous conservative Republicans. They voted for it despite warnings by the chamber's leading GOP tax-writer, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, that the bill would reduce the current surplus by $43 billion. That, Archer added, "could eliminate entirely any net tax relief for the year 2001 and force us to renege on our promise for early tax reduction at just about the same time voters head for the election booth next year."

But half the Republican House members and a big majority of Democrats seemed more concerned by Shuster's earlier warning in opposition to an amendment to keep airport spending strictly within budgetary restraints. He dropped his usual bonhomie to threaten the House: "There is no reason, should this amendment pass, for us to continue with this legislation. I shall pull the bill because there will not be anything here." In short: Do it my way, or forget any airport money for your district.

Shuster, while usually a conservative Republican majority vote, is no party-liner. He won unopposed for reelection last year, the eighth time in 15 terms he received 100 percent of the vote. Characteristically, he voted against two Clinton impeachment counts. He leads his 75-member committee as a third-party bloc.

At age 67, he comes across as the small-town businessman he once was. But the holder of an MBA and a PhD is a polished congressional tactician who has mastered the arcane complexities of federal budgeting that mystify most of his colleagues. That enables him to draw airport money from the Treasury while claiming the separate airport trust fund can have no other use.

Still, why did many hard-shell conservatives support Shuster's bill? "They porked out," explained blunt-spoken Republican Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Although Shuster asserted in his fax to me that "unlike the highway bill" last year, the airport measure "does not contain a single congressional project," House sources report that the way to passage was paved with promised goodies. But one House Republican sees naked fear -- fear that a vote against the chairman will deprive the member's district.

A final discordant note: Opposition to Shuster by the usually generous leaders of the House Appropriations Committee was greeted with suspicion by conservatives. They wondered whether the appropriators were performing a charade to justify busting spending caps in the future.

Two big pork-laden bills in two years when little else gets done make Bud Shuster the real king of the House. Not even the three-term limit on committee chairmen will end Shuster's reign if Republicans keep control in 2000. He then would head the committee's ground transportation subcommittee and might come back as committee chairman two years hence. "No one is treating him like he's going away," a lobbyist said in an interview. Certainly not his colleagues.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.