CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — The first family of the nation’s highways fell under siege like never before: former congressman Bud Shuster, the father, and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, the son, faced completely different experiences.
Bud Shuster, who retired from the House in 2001, overpowered opponents in his central Pennsylvania district, where he rarely faced opposition, and in Washington he overwhelmed rivals and detractors to set several decades of federal highway policy.
Now Bill Shuster, the new chairman of the transportation panel, is moving the latest highway legislation slowly and carefully in an era of austerity unimagined during his father’s time. And at home Tuesday, he fought back a spirited challenge from tea party conservatives who oppose his family’s legacy of roadway pork.
“I can say this with more authority than anyone today,” Bill Shuster said as he crossed his sprawling rural district before election day. “This is not my father’s Congress.”
The younger Shuster prevailed Tuesday night, with about 53 percent of the vote, and his nearest challenger had 35 percent with almost all ballots counted. But the mere aggressiveness of his campaign — he aired almost $700,000 in TV ads— is a sign of how much times have changed for Pennsylvania Republicans since his father first took the chairman’s gavel two decades ago.
His main opponent, retired Coast Guard official Art Halvorson, pursued a two-pronged attack against the incumbent, the first based on Shuster’s role as “one of John Boehner’s lieutenants,” as he put it in a debate here in this central Pennsylvania borough, and the other on “Shuster fatigue.”
“It really is about entrenched interests who are driving the train,” Halvorson, a Rhode Island native who settled in the region seven years ago after retiring from the Coast Guard, said in an interview on his more than 200-acre farm outside Bedford.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Bud Shuster was his own “entrenched interest.” Politically untouchable, he never faced a real primary challenge and, because the opposition often wouldn’t bother running a rival, he regularly mounted a write-in campaign with Democratic friends so he won the nominations of both parties.
At the Capitol, he worked in bipartisan fashion to pump up highway spending in this region, naming a bypass and a short interstate after himself. When it came time to authorize a $218 billion highway bill in the late ’90s, Shuster inflated the size of his committee and drew up legislation that was loaded with earmarks — even Democratic freshmen in the minority got a few million dollars to dish out in their districts.
Arguably the last great committee-chairman power baron to walk the halls of Congress, Bud Shuster defied his own GOP leadership and forced his overstuffed road bill onto the House floor, where it won by a wide bipartisan margin. Under multiple ethics investigations during his time as chairman, he brushed them aside and served his full six-year term.
These days, Bill Shuster can’t even dream of such maneuvers. He talks about the “finesse” game he deploys, not the “power” politics of his father. “It’s a different Congress,” he said.
Since taking over the chairman’s gavel 17 months ago, Bill Shuster has had to try to write a water resources bill and a highway fund reauthorization. Now that earmarks are banned, the approach to these once-popular measures is entirely different, particularly among the more than 100 House Republicans who first won office in 2010 and 2012 under the banner of shrinking the government.
Shuster and his Senate counterpart, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, recently introduced a bipartisan water projects bill that would provide nearly $10 billion in new funding. But to prove his bona fides to his conservative caucus, Shuster mandated that the legislation also deauthorize nearly $18 billion in accounts that had been inactive the past five years but remained on the books.
Early last year, he brought in industry stakeholders and, along with congressional Democrats, wrote a bill that passed with overwhelming support. On Tuesday afternoon, as voters were deciding his future, he managed the House vote on the compromise plan and oversaw a 412-to-4 vote before making the three-hour drive back to his district to watch the primary results come in.
It would have been easier to approve with an earmark-laden product, but the younger Shuster paused when asked whether his legislative process produces better bills than his father’s era. “I believe it does,” he said.
This era requires more hand-holding than back-slapping, he said, more empathy and explanation of policy and process, traits that suit the younger Shuster. “He’s a lot more personable than his father,” Roger Beckner, a retired convenience-store owner and former chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party, said in Chambersburg. Beckner, wearing a “Shuster Booster” sticker, said he knew the Shusters before the father first won his House seat, in 1972.
In that heyday, Bud Shuster and his crony from Scranton, Joe McDade, followed a standard orthodoxy of many Pennsylvania Republicans. They embraced God and guns on social issues, but then used the federal Treasury to bring home money from the transportation and appropriations panels.
That style of representative governance has gone out of favor with some voters in this region. Some dismiss Bill Shuster’s 100 percent voting records with the National Rifle Association and antiabortion groups and instead focus on his lineage as a deep dispenser of federal highway money.
“A new broom sweeps clean,” Steve McIlveen, 66, a retired worker from Chambersburg Hospital, said before the debate.
Halvorson pressed his case on the spending front and against the 42 years of unbroken Shuster representation of the district, in part by pledging to serve just three terms. That chain of succession was cemented when the elder Shuster surprisingly announced his resignation in January 2001, just hours after taking the oath of office for the new Congress. He then helped push his son over the top in a crowded primary to keep the seat in the family.
Halvorson’s main target was actually House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), whom he accuses of betraying conservative principles by allowing the “fiscal cliff” legislation on the House floor, where it passed with Shuster’s vote and raised taxes on the top 1 percent of income earners. “To get to John Boehner, I’ve got to go through Bill Shuster,” he said.
On Tuesday, that strategy failed.