By KEVIN DIAZ
January 15, 2007
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, so Oberstar scheduled a news conference, a rarity during his 12 years in the minority party.
"Where have you folks been?" the 17-term congressman asked a Capitol hearing room packed with reporters, an unusual sight for a politician used to laboring behind the scenes on the minutiae of transportation funding.
With billions of dollars in federal money now under his purview, the 72-year-old Iron Ranger is a hot commodity, both among lobbyists and the journalists who track them.
From airline mergers to bike paths, Oberstar is expected to put an outsized imprint on how Americans get around in the future. If you're a railroad tycoon looking for a federally backed loan, you have to talk to Oberstar; if you're an airline lobbyist looking for a new route or an acquisition, you have to talk Oberstar.
"It's very good to be Jim Oberstar right now," said his new Washington communications director, Duluth, Minn., political consultant and former journalist John Schadl, whose job it will be to manage Oberstar's profile.
For years, Oberstar has played second fiddle to former Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska. Both have been adept at garnering special projects for their districts in a process known as "earmarking," a process under new scrutiny from Oberstar's fellow Democrats. But the world of transportation spending has its own set of rules, and few know them better than Oberstar.
"You have to go into a meeting with Jim Oberstar very well organized and very well prepared," said Northwest Airlines' D.C. lobbyist, Andrea Fischer Newman.
The Transportation Committee gavel has come with a bigger staff, more clout and a longer list of visitors, from union representatives to the CEOs of Delta and US Airways, who are in a much-watched merger fight.
Oberstar, first elected in 1974 and now the dean of the Minnesota congressional delegation, prefers to hear directly from corporate chieftains, rather than their paid lobbyists. "I want them to know about the issues they're advocating," he said. "And I also want to show them I know their business."
"What I said in previous Congresses was always of interest and valuable and useful and factually accurate," Oberstar said in a recent interview. "Now it has weight."
Nationally, Oberstar will be one of the chief architects in efforts to modernize the federal air traffic control system, supervise the much-maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and upgrade locks and dams on the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.
Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest and the rest of the airline industry are keen observers of Oberstar's committee. As the incoming chairman, he has already played a part in the Transportation Department's decision to approve a new China route for United Airlines, a loss for Northwest.
Even though Northwest maintains a 600-person reservation center in Oberstar's hometown of Chisholm, Minn., Oberstar favored the United proposal, which features service out of Washington-Dulles rather than Detroit.
Despite his newfound influence, Oberstar is mostly helpless to suspend the Democrats' current moratorium on earmarks, which cost his district as many as 30 new projects, including $250,000 for a youth program in Duluth.
But with an eye toward the next major surface transportation bill in 2009, Oberstar hopes to build on the bounty of the legislative behemoth known as the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act.
That six-year, $286.5 billion federal spending bill was a treasure trove for Minnesota, which got $495 million worth of earmarks, including the money for Hwy. 53. A quarter of the Minnesota earmarks are going to Oberstar's district alone.
The next transportation bill could be a bounty for road builders. Every $1 billion in federal infrastructure spending results in 3 million yards of ready-mixed concrete, according to the North American Concrete Alliance.
Oberstar and his labor allies view transportation improvements as job makers as well. And he makes no apologies for his projects. Still, he distinguishes earmarks in the last transportation bill from the kind that drew some GOP lawmakers into the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling schemes.
The transportation projects, he argues, were vetted in public before his committee, not slipped into last-minute appropriations bills.
"They were part of the committee record for everybody to see," he said. "They weren't put in at midnight."
Scripps-McClatchy Western Service, http://www.shns.com
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