Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, will not seek re-election in November, telling the Washington Examiner that he wants to focus exclusively on working with President Trump to pass a massive infrastructure bill before he retires.
The western Pennsylvania Republican, who has held the seat since 2001, said he does not want campaigning or anything else to get in the way of helping Trump get this major piece of legislation passed by Congress in 2018. “I thought it was the best decision for me to focus 100 percent on my final year as the chairman of the Transportation Committee, working with the president and other Democrats and Republicans to pass an infrastructure bill, which is much needed to rebuild America,” Shuster said.
It was something he'd given a lot of thought to for months as he faced the final year of his chairmanship at transportation, a position his father, former Rep. Bud Shuster, held before him.
He told the Washington Examiner he could focus on working with both parties better if he didn't have to worry about running to hold his seat in a primary and general election.
Shuster's decision to end an era in Pennsylvania politics comes as Trump gets ready to meet with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at Camp David this weekend to work out their 2018 agenda, with a big infrastructure bill expected to be top of the list.
Trump is expected to propose this massive piece of legislation hard on the heels of passage of the biggest tax reform in three decades, which he signed before Christmas. The president is likely to lay out his thinking on an infrastructure package in his first State of the Union address at the end of the month.
Shuster did not tell Trump and Ryan of his decision to leave Capitol Hill until Tuesday afternoon, less than an hour before the scheduled time of his announcement. The only people he told before that were his family, his chief of staff, and the Washington Examiner.
Shuster said this was not an easy step to take. “It was a very difficult decision because," he said, "it came down to deep love for this country and the people that I serve … so it was a difficult decision to make to say that you're not going to seek election."
The congressman and his father have held this House seat between them since 1973.
He knows the infrastructure bill will be tough to pass, but it is something he has been working on with the White House and president for months. “My staff and myself have been in constant communication, consistent communication for the last several months with his team, just focused on this,” Shuster said.
“About a week or so ago I had a private meeting with the president at the White House. Now when I say private meeting, it was the president and I in the Oval Office with his senior advisers and some of my senior people, and we talked about the infrastructure bill. He's very excited. He seems to be ready to go, as we are, and so I think we're going to have a good working relationship as we move forward.
“This is a president who really understands how to build things, how to finance things, and how to get them done on time and under budget. It's an exciting time to be the chairman of the committee, so I didn't want to take my eye off the ball at all.”
Shuster, 57, of Everett, Pa., was born in McKeesport, a former industrial powerhouse just outside of Pittsburgh. He has represented Pennsylvania's 9th Congressional District, which spans rural and postindustrial western Pennsylvania, since his father retired from Congress in 2001.
He has chaired the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for five years, but will step down this year under rules that limit committee leaders to three consecutive terms.
Shuster is one of several veteran house GOP committee chairmen whose terms expire simultaneously. Others include fellow Pennsylvania delegation member Charlie Dent, a House Appropriations subcommittee chairman.
Although the House Democrats, under Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, naturally prefer to contest an open seat than one filled by a GOP incumbent, the Shuster seat is likely to remain in Republican hands. All its counties; Bedford, Blair, Fayette, Franklin, Fulton, and Indiana; and those with only portions in his district, Cambria, Greene, Huntingdon, Somerset, Washington, and Westmoreland; voted strongly for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
As this suggests, Shuster's real competition usually comes in the GOP primary rather than in the general election, although this was not the case in 2016, when Art Halverson, who usually challenges him as a Republican, instead ran against him as a Democrat. Shuster took over from his father as the district's congressman in a special election in 2001.
Halverson, a Manns Choice businessman, ran as both a Republican and as a write-in candidate for Democrats in the 2016 April primary. He lost the Republican race, but beat the endorsed Democrat with write-in ballots.
Looking ahead to 2018, the Cook Report gave Shuster's district a plus 19 GOP advantage, even though many pundits see a blue Democratic wave gathering as the November midterms come into sharper focus. That big GOP advantage in the western Pennsylvania seat is unlikely to change much despite Shuster's retirement. Every south-central and southwestern county in the 9th Congressional District has become more Republican since 1996.
Currently, Republicans hold 13 of the 18 House seats in Pennsylvania. Shuster is the fourth incumbent Republican to decide against seeking re-election. Dent is another, as is Rep. Tim Murphy, a pro-life advocate who quit after it was revealed that he'd had a sexual affair and had urged his mistress to get an abortion when they thought she was pregnant. Rep. Lou Barletta, another Pennsylvania Republican, is seeking the GOP nomination to challenge Sen. Bob Casey, the incumbent Democrat.
Shuster says his greatest accomplishment was serving not just on the Transportation Committee, but also on the House Armed Services Committee. “Certainly, one of the highlights of being on the Armed Services Committee is I went, several times, to both Afghanistan and Iraq during the wars … Visiting with our men and women over there, letting them know that we cared about them, that Congress is going to do the right thing by them. That's really one of the highlights,” he said.
On transportation, he noted his ability to pass legislation with votes from both parties. “I probably said it a couple times: Most, if not all, the major pieces of legislation we passed has been on a bipartisan basis." He said, "I worked very hard to make sure that committee got back to a bipartisan basis in how we operate and passing legislation."
What drove him in his career? “The real charge, for me, is when I'm able to help a small community, when I'm able to help seniors, when I'm able to help veterans," he said. "They don't have anybody in a community solve a problem for them. Those are really the highlights for me.”
And setbacks? “The disappointments, I've got tell you that, legislatively, so far, a disappointment for me, but it ain't over yet, is reforming the [Federal Aviation Administration]. I believe that the air traffic control operation is something that doesn't need to be in government. It can be done much better outside of government. I've been working for the last three years on this. It's a big reform. It's transformational to take 35,000 workers out of government, put them outside into the private sector. It's something that, well, I don't believe we've ever done in that number in one agency.”
He hopes privatization can be included in an infrastructure bill. “Who knows? We'll wait and see what happens,” he said.
Shuster’s bill, the 21st Century AIRR Act, would take air traffic control away from the FAA and create an independent nonprofit organization, governed by a board including representatives from the air traffic controllers and pilots union, the transportation secretary and people nominated by the airline companies. The board would be financed by user’s fees.
The legislation's supporters and detractors are bipartisan and it has languished in the Senate since June.
Former Rep. Bud Shuster spoke to the Washington Examiner about his lawmaker son. The 85-year-old had just finished his morning workout at his home in Everett, and said he is confident his son will return to the private sector where he began his career before running for Congress.
“Before he leaves, he will be there to help bring people together for this important infrastructure package. It is important that lawmakers on both sides work together to make this happen for the country,” said Bud Shuster.
Bill Shuster is unsure what he'll do next. “I do not know at this point what I will be doing," he said, adding "I do know that I will not be a member of Congress, and my heart will be happy, and I'll have a great sense of accomplishment of what I've been able to do over the years.
"I can tell you, I'm having peace with my decision. In January 2018, I'm going to be going a hundred miles an hour working with President Trump and my colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate, to cobble together, to put together, an infrastructure bill to rebuild America.”
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.