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Two top Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are working behind the scenes to persuade their caucus to select them as their party’s next leader of the panel.
The current chair, Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), announced late last year that he’ll retire after 36 years in Congress, and the two subcommittee chairs wasted no time announcing their interest in succeeding him. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the D.C. delegate who leads the highways and transit subcommittee, and Rep. Rick Larsen (Wash.), the aviation subcommittee chair, each said in interviews they’re confident in their campaigns for the top spot.
Like DeFazio, both Norton and Larsen embrace similar priorities, including advancing sustainability and equity, and ensuring last year’s infrastructure law is carried out effectively.
Larsen, who has served on the committee since he first came to Congress in 2001, is pitching himself to fellow Democrats based on his experience helping craft legislation that eventually becomes law, from pipeline safety legislation to green transit. “I’m ready to be that next leader and mentor for Democrats on the committee,” he said.
Norton also joined the panel the year she assumed office. Her campaign emphasizes her status as the panel’s the most senior member after DeFazio, and the historic nature of her candidacy: She would be the first woman and the first Black person to chair this committee. She would also be one of the only delegates in history to ever chair a House committee; delegates can vote on a panel but not on the floor.
“It’s been going very well,” Norton said about talking to members. “There is somebody else who is junior who is also trying to become chair, but thus far I have many more votes than he has.”
Midterm elections will determine which party holds the gavel; Democrats would lose the chairmanship if Republicans take control of the House in November. Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), now the committee’s ranking member, would be in line to take over if the panel flips to the GOP.
The committee has shifted its focus from the five-year surface transportation reauthorization that dominated this Congress, which was enacted as part of the infrastructure package (Public Law 117-58).
Federal aviation programs, which expire at the end of fiscal 2023, are likely to command the panel’s work next year. Larsen said his subcommittee has held hearings this Congress looking into pandemic recovery, innovation in airspace, safety, sustainability, and general aviation in preparation for the Federal Aviation Administration legislation.
“We have done a lot of the work to set up next year to begin building the FAA bill,” Larsen said. “I’m confident that we’ll be able to move forward in largely a bipartisan way.”
The committee will also see fresh faces in the new year as more than a half-dozen of its Democrats follow DeFazio in leaving at the end of this Congress.
“That is not unusual,” Norton says. “They will be very junior if they choose this committee, and remember they have other choices, so we will have to work very closely with them.”
The Democrats seeking the job will follow in the footsteps of DeFazio, known to colleagues as a longtime transportation guru. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg described his chats with the chairman as “having a beer with an encyclopedia.”
Lawmakers and officials gathered to toast DeFazio last month, when his official portrait was unveiled in the committee room. DeFazio hasn’t played favorites between Larsen, 57, and Norton, 85, as they vie for his seat.
“They bring diverse talents to the committee, but it’ll be up to the future Congress to choose the chair; I don’t get a vote,” DeFazio, 75, told reporters.
Norton’s list of priorities includes overseeing development of a new multimodal transportation system, combating climate change, improving safety, and creating jobs, particularly for women and minorities who “have been often left behind.”
Norton said her main task, as highways and transit chair, was to complete last year’s surface transportation reauthorization bill. Although there were key differences between what she worked on in the House, and the Senate text that became law, she said her work still served as a base for the final legislation, she said.
“I’m hoping the infrastructure law can be used to address climate issues,” Norton said. “It’s a perfect opportunity since infrastructure accounts for much of what is affecting climate.”
Norton, who has represented D.C. since 1991, has deep roots in the city. Her great-grandfather, Richard Holmes, was a slave on a Virginia plantation who escaped across the Potomac River in the 1850s and found work as Washington was being built.
While representing a big city, Norton said she plans to work with members on rural issues as well, and could give subcommittee chairs more discretion with respect to agenda-setting and staff selection. She said Democrats usually pick the next chair based on seniority, which would be her.
But ascension to the chairmanship for a delegate would be extremely unusual. Delegates can introduce legislation and vote in committee, but it would be rare not to vote on the floor for legislation that comes out of the chair’s committee.
“I have no concerns and I think there’s a good reason why: I do vote in committee and any bill that passes on the floor must first have the majority in committee,” Norton said. “I don’t think the fact that I don’t vote on the House floor will have any resonance whatsoever.”
Northwest Territory Delegate William Henry Harrison became the first delegate in 1799 to head a select committee, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Larsen said there’s always a balance and tension between being too top-down, and letting some committees do whatever they want. “To break through that tension, the first thing to do is to get committee members to agree on a broad set of goals,” he said.
The committee should zero in broad goals of safety, transportation as a US competitive edge, creating jobs, building a greener transportation system, and looking at equity within the workforce and federal spending, he said.
“We have a transportation foundation set in the 1950s,” Larsen said. “We now need to focus on what that transportation system is going to look like to meet the needs of the 2050s.”
Larsen sponsored a bill (H.R. 6270) that recently passed the House to provide grants to develop advanced air mobility infrastructure—where flying taxis would be able to land, for example.
Like other committee Democrats, Larsen has been promoting the infrastructure law. He has won two caucus-wide competitions this year for holding the most infrastructure-related events — more than 100. Larsen said the committee next year will need to ensure the administration is getting out infrastructure dollars efficiently and equitably.
Discussing infrastructure needs across the country has been a big part of his member-to-member conversations. Larsen compared it to “running to be the public works director of members of Congress,” where he’s heard about everything from bridges and airports to transit and wastewater treatment plants.
“I’m learning about this country one infrastructure project at a time,” Larsen said. “Those conversations are going good enough to keep going, to keep running for this seat. I feel really confident about where I am right now.”
Apart from their ambitions to lead the committee, Norton and Larsen share a comedic streak.
Larsen finished second in Washington’s Funniest Celebrity stand-up comedy competition in 2010. “Everybody needs a hobby,” he told The Hill. “Some people read, some people play golf, and I write jokes.”
Norton displayed a deadpan comedy style, appearing frequently on television to mock-spar with Stephen Colbert, who playfully called her his nemesis. “Colbert found in me a willing and defenseless foil,” she said in a 2014 statement congratulating the comic on his taking over the CBS “Late Show.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org