Changes in Transportation Committee Leaders Driven Largely by Retirements and Term Limits

Many of the changes in control of Congressional transportation policy and funding that will take effect next year are guaranteed no matter which party wins next week’s elections. Some changes are happening because of retirements, and others because of internal term limits on committee chairmen.

Policy – House

The big news here is that Transportation and Infrastructure chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) is retiring after 36 years in the House. He holds the head post on the Democratic side of the T&I panel (to be chairman) if Democrats retain their House majority or become ranking minority member if they lose the majority.

House Democrats no longer strictly adhere to the seniority system when choosing chairmen, but the seniority norm is still fairly powerful in the Democratic Caucus, so it figures that the contest to succeed DeFazio is between the next two most senior Democrats returning to the committee, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Rick Larsen (D-WA).

Rep. Norton is the chairman of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, while Larsen chairs the Aviation Subcommittee. Norton is more senior, having arrived in the House in 1991, ten years before Larsen.

A contest between Norton and Larsen really isn’t about ideology or policy. The single biggest factor could wind up being that Norton is 85 years old.

When Nancy Pelosi defeated Steny Hoyer for the #2 slot in the House Democratic hierarchy in October 2001, and then moved up to the #1 slot a year later upon Dick Gephardt’s resignation and Hoyer took the #2 spot, House Democrats could not have realized that those two would stay put in their leadership positions for the next 20 years, preventing anyone else from moving up. The frustration has built up to the point that once Pelosi (age 82) steps down after the election (which she is expected to do), there is a growing sense that the Caucus, pushed by the younger generation (younger meaning anyone who has not served at least 20 years in Congress already, and next year there will probably be 35 or fewer Democrats with more than 20 years) may clean house and push out Hoyer (age 83) and Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the #3 leader, age 82, for good measure.

So the fact that Norton is two years older than Hoyer could be a problem. We should note that she has shown no signs of being too old for the job, physically or mentally, none at all. But sometimes, there are big generational power shifts that happen all at once, and this could be one of those times.

On the other hand, Norton is Black, and it is almost inconceivable that today’s Democratic Caucus would deny a committee post to a qualified Black candidate with the most seniority unless there was a great deal of Black representation already chosen in leadership and the other committee posts selected before they get to T&I. So we would wait and see who replaces the current leadership regime before making a guess.

Obviously, whichever member wins will have to give up their subcommittee gavel. If Norton wins the full committee seat, Larsen would have his pick of either Aviation or Highways and Transit, but since (a) Congress is reauthorizing aviation in 2023 but isn’t reauthorizing highways or transit until 2026 and (b) Boeing is a huge part of Larsen’s district, he is likely to stick with Aviation. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) could move up from Water Resources to take either Highways and Transit or Aviation.

A few Democratic members of T&I are in electoral trouble. Dina Titus (D-NV), Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and Chris Pappas (D-NJ) are all rated as toss-ups or narrow favorites by the Cook Political Report. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) keeps spending money like he knows he is in trouble, but Sharice Davids (D-KS) actually seems to be pulling ahead in her race.

If Democrats lose their majority, they lose some of their seats on all committees. Some members at the bottom of the end of the Democratic list on T&I in the 117th Congress may be bumped from the committee in the 118th and waitlisted for a new opening. (And remember that Reps. Stacey Plaskett (D-VI), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX) and Angie Craig (D-MN) left T&I two years ago for exclusive committees but could be bumped back down to T&I if they are displaced from Appropriations, Ways and Means, or Energy and Commerce, which would mean even more displacements of low-ranking Democrats currently on T&I.

On the Republican side, Sam Graves (R-MO) is staying put and will be chairman or ranking minority member of the full committee, election returns depending.

Two current T&I subcommittee ranking minority members are leaving the committee – Bob Gibbs (R-OH) (Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation) is retiring and Rodney Davis (R-IL) (Highways and Transit) lost his primary election. Normally, Highways and Transit would be the gavel that everyone would try to get, but since the IIJA is settled law through 2026 but all things aviation come up for renewal next year, we expect Garret Graves (R-LA) to try and stay put on Aviation.

Current Membership, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
Democrats Republicans
1 Peter DeFazio (OR) retiring Sam Graves (MO)
2 Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC) Rick Crawford (AR)
3 E.B. Johnson (TX) retiring Bob Gibbs (OH) retiring
4 Rick Larsen (WA) Daniel Webster (FL)
5 Grace Napolitano (CA) Thomas Massie (KY)
6 Steve Cohen (TN) Scott Perry (PA)
7 Albio Sires (NJ) retiring Rodney Davis (IL) lost primary
8 John Garamendi (CA) John Katko (NY) retiring
9 Henry Johnson (CA) Brian Babin (TX)
10 Andre Carson (IN) Garret Graves (LA)
11 Dina Titus (NV) Toss-Up David Rouzer (NC)
12 Sean Maloney (NY) Leans D Mike Bost (IL)
13 Jared Huffman (CA) Randy Weber (TX)
14 Julia Brownley (CA) Doug LaMalfa (CA)
15 Fredrica Wilson (FL) Bruce Westerman (AR)
16 Donald Payne Jr. (NJ) Brian Mast (FL)
17 Alan Lowenthal (CA) retiring Mike Gallagher (WI)
18 Anthony Brown (MD) ran for State AG Brian Fitzpatrick (PA)
19 Tom Malinowski (NJ) Leans R Jeniffer Gonzalez-Colon (PR)
20 Greg Stanton (AZ) Troy Balderson (OH)
21 Colin Allred (TX) Pete Stauber (MI)
22 Sharice Davids (KS) Leans D Tim Burchett (TN)
23 Jesus Garcia (IL) Dusty Johnson (SD)
24 Chris Pappas (NJ) Toss-Up Jefferson Van Drew (NJ)
25 Conor Lamb (PA) ran for Senate Michael Guest (MS)
26 Seth Moulton (MA) Troy Nehls (TX)
27 Jake Auchincloss (MA) Nancy Mace (SC)
28 Carolyn Bordeaux (GA) lost primary Nicole Malliotakis (NY) Likely R
29 Kaiali’I Kahele (HI) ran for Govern. Beth VanDuyne (TX)
30 Marilyn Strickland (WA) Carlos Gimenez (FL)
31 Nikema Williams (GA) Michelle Steel (CA) Leans R
32 Marie Newman (IL) lost primary VACANCY
33 Troy Carter (LA)
34 Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (FL)

Funding – House

No matter which party wins, we are likely to get turnover on both sides of transportation’s funding stream. David Price (D-NC), the longtime chairman of the Transportation-Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, is retiring. House Appropriations Democrats use a unique seniority system that counts time on a subcommittee, not the full committee, for subcommittee gavel selection, so Mike Quigley (D-IL) is the heir apparent, and given Chicago’s centrality to the national railroad network, you can expect a continued focus on rail from him.

On the Republican side, Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) has hit his six-year subcommittee term limit under Republican Conference rules. There is no word on who will replace him at THUD, but there is enough musical chairs going on with the term limits that there are a lot of options. It could be Mike Simpson (R-ID), or Tom Cole (R-OK), or possibly even the Dean of the House, Hal Rogers (R-KY).

Policy – Senate

Thanks to the Senate’s rejection of the Stevenson Committee’s recommendations in 1977, the Senate has never concentrated transportation policy in one committee. The majority of that brief is held by the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Current chairman Maria Cantwell (D-WA) isn’t going anywhere. But elsewhere, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) is retiring, and while has a long history on another transportation panel, the relevant part here is that until January 3, he is the head Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

Once the top post on Armed Services becomes vacant, Roger Wicker (R-MS), currently the ranking Republican on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, will take over there from Inhofe. The next Republican with seniority on Commerce is Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Cruz has spent the past few years as head Republican on Commerce’s Aviation Subcommittee and would have to give that up under the Senate GOP’s one-gavel-per-person rule. Unless John Thune (R-SD) were to give up the powerful telecommunications subcommittee, or Deb Fischer (R-NE) were to give up Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine, the next R in line for Aviation would be Jerry Moran (R-KS), and given how much aviation manufacturing there is in Kansas, he would certainly jump at that post, especially in a reauthorization year.

The prospect of Commerce Chairman Cruz is interesting. On transportation and infrastructure issues, Commerce traditionally works towards a bipartisan consensus when producing legislation. “Bipartisan” and “consensus” aren’t words always associated with Ted Cruz. He has been one of three GOP “no” votes in committee (along with Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rick Scott (R-FL)) on a lot of otherwise-bipartisan legislation, including the safety, multimodal freight, and rail titles of the bipartisan infrastructure bill in June 2021.

(Ed. Note: I had to go re-watch the video to make sure of that vote, because as of this writing, Commerce staff still have not filed the written report to accompany their bill S. 2016, reported in June 2021, and the written report is supposed to be the official, permanent record of amendments and votes in committee on legislation, as well as the official explanation of the bill itself and the rationale for its existence. Apparently, the details of Commerce’s work on this important legislation will instead be lost in the sands of time).

However, at the current membership ratio, there are 11 Republicans on Commerce other than Cruz, Lee and Scott, and they all voted with the Democrats on the infrastructure bill (in committee) and on a wide variety of other issues hammered out by traditional bipartisan consensus-building. The point being, even if Chairman Cruz does wind up pushing a harder line in committee, there is only so far he can get without being able to get most or all of his Republican members to vote with him.

Take, for example, the issue of Amtrak. Cruz may take a much more skeptical attitude towards intercity passenger rail and Amtrak than did Wicker. He may use the resources of the full committee for greater Amtrak oversight. But most Republican Senators have proven over and over how much they love Amtrak long-distance routes and will never, ever, ever let them be cut, to the point that it will severely restrict any inclination Cruz might have to reign Amtrak in a little bit.

The Commerce panel does not have jurisdiction over highway policy and funding, or over mass transit policy and funding. The highway committee is Environment and Public Works, where there is expected to be no change – neither current chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) nor current ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) is expected to go anywhere for at least another two years.

Transit is lodged at the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee. Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) isn’t going anywhere. But on the Republican side, ranking member Pat Toomey (R-PA) is retiring. He will be replaced by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). But whether the head Republican on the committee is Toomey, or Scott, or Mike Rounds (R-SD), the next guy in line, the real issue is an attitude towards mass transit from committee Republicans that is somewhere between disinterest and dislike.

At recent Banking hearings on mass transit, Toomey was the only Republican to show up, and he focused on how excessive he thought the last tranche of COVID aid for mass transit providers was. Scott was chairman of the Housing and Transit subcommittee in a previous Congress but didn’t leave much of a mark on the topic. (Maybe, the closer the $625 million Lowcountry Rapid Transit project gets to federal funding, the more we will hear from Sen. Scott on the topic).

Funding – Senate

Wholesale changes are coming to the Senate Appropriations Committee. Full committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and ranking member Richard Shelby (R-AL) are both retiring. Their replacements will be Patty Murray (D-WA) on the Democratic side (if she wins re-election next week) and Susan Collins (R-ME) on the Republican side.

(The only way that Collins does not take over on the R side is if, somehow, against all odds, Donald Trump is able to convince at least 25 Republican Senators to vote against Mitch McConnell’s reappointment as Republican Leader on a secret ballot behind closed doors. Should McConnell be removed as Leader, he would be free to exercise his seniority on Appropriations and claim the top spot, if he chose to. But the odds of this happening are very, very low).

Collins has been chairing the Transportation-HUD Subcommittee for long enough that she was running into a term limit anyway (she has six full years as chairman and six full years as ranking minority member), so it’s good that Collins can now move up. She is also expected to take Shelby’s role as head Republican on the Defense subcommittee (more work coming for the Portsmouth shipyard, at a minimum).

Collins’s place as head Republican on THUD – possibly, chairman – will be up for grabs, in seniority order.

  1. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is first in line. She is currently the head R on the Interior and Environment Subcommittee, and for Alaska, that is probably more important but Transportation-HUD. But she is up against her 6-year chairmanship term  limit at Interior/Environment if the GOP takes back the Senate. (If they stay in the minority, she has two more years.)
  2. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is second in line to choose. He currently has the State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee, but he will hit his six-year term limit if the GOP takes the Senate. He hasn’t seemed that interested in THUD issues in the past, but this is a lot of money.
  3. After Graham is Jerry Moran (R-KS), who would almost certainly drop he gavel of the Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee to take Transportation-HUD.

On the Democratic side, Brian Schatz (D-HI) is expected to remain the head Democrat on the THUD Subcommittee.


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