Nomination News: STB May Get Full Membership, Szabat Approved by Committee

This week, the Senate Commerce Committee approved the nomination of Joel Szabat to be Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy, and the President nominated a longtime House staffer to fill the fifth and final seat on the Surface Transportation Board.

Szabat. The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved Joel Szabat’s nomination for the “S-3” post on July 22 by voice vote. The Senate traditionally confirms a large package of nominations by unanimous consent as the last item of business before embarking on a long recess, and the Senate is currently scheduled to leave on August 7 for a month-long recess, so Szabat (who has bipartisan support) might conceivably make it into the large pre-recess nominations deal. (If there is a deal this year.)

STB. On July 21, the White House transmitted a series of nominations to the Senate, including that of Robert Primus to be a member of the Surface Transportation Board, to fill the unexpired portion of Dan Elliott’s term (expiring December 31, 2023).

Primus was, for years, the chief of staff to Rep. Mike Capuano (D-NJ), who served as the head Democrat on the Railroads Subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee before Capuano left Congress at the end of 2018. Since then, he has been serving as chief of staff for second-term Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragan (D-CA).

Primus’s nomination is not unexpected – quite the contrary. See this article written by Frank Wilner for Railway Age in September 2019, stating that Primus was “in line to be nominated by President Trump following a written recommendation to the White House by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. (Chuck) Schumer. For some reason, the internal paperwork on Primus’s nomination took ten months, almost to the day – but the nomination has now been made formally.

This is welcome news to Michelle Schultz, who was nominated for a STB seat by President Trump all the way back in March 2018. Her nomination was approved by the Commerce Committee in April 2018, then died at the end of the 115th Congress. Her nomination was then re-transmitted at the start of the 116th Congress and she was approved by the Commerce Committee once again in July 2019 and has been pending on the Executive Calendar ever since.

Her problem is that there is a longstanding Senate tradition that nominees to multi-member regulatory boards move through the Senate floor in pairs – one Democrat and one Republican at a time. Schultz, a Republican, has had to wait for more than two years for a Democrat to be nominated alongside her so her nomination can move.

The STB currently has three members serving (two Republicans and one Democrat), so if Schultz and Primus move through the Senate as a pair, the STB would be full and would be 3R, 2D. However, chairman Ann Begeman’s (R) term ends on December 31, 2020, so the confirmation of Schultz and Primus would not lock in a GOP majority into next year. If President Trump should lose the election this fall, President Biden could create a Democratic majority on the STB just as fast as he could nominate, and the Senate could confirm, Begeman’s replacement.

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