Old and new schools of politics were in sharp contrast Thursday as veteran Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster angrily rejected charges from younger Republican colleagues that he was trading highway projects for votes.
Shuster, R-Pa., in an impassioned speech on the floor, accused three lawmakers of a “blatant falsehood” in suggesting that his committee had promised highway money for their home districts in exchange for their votes, and threatened to withhold that money if they opposed the bill.
Shuster did not name the three in his speech, but his office confirmed that he was talking about three conservatives from the GOP’s “class of 1994,” Reps. Steve Largent and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Sue Myrick of North Carolina.
All three came to Washington on platforms of making major cuts in federal spending and changing old-style politicking where entrenched politicians make sure that their allies get a fair share of the federal money pot.
Highway spending is often cited as a prime example of pork-barrel spending, and the six-year, $217 billion surface transportation bill that Shuster’s committee approved this week has inspired fierce competition for money for home district roads and bridges.
Shuster set aside $9 billion, about 5 percent of the highway money in the bill, for special projects, those personally requested by members. It includes some 1,000 projects in 350 districts. About 400 members had asked for about twice as many projects, costing at least $45 billion.
Shuster said the projects were chosen only after going through a 14-point check to determine their need. “I challenge these members to name one person, one person, whom I went to and said you will get a project in exchange for your vote.”
“The implication was there,” Coburn said in an interview of contacts between Transportation Committee staff and his office.
“I told them my vote was not for sale,” Largent said. “This entire process is what our country is fed up with and it’s everything that I ran against” in 1994. “It makes me sick to my stomach.”
Myrick, on ABC Evening News, and Coburn and Largent, in a Tulsa World article, all said they were offered about $15 million each in road projects for their districts in exchange for their votes.
Coburn and Largent said they had rejected any special highway money. I think the system stinks,” Coburn said. “It’s being used for political patronage and to keep you entrenched” in office, he said.
Shuster, a 13-term veteran who has previously clashed with younger conservatives over his aggressive pursuit of more money for highways, used a procedure called a point of personal privilege that allows any member to take the floor when he feels he has been slighted by another member.
“Sometimes it seems as though the smaller the minority they represent, the more incensed they become because they view themselves as more pure, more righteous, more sanctimonious than the larger majority of us who are mere mortals,” he said.
“Now I don’t ascribe any of these motives to our colleagues, I prefer to elieve that they simply are misinformed,” Shuster said.
Shuster got full support from the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee, Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, who said he was “offended by the use of language, by the accusations made.”
He said that any suggestion that lawmakers were “browbeaten or beaten into line is totally inappropriate and totally untrue.”
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