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Despite speculation over Cabinet post, Oberstar seems happy with his ‘dream job’

James Oberstar
Rep. James Oberstar

At a ceremony for the unveiling of the official portrait of U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar last spring, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia went on and on about the wonders of Minnesota’s longest-serving congressman.

Rahall talked of the deep understanding Oberstar, who in 2006 became head of the House’s powerful Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has of the country’s transportation system. 

Rahall, the committee’s No. 2 guy, concluded by saying that if a Democrat were elected president, Oberstar would make a perfect member of the cabinet as secretary of transportation. There was a long pause and Rahall, smiling, added this: “And I guess that would make me the chairman of the committee, wouldn’t it?”

The room filled with dignitaries roared with laughter.

But there’s likely no need for Rahall to find an artist to paint his portrait for the hearing room in the Rayburn Office Building where the portraits of all transportation chairmen hang.

Even if President-elect Barack Obama were to ask Oberstar to join his cabinet, Oberstar likely would say no, said Oberstar spokesman John Schadl.

The fact is there’s more autonomy as chairman than there’d be as a cabinet secretary.

“From Jim’s perspective, he can create and craft legislation as chairman,” Schadl said. “As part of the administration, he’d have to keep his vision in line within the views of the administration.”

Schadl said that Oberstar doesn’t mean to minimize the importance of cabinet secretaries.

“A secretary has the ability to make laws work,” Schadl said. “That job is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.”

But the chairman of a committee as important as transportation has a chance to be creative.

“Jim’s worked his entire career to come to this moment,” said Schadl, referring to the fact that not only are Democrats in control of the House and will have greater control in the Senate but have a friend in the White House, too.

In 1963, Oberstar, who had been Duluth Harbor clerk, became an assistant to Rep. John Blatnik, who served as 8th District’s congressman from 1947 until he retired in 1974. In his last two terms, Blatnik was chairman of the Public Works Committee, which later became the transportation committee. Oberstar succeeded Blatnik.

So it’s a fact that Oberstar, 74, has spent his entire career waiting for this moment. Now that it’s come, Oberstar is intent on putting his stamp on the country’s transportation future, Schadl said. 

The 1950s and 1960s were all about putting together the interstate highway system. But that’s a 20th Century concept. There were 65 million cars on the highways in the early ’60s; now there are 250 million. 

“Another lane of pavement is not going to solve our problems,” Schadl said.

The phrase most often used by Oberstar in defining 21st Century needs is “inter-modal approach.” That means a rail system for passengers, light rail systems for commuters, improvements in shipping, more coordination between trucking and rail and even bike trails.

Apparently, another Minnesota congressman, is thinking like Oberstar. Earlier this week, Rep. Collin Peterson, chairman of the House ag committee, said he would not be interested in becoming the nation’s secretary of agriculture.

In Washington, power trumps prestige.

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