WASHINGTON – Frustrated by eight years of inaction on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the highest ranking enlisted soldier to ever serve in Congress, is making a midcareer move to the House Armed Services Committee — a perch he thinks will be more productive and satisfying.
Walz secured his new slot earlier this month after lobbying Democratic leadership. On Armed Services, he will be charged with annually approving the military spending budget.
“Armed Services is, whether you agree with it or not, the one area where things get done,” Walz said. “Budgets go through, things happen.”
While Walz was not among the most senior Democrats on the House Transportation Committee, his departure comes at a critical time for transportation and infrastructure reform.
The federal Highway Trust Fund is projected to go belly up in May, a problem both House and Senate Republicans acknowledge needs to be addressed likely through more revenue. Transportation infrastructure needs loom large in Minnesota, where officials say nearly half the state’s bridges are in poor or mediocre condition and almost 2.5 million commuters drive across a deficient bridge each day. Gov. Mark Dayton recently proposed a wholesale tax on gasoline of 6.5 percent per gallon, along with a hike in license fees and a metro-wide one-cent sales tax increase, to help solve the problem.
In Rochester, which is in Walz’s district, Mayor Ardell Brede awaits a Hwy. 14 expansion from Rochester to Owatonna. He says the road is among the most dangerous in the state and should be four lanes the whole way. Commuters driving to work at the Mayo Clinic simultaneously face the sun and grapple with strip of highway that abruptly changes from four- to two-lanes.
Walz is familiar with all this, but angrily notes that for six years, “the Transportation Committee has done nothing … except argue about the cost of soda in Amtrak and debate about urban vs. rural transportation needs.”
He says he can advocate for stretches like Hwy. 14 without being on the committee. “Our point is that you can advocate for transportation on a broader scale,” Walz said.
Seeking higher profile
Walz’s committee change seems part of an overall effort to raise his profile even as Republicans maintain their majority status in the House.
Last year, he tried to become the highest ranking Democrat on the Veteran’s Affairs Committee — an effort that failed because he didn’t properly follow House rules. A more senior Florida Democrat, who was endorsed by Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, got the job. Ahead of the new Congress, which was sworn in a couple of weeks ago, Walz worked back channels to get his noncontroversial veterans suicide bill to the House floor in the first week. It passed unanimously.
Asked whether he wants to run for governor in 2018, Walz demurred.
“We’re not even thinking that way now, I just want to be as effective as possible,” he said.
Mark Drake, a Republican and president of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, said Walz’s name is among the top “bandied about when you talk about Democrats going for higher office.”
On Armed Services, Walz will wield some say over the $500 billion annual defense budget and be able to handily raise campaign contributions from the defense industry. He is already talking about his desire for a Pentagon audit, a notion deeply unpopular at the Pentagon. Walz also vows he will fight against further cuts to the National Guard, where he is a retired Command Sergeant Major. There is no major military installation in Minnesota’s First Congressional District, though there are 13 National Guard facilities in southern Minnesota.
“From the perspective of the Minnesota National Guard, Rep. Walz being on prominent military committees with his military experience, service and knowledge will be invaluable not only to the Minnesota National Guard, but collectively for the entire Department of Defense,” said Col. Sandy Best, Minnesota National Guard director of strategic relations, in a statement.
Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, the highest ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee and a friend of Walz’s, said he understood the Minnesota congressman’s frustration with stalled progress in moving a national highway bill. DeFazio supports getting rid of the 18.4 cents per gallon fuel tax in exchange for a $6.75 per-barrel levy on oil sales to generate more money for the Highway Trust Fund.
Because of better fuel efficiency, increased needs, and the fact the gas tax hasn’t been increased in 20 years, the Highway Trust Fund is always on the verge of going broke. Congress has had to replenish it with general fund money six times since 2008 and will have to again this year unless a fix is found. States count on the money for reimbursement of local projects.
DeFazio said he sensed some thawing among Republicans on a longer-term fix — even if it costs money.
“I think there is a growing realization, even among the Tea Party folks, that this is a government function. It’s in the Constitution and it’s legitimate to invest in it,” DeFazio said. “I am cautiously optimistic.”