When the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meets to vote on a major bill, Room 2167 of the Rayburn House Office Building--the 75-member committee's main hearing room--is a crowded, bustling place.
But last Tuesday, the cavernous hearing room was quiet and there was no big crowd, only about a dozen reporters, several staffers and a couple of lobbyists gathered there for what was probably Rep. James Oberstar's last press conference as chairman of the "T&I" Committee and a member of the House.
In his 36th year in the House, the Minnesota Democrat lost his bid for a new term on Nov. 2 to Republican challenger Chip Cravaack, part of the GOP's big day that gave it control of the House in the next Congress.
"I come to the end of an era," Oberstar told the reporters, "ending where I started--January 1963 as clerk of the subcommittee on rivers and harbors."
He went on, "And now, I conclude as chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure."
Oberstar worked as a staffer under subcommittee Chairman John Blatnik, who, like Oberstar, was from Chisholm, Minn., and moved up as a staffer with Blatnik when he became chairman of the full committee.
Then after Blatnik retired in 1974, Oberstar ran for his seat and won. He was reelected every two years after that. But the long streak ended this month.
In the press conference, Oberstar did make some news, saying he would be willing to accept a Senate version of a long-term aviation bill, if it included a hike in the passenger facility charge (PFC).
An increase in the fee would provide more money for airport infrastructure. If a deal is struck, it would end a string of 16 short stopgpaps since the last multi-year aviation bill expired, back in September 2007.
Oberstar also said that if there is no agreement soon on a long-term highway-transit bill--something that is virtually certain--he favors a further one-year extension before the current lame duck session ends.
That extension would follow the present stopgap that is due to expire on Dec. 31.
Through the lengthy session with the press, Oberstar was in what one person in the room called his professorial mode. With the small group around the table, it was like a seminar, though in an exceptionally large classroom.
Oberstar reached back into history, citing late 18th-century bills produced by the Rivers and Harbors Committee. He gave an extended mini-tutorial on the difference between an appropriations earmark and a project provision in an authorization bill.
That discursive style was familiar. During hearings, Oberstar at times wouldn't rattle through a list of questions, but fill in the background on a transportation issue under discussion, recalling, in detail, past hearings, or relating what he had learned on a visit to a highway job site in his home state or about transportation developments he saw on a trip to Europe.
And as he occasionally has done in hearings, Oberstar broke into French--he majored in French and political science in college and taught in Haiti after he graduated.
To be sure, there was a transportation connection. He was talking about a recent trip he and his wife took from Paris to Avignon on the Train a Grande Vitesse--the TGV--France's high-speed-rail line, and relayed, in French, the announcement that the train was "ready to depart for Paris in two minutes."
He took out his BlackBerry and clicked on a photo he had taken of the TGV and passed it to reporters around the table.
The context was a question about high-speed rail. Oberstar was commenting about Wisconsin Governor-elect Scott Walker's plan to turn back already awarded federal funds for a new rail line in his state.
The chairman praised U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for spelling out to Walker that Wisconsin cannot use the rail money for highway projects. Oberstar also said if Wisconsin wants to construct roads, it should increase its state gasoline tax.
"Those dollars were designated for rail not for highways," Oberstar said. "So stop complaining and whining about money to build highways with rail dollars. Build highways with highway dollars."
Oberstar also pointed to important bills enacted during his chairmanship, including a rail passenger policy and safety measure and a Coast Guard authorization.
But other key bills have been stalled for months, notably the surface transportation and aviation reauthorizations.
Oberstar's long-time committee press spokesman, Jim Berard, asked him how he felt about leaving a multi-year surface transportation bill unfinished. "I feel there's a big hole in our legislative agenda, not having completed that work," Oberstar said.
It's widely agreed that a multi-year bill won't pass before the lame duck ends, so Oberstar's one-year extension is a more realistic possibility.
He does see some hope in the lame duck for a multi-year aviation bill, now more than three years overdue. "I'm willing to take whatever the Senate sends us," he said. "Well, [with] at least a $1 increase in the PFC."
The House passed a bill with a larger boost in that fee; the Senate-approved version has no blanket PFC increase. There has been no agreement between the two sides yet.
What lies ahead for Oberstar after he leaves Congress? Oberstar quickly ruled out joining any lobbying firm, a port of call for some ex-lawmakers. "That's as much as I know right now," he said.
Still, Oberstar did describe a general direction in which he wants to go. He said, "I want to be of service to transportation in the broadest policy sense of the term, and particularly to safety, to a new rural view of America and to, hopefully, a new urbanism."
There may be more seminars for Oberstar to present, and reporters to attend.