POLITICO Pro Q&A: Rep. Rick Larsen, chair of the House Transportation Aviation Subcommittee

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee but has set his sights on chairing the full Transportation Committee — a post that will open up next year with the retirement of Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). Larsen has competition — Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) is also running for the top job. She is more senior, and Democrats usually honor seniority though they don’t have to. POLITICO sat down with Larsen to talk about his candidacy, his plans and priorities for the committee and his thoughts on the biggest issues in transportation.

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee but has set his sights on chairing the full Transportation Committee — a post that will open up next year with the retirement of Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.).

Larsen has competition — Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) is also running for the top job. She is more senior, and Democrats usually honor seniority though they don’t have to.

POLITICO sat down with Larsen to talk about his candidacy, his plans and priorities for the committee and his thoughts on the biggest issues in transportation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with how you'd like to change the committee and what priorities and goals you would want to bring as chair.

Over the next five years, we'll be implementing the bipartisan infrastructure bill, H.R. 3684 (117). The first thing we need to do is ensure that the administration understands Congress' intent on the various provisions of the bill and hold the administration accountable to those ideas. The second is that there's high expectations for this infrastructure bill and that the administration gets dollars out the door efficiently and expeditiously, so that members of Congress can show the work that's getting done.

My approach will be member-driven, it will focus on ensuring that we continue this movement to a cleaner and greener transportation system moving from the 1950s foundation to thinking about the 2050s.

Would you also try to move forward with member-directed spending?

Absolutely. Every member who proposed projects should spend time with the administration helping them to understand why these projects were particularly important. It's not the same as earmarks, but members of Congress do need to have the ability to promote these projects and to get the agencies to think clearly about supporting them.

How do you think your approach — in your priorities, your interests, your skills, your style — are similar to and different from what we've had with Peter DeFazio in the last few years?

I don't think this race is about how I'm different from Pete or how I’m different from Eleanor [Holmes Norton]. I've had two decades-plus experience in the committee, experience getting my legislation [included] in broader pieces of legislation that become law. I couldn't have done that without mentors and leaders like [former Minnesota Democrat] Jim Oberstar and Pete DeFazio, and I'm ready to be that next leader for Democrats on the committee.

What have your efforts been like to lobby support for your chairmanship?

Twenty-four hours after Pete announced he wasn't running — that Friday at 1 o'clock or so in the afternoon through that next Monday night — I had called, emailed, texted or talked to every member we identified who is running again. A little over 200 calls, texts, emails or actually talking to people. The response has been enough for me to continue pushing.

What's the case you make that Democrats should not follow seniority in this case?

Seniority is something that I respect and all members should respect. The case I'm making is: two decades of service, experience legislating, getting items into bills that move and become law, and being mentored by successful leaders in committee and learning and being ready to do that for members in the future. Seniority is going to be a factor, but it is clear to me that it is not the factor in this particular race.

What is your approach to working with Republicans on future legislation on infrastructure, especially climate provisions?

I'm going to try to work with any member who wants to help move the committee's agenda forward. And I would like to continue to make that case to my Republican colleagues, as well, that working together does not necessarily mean a consensus at the end.

With the next FAA reauthorization coming up, we have green initiatives from the aviation sector, passenger growth, drone proliferation — what is your priority when it comes to crafting the next bill?

It continues to be safety. That will include looking at the certification reform bill that we passed and how far the FAA has come to implement those provisions. We’re looking at new entrants in the airspace and Advanced Air Mobility.

We need to start thinking about where electric propulsion and perhaps hydrogen-based propulsion is going to be in the next 10 years. We need to start thinking about that now and figure out if there needs to be something in the next bill to plan for the 2028 bill, where we'll have to do a lot more in terms of grant infrastructure investment and airport support for these new propulsion systems.

Also next year we'll be looking at the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act, H.R. 1696 (117), to see what kind of changes we'll need to incorporate to ensure the passenger experience for everybody is as close to the same as possible. We'll take a close look at these air rage incidents and determine if we need to up our game even further than we did in the 2018 bill in protecting flight crew.

Is there more of a role Congress can have in the lingering 5G issue regarding wireless and its interference with aircraft? Is the Jan. 5 rollout too soon?

We're running into an interagency jurisdictional issue, where the FCC has the authority on 5G allocation and the FAA has the authority on air safety, and those are conflicting. The FCC says there's no problem; the FAA says there is a problem, and everybody who flies airplanes says there is a problem. So I think that Congress is likely to have to get involved to adjudicate this. But then we have our own jurisdictional issues in Congress as well, so we'll have to do some educating of our colleagues on other committees.

We have to be ironclad comfortable with the FCC’s decision, and a lot of folks aren't there yet. I’m not there yet.

So the Jan. 5 date is too soon?

Yeah, it is too soon. The FCC will either do something or they won't do something and we'll have to respond.

In the FAA reorganization of the planning board, the Research and Development team seems to be taking a lot under its wing, no pun intended. UAS is obviously going in there, also other advanced technologies, electrical propulsion, flying cars. Is that the right way to approach this?

It's not obvious that UAS is going to R&D. Where we are with unmanned aerial systems is beyond R&D and it should not, therefore, be in R&D. Second, the lessons we learned from UAS over the last seven to eight years ought to be enough to apply to how Advanced Air Mobility can be integrated and therefore should not be in R&D as well. It needs to be in a place where we're moving forward. So, the committee staff — all of us, both sides of the aisle, and the Appropriations Committee — are working with the FAA to bring them suggestions about how they can change their approach.

Should Air Mobility and UAS be elevated and have their own offices in that chart?

I don't know, but I know that it shouldn't be buried in R&D.

Republicans have been using supply chain issues as a cudgel. Democrats are saying this is largely a private sector issue. Even whether or not there's a truck driver shortage is very politicized. Where do you see the pain points? And what can the government do about it? What can T&I do about it?

There is a shortage in our workforce, and this existed before the pandemic. So to use the pandemic as the excuse for some of this is really weak tea. But the pandemic has exposed the sensitivity of our supply chain system, both in terms of how much we have off-shored and how much we rely on just-in-time delivery. So I'll be pushing back on anyone who is saying that this is somehow the fault of this administration — or the last one, or the next one.

There are some kind of mundane and wonky solutions, including data sharing. When people work and when they don't is also an issue. This is not a blame issue, it’s just that warehousing work isn't 24-hours-a-day work — but you can have offloading of ships be 24-hours-a-day work. So you ship to warehouses that are full.

Yes, there are members who are trying to use this as a cudgel against other members. They aren’t helping us with solutions. And I think part of my focus as a leader on the committee will be to try to at least create some guardrails for the debate, where everyone can take credit for helping find solutions.

One potential solution to the truck driver shortage is automation. T&I has mostly left that issue to Energy and Commerce. Would you like to see T&I take a bigger role, especially when it comes to automated trucking?

Safety has to be first. I'm not saying it is unsafe but I can tell you that just because we can have automated trucking doesn't mean we ought to. And besides that, it's not just a matter of having trucks that can drive by themselves. There's a whole infrastructure that needs to be in place to make that happen.

Norton mentioned democratization as a top goal for the committee, having less of a top-down leadership structure. Is that something that you are thinking about?

I've been on the committee — it'll be 22 years at the end of next year. And every two years, there's a discussion about how much top-down control the chair or the ranking member should have over the agenda. And there's always the attempt that it'll be democratized or it'll be driven by the subcommittee chairs, and then it hardly ever is. I think there's a balance between top-down only and subcommittee chairs driving individual agendas, because we as Democrats have to show a clear consensus on the broad goals on the committee.

I tried to do that with the aviation subcommittee, where our goals have been around safety and new entrants in the aerospace, the passenger experience, the important role that aviation plays in our economy and in the international economy. And the first thing to do is to establish a broad consensus about what are the things we're trying to achieve as Democrats on the committee: an emphasis on safety in travel, an emphasis on moving from a 1950s foundation to something that's ready for the the 2050s, an emphasis on member support and members’ districts. I'm learning about the country one infrastructure project at a time. I think you start there and then you talk about what that means for where the subcommittees are going.

Before I start making decisions about how we're going to organize, I need to, one, have support from over 100 Democratic members of Congress, and second, I think we need to be sure we coalesce around the broader goals of the committee so that those goals drive the the work of Democrats on the Transportation Committee.

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