Transportation industry trade associations, lobbyists, and insiders contributed $101,500 to a little-used super PAC, Stand With America, in the last weeks of the election, funding independent expenditures bashing the opponent of the industry’s most important member of Congress, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA). Over a third of the money, $35,000, was provided by air transport trade association Airlines for America (A4A), where Rep. Shuster’s girlfriend is a lobbyist. Another $2,500 came from a lobbyist who worked for A4A as recently as the third quarter of 2016.
The industry groups’ contributions were timed to keep voters in the dark about who was funding the super PAC until after the election. Stand with America had not received transportation industry money in the past, but was flooded with it on the very first day of the post-general election filing period, guaranteeing that the contributions would not be publicly revealed until post-general election reports were filed on December 8th.
On October 20th, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association PAC contributed $50,000. A4A made its $35,000 contribution on October 26th, and the super PAC spent $35,000 on production and placement of a web ad that same day.
The ad hit Rep. Shuster’s opponent, Art Halvorson, as a “Republican in sheep’s clothing.” Halvorson, who lost against Rep. Shuster in the GOP primary, was running as a Democrat in the general. Stand with America spent another $52,127 on anti-Halvorson web ads before Election Day.
Halvorson made Rep. Shuster’s close relationship to the industry he oversees a major issue in his campaign, including the Congressman’s romantic relationship with Shelley Rubino, the vice president for global government affairs at A4A. In an April debate, Halvorson attacked Rep. Shuster’s “close intimate relationship with a lobbyist who has access to his committee,” calling on him to resign. In August he accused Rep. Shuster of “represent[ing] the lobbyists that bankroll his re-election.”
Facing political heat over his relationship, Rep. Shuster insisted that Rubino does not lobby his committee, an assertion which turned out to be false. The trade group clarified that she does lobby the transportation committee, just not Rep. Shuster or his staff. In February, Rep. Shuster was spotted poolside in Miami Beach with A4A’s President, Nick Calio, and Rubino just days after he approved legislation sought by the trade group that would essentially privatize America’s air traffic control system, an effort that later stalled in the Senate. The congressman’s relationship to A4A got even cozier in July when two of Rep. Shuster’s former top committee staff registered to lobby on behalf of the group.
If the transportation industry and A4A’s support of the super PAC hitting Halvorson had been revealed before the election, it is likely Halvorson would have made an issue out of it. Halvorson actually cited Stand With America’s attacks on him in a press release accusing Rep. Shuster of “dirty campaigning” the week before the election.
Rep. Shuster ultimately trounced Halvorson by over 26 points, leading to immediate speculation that he would make another effort to privatize the air traffic control system, a top priority for A4A. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the biggest funder of Stand With America in the post-general filing period, is also in favor of Rep. Shuster’s air traffic control plan.
The House Transportation chairman has wasted little time in pushing the issue with the new administration. Rep. Shuster, who endorsed Donald Trump early on, has already spoken to the Trump transition team about the issue, saying they “they seemed very interested in putting this in their larger infrastructure bill.”