By Randy Gordon, President and CEO
The Senate, by separate voice votes on Nov. 18, confirmed the nominations of Robert Primus and Michelle Schultz to become members of the Surface Transportation Board (STB), the federal agency whose responsibilities include regulatory oversight of freight railroads.
Primus, a Democrat, most recently served as chief of staff to Rep. Nanette Barragάn, D-Calif. A native of Madison, N.J., he spent 20 years as a staff member for former Rep. Mike Capuano, D-Mass., four of those as his legislative director and the last 16 as chief of staff while Capuano served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and was ranking member of its Railroad, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee.
Meanwhile, Schultz, a Republican whose nomination previously had been approved twice by the Senate committee, most recently served as associate general counsel for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) – Philadelphia’s commuter rail system.
Given their different political affiliations, Primus and Schultz’s nominations had been paired for Senate floor consideration to maximize their chance of being confirmed.
The STB Reauthorization Act of 2015 expanded the agency to five commissioners from its previous three. Primus and Schultz’s confirmations mean that the STB will be at its congressionally authorized full complement of members for the first time since enactment of the 2015 law. But that will be short-lived, as the term of current STB Chairman Ann Begeman, a Republican, expires Dec. 31.
Under the law, there can be no more than three STB members from a single political party, with the majority and the chairmanship held by the party that controls the presidency. That means President-elect Joe Biden likely soon after being sworn into office on Jan. 20 will tap either current Democratic STB member Martin Oberman or the newly confirmed Primus to be at least interim chairman of the agency while the search begins for a Democrat to be nominated and confirmed to succeed Begeman.
Following the Senate’s action, the NGFA was joined by 54 other agricultural organizations in a Nov. 19 letter to Senate leaders commending the chamber for confirming Primus and Schultz during the lame-duck session of Congress.
“Both have the mental acuity, independence and dedication to serve, and will work well with existing Board members to achieve the agency’s statutory mission and role, which is critical to railroads, rail users and the American economy,” the NGFA and other agricultural groups said. “The current dynamics of the rail marketplace underscore the need for fair, impartial, and knowledgeable Board members, who are essential to providing effective oversight. Thoughtful Board members also are needed to make progress on practical regulatory reforms that improve STB’s oversight of freight railroads.
“Continued STB modernization – initiated by congressional enactment of the STB Reauthorization Act of 2015 and pursued diligently under the leadership of Chairman Begeman – will help farmers, agribusinesses, and manufacturers be more competitive in the global marketplace,” the letter said.