As Congress heads into uncharted territory without a Speaker of the House, it’s difficult to imagine a time when hyper-partisanship and extreme politics wasn’t the rule, a time when politicians would routinely cross the aisle to accomplish big things. But that’s exactly how the largest public infrastructure project of its time, the Big Dig, happened.
The third episode of GBH’s podcast on the Big Dig focuses on the legendary Speaker of the House, Thomas "Tip" O’Neill. As the Democratic congressman representing parts of Cambridge and Boston, O’Neill was one of the most influential people in Washington. Though he was strongly opposed to much of President Ronald Reagan's policies, O’Neill was a key negotiator with the administration and helped move legislation through Congress.
One of his biggest victories was getting legislation passed that kick-started the Big Dig—so much so that the Central Artery tunnel is named after him. Ian Coss, host and producer of "The Big Dig" podcast, joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss O’Neill, Reagan, and the Big Dig. The following is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: Take us back to the point where we are going into episode three. The Central Artery and Tunnel Project, as it was called then, was not in a good place.
Ian Coss: Yeah, the Big Dig found itself in a really precarious place in the early to mid-1980s because the interstate era—this grand building project that gave us the highways all across America—that era was really coming to an end. The federal funding that had driven that incredible construction boom was going to come to an end. And there was a deadline—they had to get all the paperwork, the proposals and the plans—they had to get it all to Washington, get it all signed off on and get it through Congress before this funding window ran out.
So, there’s this big crunch, and you have an interesting dynamic in that moment where you look at Congress, and the Speaker of the House is Tip O’Neill—as you said, the most powerful Democrat in the country. He’s supporting this project. In the White House, you have Ronald Reagan, who kind of views the Big Dig as the poster child of government excess and what he liked to call "pork barrel politics".
That sets up this clash between not just Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, but really between two philosophies, two views of government. In between them is the Big Dig, and everyone in Massachusetts politics is pushing and maneuvering every way they can to find a path for this project in Washington.
Rath: You mentioned how this was obviously a far less partisan time than now, but it was interesting to watch how the Big Dig was wrapped into this massive highway bill. These bills had to be bipartisan. This wasn’t really something that became an issue of partisan politics in the past, but it turned into a Reagan-Tip O’Neill showdown.
Coss: Exactly. So, the interstate program begins in 1956. Its funding is reauthorized every few years. There was never a single veto of one of those highway bills through the 1960s and the 1970s. There were debates, for sure, but never a veto. So, in 1987, when the highway bill comes up, and it includes the Big Dig, it becomes a historic moment when, for the first time ever, a president actually vetoes the highway bill.
In many ways it resembles the kind of brinkmanship that you see today with the government shutdowns and all of these looming threats, because—just like with any kind of government funding—if these bills don’t get passed, the money stops flowing. So, you’ve got highway projects all across the country, states watching and waiting to see if this bill will pass because they’re depending on this funding too.
If you think about political coalitions in this country, issues that parties can organize around and agree on for multiple decades, that’s a pretty rare accomplishment. That’s what the interstate program was; it was this incredibly resilient program, and this is when it really showed its greatest cracks.
Rath: Well, it was an extraordinary moment because Tip O’Neill was retiring, it was the last year of Reagan’s presidency... Why is the Big Dig epic for Tip O’Neill?
Coss: It’s interesting because when the project was first presented to Tip O’Neill, he was not actually all that supportive of it. He had some issues early on, so it’s not like this was his idea that he ushered along and championed. But once he signed on board, he took it on, and he put his full weight behind it.
I think the timing of it is so interesting with him; he announces his retirement in 1986, ending his 34-year tenure in Congress. The bill doesn’t pass until 1987, so in some ways, he’s on the sidelines and yet his shadow is looming over the whole thing because everyone knows—multiple people I spoke with on both sides of the aisle described it this way—as "Tip’s going away present." It was just understood in the House that this was going to happen because Tip’s retiring, and what better way to pay tribute to one of the great political figures, one of the great political minds, than to pass this massive project?
Rath: It’s an incredible story going on from that point because Reagan does veto it, and the legislation has to be saved. One of the Republicans who voted to overturn Reagan’s veto was a young senator from Kentucky.
Coss: Yes, perhaps you’ve heard of him. His name is Mitch McConnell, who was, at that time, in his first term in the Senate. Somebody described him to me as a "backbencher". He was not an important figure in Washington, and yet he found himself in the thick of this veto override debate because this highway bill had things for Kentucky in it too, and he saw reason to support it.
As much as we’re talking about this bill as, in some ways, a big crack in this infrastructure consensus and a symbol of the disillusion of bipartisanship, it also tells you how different things were in 1987. It’s fair to say that there were some folks across the aisle on this one, and it’s maybe hard to imagine the Mitch McConnell of today bucking his own president and party to override a veto with a bunch of Democrats. But that happened.
Rath: You’ve been reporting, had your head in this time period pretty deeply, I would have to think. What’s it like for you watching what we’ve just seen this past week in Congress? Is it like looking at another planet?
Coss: What I keep thinking about is, just in the last year, and really the last several years, I think we’ve gotten used to the Speaker of the House as an unenviable job. It doesn’t look like a lot of fun, and it doesn’t really look all that powerful—certainly not at the moment.
So, it’s been interesting to, at the same time, be immersing myself in a period of history when that speakership was so powerful and hear the way Tip wielded that power, in making the strategic committee appointments and bringing the right bills up at the right time.
He just had this political instinct: he knew when to push, and he knew when not to push, and he knew when to pull every lever.