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New Chairman, New Logo, Same Problems

When Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., was elected to lead the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee late last year, the first thing he did was call the panel’s ranking member, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and invite him to dinner. The two transportation gurus, who have known each other for 40 years, dined at the Capital Grille in downtown Washington with their respective staff directors and chatted about the committee.

Did Rahall have complaints for the chairman-elect? “Sure, but I can’t share them with you,” Shuster said in an interview with National Journal Daily.

The private nature of their conversation hardly matters. What does is that Shuster wanted to start off his tenure on a different note, and the dinner with Rahall was a formal gesture that signaled a serious attempt to build consensus. Committee members in both parties say the attempt seems to be working. Staff members are in regular contact about pending legislation. Rahall describes his relationship with Shuster as “excellent.” And the two men talk almost daily when Congress is in session.

“The message has been delivered, I think, to all of us that they want us to work together,” said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., the ranking member on the Aviation Subcommittee. “Where we have differences and we can’t reconcile them, we’ll deal with it, but those aren’t going to be driving the personality of the work of the committee.”

While these are welcome developments—minority complaints about being shut out were loud in years past—it will take more than camaraderie to meet the challenges facing the committee. Infrastructure is an issue that can lend itself to bipartisan action, but the panel is operating under severe financial constraints and without some of its traditional tools—namely earmarks—that helped lubricate the legislative process.

Moreover, the legislative slate planned for the next 18 months is ambitious. On tap is a water-resources bill that hasn’t been reauthorized since 2007, a passenger-rail bill that last saw action in 2008, and a surface-transportation bill that can cause bitter division. In better fiscal times, the highway bill traditionally spans five years; last year, after painful negotiations and endless stopgap extensions, Congress managed to pass a bill that funds highways, rail, and transit for only two years.

And it won’t be any easier this time around.

Venturing Online

Money woes unlike anything Congress has seen over the past 30 years plague the committee, which is responsible for keeping the highways and transit systems intact (and plays a role in almost every congressional district). The main revenue source for surface transportation, the Highway Trust Fund, is dwindling so fast that it will not be able to meet its current obligations by the fall of 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That complicates even a simple one-year extension of the current program—a time-honored punting tradition when lawmakers get stuck on legislation—because such a stopgap would cost $14 billion. The other options to keep the trust fund from going into the red are politically impossible: raising the gas tax by 10 cents per gallon or virtually eliminating the government’s ability to promise money for new projects. The committee will have to squeeze every penny out of transportation-program reform and still look for ways to offset the inevitable dip into the general treasury well.

In addition to wooing Democratic veterans with twice his tenure and educating freshman GOP members on the ins and outs of the Army Corps of Engineers, Shuster knows that to get bills passed, he must win over the entire Republican Caucus and the broader constituencies outside the Capital Beltway. To make headway on any of these measures, it will take a grassroots push unlike anything the committee has engaged in before. Without a far-reaching communications strategy, legislation on seemingly dry topics like water resources will get lost in the sexier political spats over the size of government or President Obama’s health care law.

Shuster routinely tells constituents that he doesn’t need them to convince him about the value of investing in state-of-the-art transportation. If they’re sold on infrastructure, he says, they need to make sure their local and state officials and other members of Congress know it, too—and he plans to provide them with tools for the cause.

To get Congress to focus on the committee’s bricks-and-mortar work, Shuster is adopting a strategy that calls for bits and bytes. He has hired committee staffers specifically to make the most of social media, blogs, and community organizations in advocating for the committee’s legislation. The panel will soon have a new logo with the simple tagline “Transport” to brand its activities online.

Staffers want committee hearings and markups to stream live on the easily editable YouTube, so that viewers can find the parts they like and send them to their colleagues. Shuster will conduct question-and-answer sessions on Twitter. At some point, the committee might even “crowd-source” pending legislation, giving the public a chance to weigh in on the text via the Web.

Sounds crazy? Perhaps a better descriptor is “creative.” Shuster is experimenting with new ways to get his bills out of committee and through a highly partisan Congress at a time when the chairman’s power has waned significantly compared with those who held the gavel before him. He can’t afford to rely on old methods, particularly those of his father, Bud Shuster, who chaired the committee from 1995 to 2000. The elder Shuster was at times more powerful than the president or the House speaker when he joined with Democrats to push for a gas-tax hike or to insert a firewall to keep the Highway Trust Fund reserved for infrastructure projects, which he could then prioritize.

“Not My Father’s Congress”

“This is literally not my father’s Congress,” Shuster told National Journal Daily. Today, the committee is transitioning from a powerful entity that could once bulldoze naysayers by authorizing special projects into a new entity that must keep the trains running under a strained budget with few revenue-raising options. The committee shrank from 75 members to 60 members in 2011, when Rep. John Boehner became speaker. Boehner’s budget rules for the House also eliminated the Highway Trust Fund firewall, which effectively took away the committee’s authority to divvy out any excess money.

Despite these new limits, Shuster believes much can still be accomplished by encouraging all members to keep an open mind and be willing to compromise. First he needs to gain their trust. For the newer members of the committee, that means the chairman has to spend a lot of time educating them on issues that they probably didn’t know existed before.

For example, the first bill out of the gate in the committee will be a reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act. WRDA is the main authorizing vehicle for water projects—levees, floodwalls, hydropower facilities, coastal and inland harbors—to be planned and executed by the Army Corps of Engineers. This will be the first WRDA bill the committee has drafted that doesn’t have earmarks, a unique wrinkle to water-resources bills because the projects they authorize are so big. The committee’s legislation will focus on streamlining and simplifying the process of developing and executing projects.

Shuster has held several hearings on the issue as well as less-formal roundtables to foster discussion. At the same time, the staffers—both Republicans and Democrats—have been putting pen to paper on WRDA. It’s a delicate balance of continually informing members what’s going on while not waiting for everyone to stop talking to begin drafting the legislation. “Members of Congress can talk and talk and talk and talk,” Shuster said.

More than half of the Republicans on the panel weren’t even in Congress the last time WRDA was authorized in 2007, which adds to the fun. “So, six months ago, if you say to them ‘WRDA,’ they go like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” said Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, who chairs the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee.

Fortunately, the younger GOP panel members appear eager to learn, and many have dealt with transportation issues at the state or local level. “From an information standpoint and from a guy who’s a policy wonk, I love it,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a freshman. “I’ve built roads. I’ve dealt with environmental issues. I’ve done ‘401’ permits. I’m used to dealing with some of this. But even then, it is still extremely complex.”

“First of All, No Surprises”

To win over Democrats, Shuster needs to do more than just hold roundtables. He needs to include them as much as he can in the initial phases of drafting legislation, with the full knowledge that they could walk out at the end over something as basic as funding levels. The trick is to keep them at the table as long as possible.

“First of all, no surprises,” said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., a longtime friend of Shuster’s, about how he handles the minority committee members. “Secondly, you know. I was in the minority. You can jam the minority if you want. But that doesn’t get you to getting things done.”

Democrats recognize that Shuster is trying to re-create the kind of negotiating environment that occurred in his father’s era, but it’s a lot harder now. “It’s not an easy process, and I think he’s plugging away at it,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the second-ranking Democrat on the committee behind Rahall. “When we were in charge, we didn’t adopt all of their ideas, and when they were in charge, they didn’t adopt all of ours. But we would try and work 70 to 80 percent of the bill out and then do a real legitimate amendment process in committee.”

Rahall said Shuster “keeps me constantly informed of decisions made by his leadership on scheduling or problems, why he can’t do what he’d like to do on particular pieces of legislation.” That kind of openness goes a long way in terms of goodwill with the opposing party. It’s a constant frustration for members of the minority to be the last ones to find out when they have to vote on legislation that they haven’t even seen.

It’s too soon to judge whether Shuster will be more successful than his most immediate predecessor, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who infuriated Democrats (and a few Republicans) with some of his tactics. But Mica also notched a few wins in his two years as chairman. Most significantly, he managed to pass a surface-transportation bill out of his committee without the benefit of earmarks and then to insert several of its provisions into the final conference report with the Senate—all this, despite the fact that GOP political infighting prevented the House from formally passing its own bill.

Committee staffers acknowledge that the final stages of a highway and transit bill next year could get ugly, because there probably won’t be enough money to respond to all of the infrastructure needs. They are hoping, however, that the negotiating tactics deployed by Shuster on the WRDA and passenger-rail bills will be warm-ups for the highway bill—helping them build relationships on the committee and figure out what does and doesn’t work.

The grassroots messaging is intended to keep the process alive after the committee finishes a bill, to cut through the din of louder political fights. If the Republicans can keep the bipartisan support for the committee’s measures intact, they could provide some of the few legislative accomplishments in a House that has already struggled with the farm bill and will face steep challenges on immigration and the debt ceiling. “The WRDA bill should be very bipartisan. I’ve been saying it’s the best chance we have of anything we [in the House] have been working on right now,” Gibbs said.

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