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Infrastructure: Where Bipartisanship Works

If you want a lesson in bipartisanship, check out the transportation committees in both the House and the Senate over the last several years. In the last Congress, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer of California, an unapologetic liberal, and then-ranking member James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a serious conservative, put together a consensus surface transportation bill that eventually became the first highway bill that was enacted without earmarks. This year, the committee’s ranking member is more conservative, Sen. David Vitter, R-La. And yet he and Boxer managed to put together a consensus water resources bill that passed the Senate on an 84-13 vote.

Last week, the House demonstrated almost unheard of unanimity in passing a similar water resources bill. (There were only three dissenters.) This friendly, “regular order” vote happened just seven days after a bitter partisan budget battle ended when House GOP leaders bucked their own party’s fiscal hardliners and put a bill on the floor to pull the country back from default. The debate on the water resources bill was a “love feast” by comparison, observed Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who marveled at the fact that House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and the ranking Democrat, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., sat side by side in the Rules Committee to present the bill in advance of the floor debate.

Democrats who were involved in crafting the House bill said Shuster is largely responsible for pulling the House committee back into its old-school method of drafting bills by consensus. Shuster made sure that Democrats were involved in every part of the process. “For my first three, maybe four terms on [the committee], we never took a recorded vote,” said Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., who was elected to Congress in 2003. “[Shuster] made it clear that he wanted to return to that tradition.”

Here’s what that tradition means: Everything the committee passes is been hashed out by its members beforehand. Nobody gets everything they want, but nobody feels strongly enough about their objections to put it in the congressional record in the form of a ‘no’ vote.

Shuster didn’t stop his lobbying with committee members. He also solicited help from influential members of the Republican caucus outside the committee, notably Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the head of the ultra-conservative Republican Study Committee. Scalise’s buy-in meant that the biggest fiscal hardliners could get behind the bill. Committee staffers also were regularly in contact with a variety of outside groups—from unions to business groups to conservative watchdogs—so none of them would be surprised with the legislation when it came out. The result? A surprisingly substantive and smooth sail on the House floor.

Not every policy issue offers the kind friendly reception that transportation enjoys, but the manner in which the transportation chiefs on Capitol Hill have conducted themselves shows that it is not impossible to bridge highly partisan divides when many people agree on the goal and everyone is included in reaching it. The transportation world already has an advantage over other, more divisive policy areas because Republicans and Democrats alike agree that infrastructure investment is a good thing. The next challenge for infrastructurists will be to build on the water bill’s success by finding a way to keep the highway trust fund afloat and expanding the nation’s transit network.

What are some specific examples of how Shuster and Boxer have approached their legislative goals such that their minority counterparts can participate and eventually back their efforts? How can their success be replicated in other transportation modes? Does it become more difficult when federal funding is at issue, as with the highway bill? What is the role of the transportation community in these talks? What, if any, is the role of other influential groups like the conservative or liberal watchdogs? Is there a playbook to be drafted for more of this “working together” thing?

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