What a difference a week makes. Exactly seven days after Congress grudgingly rescued the country from default, battle-weary House members voted almost unanimously on a major infrastructure bill last week. (Only three dissented.)
A few hours later, Republican and Democratic staffers who helped write the bill were having drinks at a nearby watering hole, toasting their success. It was the picture-perfect end to a long, yet productive day of actual lawmaking.
It felt like old times.
Old-style legislating was precisely the goal of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., when he set a goal in January of passing a bill that would authorize key construction missions of the Army Corps of Engineers for harbors, ports, and levees. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act had not been updated in six years.
Shuster knew that his own influence was severely limited because House Republicans had banned earmarks, the special projects that members traditionally used to cajole reluctant lawmakers. He knew that the conservative wing of his own conference would object to anything that gave the slightest hint of enlarging the government. He also knew that he had no chance of succeeding without help from Democrats.
And so he began, with lots and lots and lots of meetings, according to staffers and lawmakers involved in the process.
Shuster's first step was to get committee Democrats on board. He had dinner with the panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, as soon as he was appointed chairman in January. Shuster and Rahall agreed that they would present the bill as a duo. That meant the measure would contain no language that the other side couldn't accept. Democrats insisted that the legislation not tinker with labor laws or the Clean Water Act. Republicans insisted that the bill mandate a time limit on the permits for Corps projects and streamline the environmental reviews. The rest was up for negotiation.
Then the committee staffers dug into the details, warily at first because many of them had not built legislation on these equal terms before. After several months with no surprises, they came to realize that this was how it would be all the way through. "We didn't think there was trying to be any trick being pulled on us, or anything we had to be on our guard for. We didn't feel he was trying to hide anything," Rahall said of Shuster.
The openness was a welcome change for Democrats, who spent the last several years complaining that they were shut out of the majority party's committee negotiations, a departure from the consensus-driven method that Transportation and Infrastructure used in the 1990s. "[Shuster] made it clear he wanted to return to that tradition, and I think he has achieved that goal," said Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., ranking member of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee.
Shuster's second challenge was his own GOP caucus. He met privately with dozens of lawmakers representing various factions—the ultraconservative Republican Study Committee, the caucus freshmen, and other committee chairmen—to brief them on the bill and seek their input. His goal was to make sure that no one in the conference was surprised with the measure once it was out.
RSC Chairman Steve Scalise, R-La., proved to be a major help in advocating for the bill with the most conservative House members. The day the House voted, Scalise stood at length just off the floor telling reporters how it tightened up oversight for Corps projects. That wasn't an accident. He and Shuster had worked closely on the bill, and his buy-in went a long way toward tea-party Republicans accepting a federal responsibility for directing the Corps.
The next problem was the House floor. Shuster's staff hectored Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., early on to make sure the bill would get floor time. The measure was ready in July, but Cantor told them he couldn't guarantee a floor vote until the fall. Rahall and Shuster decided to wait until September for the committee vote so they could use that momentum to promote the bill with the full House.
In September, committee staffers began an extensive marketing campaign for House members on social media and the Web that had been in the works since spring. Shuster did a first-ever Twitter town hall on the bill. Shuster and Rahall jointly circulated a host of materials online. Particularly useful was an easily digestible pamphlet with ready-made talking points, intended for overworked legislative directors who wanted to offer a quick summary for their bosses before parsing the legislative text while riding the Metro home.
Shuster and Rahall were nearly derailed by the government shutdown, which took place the very week that Cantor had pledged to put the water bill on the floor. "We kept checking with them" as the shutdown dragged on, a senior Republican committee aide said. "They kept saying, 'You're good, you're good. Up as soon as we're back.' "
Cantor proved true to his word. The bill occupied the first post-shutdown floor debate, and it was conducted in jarringly collegial terms. Cantor and his oft-nemesis, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., even appeared together on the House floor praising it.
Floor time, check.
A final hiccup occurred the day before the bill was to go to the floor, when a coalition of fiscal-conservative groups issued a letter to Congress complaining that the bill didn't go far enough to reduce the $60 billion to $80 billion Corps backlog. That sent jitters through Republican sponsors, who worried that Heritage Action, the political wing of the conservative Heritage Foundation, would tell tea-party members to vote "no" on the bill.
Heritage Action signed the letter but ultimately did not "key vote" the bill, which gave the RSC members a free pass to vote for it. A Heritage spokesman declined to explain why his group didn't press the issue, but the senior GOP committee aide offered one clue. The committee's Republican staff had already met repeatedly with Heritage and other tea-party-oriented groups, including Club for Growth and Citizens Against Government Waste, to brief them on the bill.
Notably, those last two groups were not signatories to the protest letter. In the end, this meant that the most influential conservative groups among House Republicans backed off, not necessarily because they agreed with everything in the bill but because they knew the sponsors had heard them out.
Overwhelming passage, check. On to a conference committee with the Senate, which passed its version of the bill in May.
This article appears in the October 28, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Bipartisan Effort On a Water Bill Helps House Heal.