The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is giving itself a face-lift. The first step: Find a way to make a dull bill evoke Vanilla Ice.
By the time the yawner of a Water Resources Reform and Development Act was on the House floor, the committe's digital team had for weeks been promoting the bill on social media, complete with its own Twitter hashtag #WRRDA. The morning of the vote, someone with the Twitter handle @GangOfNoSuit joined in:
Committee staffers, perfectly happy to take a joke, retweeted the photo.
The WRRDA bill passed the House later that day, 417-3.
The incident is one of many cyberspace markers that illustrate a congressional committee determined to reinvent itself. The old way of crafting legislation—writing a bill, circulating it to a handful of inside-the-Beltway stakeholders, and cajoling fellow House members to vote for it—is kaput.
Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., took the helm of the committee earlier this year with a deeply divided Congress and serious budgetary constrictions that limited his ability to legislate. Shuster has been hampered even more by the House Republicans' ban on earmarks, the special projects that had allowed transportation chiefs to win votes for complex bills like a highway-funding mechanism or authorizing the Federal Aviation Administration.
No matter. Shuster is looking for new methods of conducting business, and his team has decided to go digital in ways that have never before been tried in a congressional office. The Web strategies the staff is implementing—Twitter campaigns, Facebook updates, a new website, videos, and graphics—aren't even close to Silicon Valley's idea of cutting edge. But the tactics are very new to the congressional world, which any shoe-leather lobbyist will tell you still operates on phone calls and face-to-face meetings.
"We want to have more people involved, people who haven't been involved before," said Michael Marinaccio, the committee's first-ever digital director, who came on board in May. "We want everybody to know that they should be involved, even the random guy on Twitter.… We want to make sure when somebody tweets at Bill, they get a response that's a human response."
The committee launched a new website on Friday that prominently features the most clicked-on portion of the old website—information about hearings. Soon, the hearings will be live-streamed on the home page. Subcommittee chairmen each will be given their own two-minute video on the "about" pages. The site has graphical "buttons" to display each subcommittee. Water resources is a water drop, the Coast Guard is an anchor, etc. Fewer words, more symbols. Easy, easy, easy.
"Hopefully, one of the measures [of success] will be less phone calls from our staff assistants saying they can't find things," Marinaccio quipped. A millennial whiz at digital campaigns, Marinaccio also has a head full of Google analytics to ensure the website is accomplishing everything it's supposed to. Making staff happy is certainly one of those goals.
Marinaccio acknowledges that a new website by itself isn't a huge deal unless its utility dramatically improves the public engagement. That means the rest of the committee needs to use it and circulate it, and the communications staff needs to be in constant outreach to states, communities, and various other opinion leaders on the legislation.
Ideally, the website will give the general public an opportunity to view the committee's activities no matter where they are, which will gives a national policy imprint to transportation issues that often are viewed as strictly local. Do you think about the House Transportation Committee when you're worried about the city fixing a pothole? No. But maybe you will after the staff is done promoting the committee's field hearings and other activities.
"It's getting people to watch what we are doing, and they don't necessarily have to be in the room," said committee spokesman Jim Billimoria.
The first experiment with the live video streaming occurred in early September, when Shuster took a test ride in a driverless car under development at Carnegie Mellon University. Marinaccio went along on the adventure and videotaped it with a live-stream feed. There were some hiccups with the live stream, but it was a heck of a lot more interactive and fun than Shuster showing up at a press conference in Pittsburgh to congratulate the engineers for their innovation.
Digital interaction with the public is the whole point. This is a committee in a brave new world of no earmarks, a heavy digital influence, and a legislative agenda that is just as ridiculously complicated as it always has been. Shuster did a "Twitter town hall" on the waterways bill prior to the House debate that was viewed by 1 million people. In the future, he wants other committee members to do the same. Hell, even Democrats are invited if, as with the water bill, the legislation is bipartisan. It's a lot cheaper than a mail campaign.
Twitter gives Shuster the added benefit of participating in sports trash talk. As a diehard Pittsburgh Pirates fan, the official committee Twitter feed @Transport tweeted congratulations to Pittsburgh's major-league baseball team in September when they clinched a spot in the postseason playoffs.
No word yet on whether Shuster is going to recruit Pirates' ace slugger Andrew McCutchen for his next Twitter town hall. But if he does, you can bet the TwitPic of the two of them will be out of this world.
This article appears in the November 5, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.