“This is literally not my father’s Congress,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., told me in an interview a few weeks ago. It’s a blindingly obvious statement that carries more meaning than the mere words suggest, like saying you have to score more runs than the other team to win a baseball game. There’s a lot to unpack there.
Shuster’s Congress is not the Congress from the salad days of the mid-1990s when committee chairmen like his dad, Bud, were more powerful than the House speaker. It’s not even the Congress of six years ago, before the financial crisis and tea party anger ushered in a new era of austerity. Transportation issues in Congress are in transition, trying to find their niche in a post-earmark, tight budget landscape. That’s the overriding theme of a special issue from National Journal Daily, published last week, that goes inside the committee.
Shuster likes to say that his job now is more of a finesse game than a power game. As chairman, he is finessing infrastructure with a new online outreach effort—using social media, blogs, and community networking—in a campaign unlike anything the committee has seen before.
The committee staff plans to use “Transport” as its tagline (or hashtag, or Twitter handle, or Web address, or headline, depending on the medium). The idea is that transportation affects everyone, so everyone needs to be interested. The concept is a 180 degree flip from the old days, when transportation legislation was written by and for the policy wonks; the most interesting parts (and I use that term loosely) were formula fights.
Now, Shuster will be doing Twitter Q&As. The committee will circulate “Transport” YouTube videos. They might even “crowd-source” legislative text on the Web. It’s the online translation of a statement he makes often in speeches to constituents: “You don’t have to convince me that infrastructure is important. I’m sold. But you do have to convince everyone else.”
What would an online @transport community look like? What would it talk about? How would the conversation change from the inside-the-beltway jargon? What new ground might be broken? What should be preserved from the traditional mentality of the transportation community? How can the wonk community evolve? What are the dangers?