How an Earmark-Dependent House Committee Is Reinventing Itself

With no pork and a massive partisan divide, the House Transportation Committee is going digital to get things done.

An aerial view of the Hoover Dam and the Hoover Dam bypass under construction June 12, 2009 in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Nov. 4, 2013, midnight

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:

#WR­RDA to your moth­er. @trans­port pic.twit­ter.com/5vy­uu433nk

— Gang of No Suit (@Gan­gOfNo­Suit) Oc­to­ber 23, 2013

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.

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