House Returns to Old-Style Legislating on Water-Projects Bill

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 16: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) (L) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) attend the dedication ceremony of the Gabriel Zimmerman Meeting Room in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center April 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. A member of Giffords' Congressional staff, Gabriel Zimmerman was murdered during a shooting spree January 8, 2011 that left six dead and 13 injured, including Giffords.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Oct. 27, 2013, 7:09 a.m.

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.

Demo­crats, check.

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.

Con­ser­vat­ives, check.

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.

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