Shuster Uses Social Media in Innovative Pitch for Water Bill

Posted September 30, 2013 at 3:15pm

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster waited months after the Senate passed a water projects bill to present a House version, but infrastructure policy groups said it was worth the wait.

It was more than just the substance of the bill that pleased supporters of investments in harbor and inland waterways infrastructure. Committee leaders rolled out their proposal (HR 3080) with attention-getting graphics that quickly created social-media buzz — and may have changed forever how congressional committees try to sell complex transportation legislation to their members and the public. The approach may be a dress rehearsal for the bigger challenge next year of selling new highway and rail bills.

It helped that Shuster worked with ranking member Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia and other Democrats on a solidly bipartisan plan.

That was a departure from the introduction of a highway and transit authorization last year, when then-Chairman John L. Mica, R-Fla., alienated Democrats and some Republicans from suburban areas with proposals for sharp cuts in transit spending. Mica’s bill never reached the House floor, and ultimately Congress enacted a surface transportation measure (PL 112-141) based mostly on the Senate-passed version.

Shuster has sought to restore the committee’s traditional bipartisanship, while also placating the tea-party-oriented members of his own caucus wary of big government investments in transportation infrastructure.

But policy experts say another factor helping to smooth the water bill’s advance is the new-era media savvy that Shuster’s committee staff has shown in the rollout. Some deficit-focused interest groups had already attacked the Senate-passed bill (S 601), and environmentalists didn’t like provisions designed to expedite environmental reviews and permitting for new projects.

Infrastructure advocates say the committee’s marketing campaign helped break through the chatter. They point specifically to a captivating short video as a standout piece of messaging, saying it takes a fresh approach to explaining normally ponderous infrastructure policy needs.

In it, Shuster narrates a chatty explanation of how ports and ships bring in goods used by households, makes the case that infrastructure has been decaying and needs helps, and says projects that take many years can be sped up by legislation. While he speaks amid sound effects , a whiteboard artist draws fast-changing cartoon scenes that hold the viewer’s eye, with entertaining twists as a port dries up and dockworkers grow beards but then water and business returns when policy changes take hold.

Within a day of being posted on YouTube, the video had more than 1,200 hits as enthusiastic infrastructure lobbyists hawked it on Twitter and Facebook. Nearly three weeks later, more than 4,300 distinct user devices — computer screens and smartphones — had connected to it.

“The social-media realm has just lit up in response to this,” said Aaron Ellis, spokesman for the American Association of Port Authorities. “It was new. It was interesting. It created more attention and awareness than the typical, more plodding notices of these bills.”

Along with a smartly crafted explanation “booklet” that the committee put out, Ellis said, the video helps policy experts and lawmakers explain how something such as waterway freight facilities are important to the daily lives of people living far from a seaport. Shuster later held a short “Twitter town hall” about the legislation as well. These social-media tools are “an effective way to make an important point” in a way that non-experts can understand, Ellis said.

He said that campaign can help sell infrastructure to the public as a necessary investment even in a time of budget cutting. So these techniques, Ellis said, “can support and even encourage the policymakers” when it comes time to vote on the water bill and on project spending among budget priorities.

John Horsley, the former head of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, also admires the committee’s marketing.

“In this day and age, to break through you have to be innovative,” he said. “So I think it’s great.”

Because water projects traditionally have been member earmarks vulnerable to criticism as “pork,” Horsley said explaining the bill’s goals and economic impact in a simple way helps the public buy in.

“The old way of writing a 10-page white paper and thinking people will read it just doesn’t work,” Horsley said. “This is a great start.”

Such messaging tools can also help woo lawmakers who are not experts on infrastructure policy. “Very few people who aren’t on the committee know why it’s important to their districts,” Horsley said. “To convey it in a simple, graphic form is very helpful.”

Horsley — who now runs his own transportation finance consultancy — was known for his skill at building coalitions to flood Capitol Hill with advocacy letters or assemble highway and transit boosters at news conferences to pressure lawmakers.

While selling the value of water infrastructure investments to the general public, Shuster’s effort also aims to shore up support among his caucus’s rebellious conservative wing. An information booklet posted as part of the campaign emphasizes provisions to speed up environmental reviews, lays out the constitutional rationale for federal infrastructure spending and boasts about ending earmarks and saving money by canceling old projects that were never built.

The success of Shuster’s bill will determine whether other committees imitate his multimedia sales pitch in the future, Horsley said. “You bet” a similar campaign would have helped during last year’s highway bill struggles, he added.

Shuster’s team thinks so, too. The same day the committee unveiled its draft bill, Shuster told the National Asphalt Pavement Association audience that he expects to take a similar approach in rolling out surface transportation legislation in 2014, a participant said.

“The committee plans to continue using various digital media platforms,” committee spokesman Justin Harclerode said, “to communicate our plans and goals with as broad an audience as possible.”