Given the acrimonious attitude in Washington, D.C. these days it’s unexpected when anything bipartisan makes it past the gestation phase. The political process has devolved to the degree that we anticipate every big issue Congress tackles turning into a knockdown, drag-out partisan fight. The debates over health care and the debt ceiling have been hashed out with all the decorum of a bar fight and it looks increasingly possible that this ongoing row will spill out into the streets in the form of a government shutdown. To the common observer, both sides of the Capitol are working hard to earn their record low approval ratings.
Yet in the midst of this din a bipartisan bill has emerged that has significant implications for our future economic growth and the literal stability of our bricks and mortar infrastructure. That bill is H.R. 3080, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, or WRRDA, and it represents the culmination of months of negotiation between Bill Shuster, the Chairman of the House Transportation Committee and his counterpart, the ranking Democrat on the committee, Nick Rahall.
Despite how critical our maritime infrastructure is to our economy, the way we go about maintaining it hasn’t been reformed or modernized for decades. Over that time, the Army Corps has grown too large and cumbersome. Project delivery timetables have inflated and tax dollars sit idle in dormant projects or locked away in inefficient programs. Innovation has died on the vine, the victim of red tape and bureaucracy.
WRRDA addresses these issues and offers significant reforms to make the Army Corps do more with less. It streamlines the lengthy time it takes the Corps to perform feasibility studies, gain permitting and actually deliver a completed project from 15 years to three. It caps project feasibility studies at $3 million and provides Congress with the final say in which project get priority. Above all, WRRDA deauthorizes $12 billion in old, inactive programs and funds existing projects all without earmarks.
These are sweeping reforms to propose in a polarized environment. The fact that WRRDA moved so smoothly through the committee process is a testament to Chairman Shuster’s understanding that coalitions are essential to secure buy-in not only from conservative members in his own conference, but from Democrats and a diverse set of interests downtown. The intensive education and outreach effort Shuster’s committee undertook paid dividends, not only in shoring up agreement on WRRDA, but in laying the framework for the committee’s next hurdles that will come in the form of rail and highway reauthorizations.
WRRDA is not an example of bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake. For those of us in the public relations and lobbying industries, its success proves that in today’s poisonous political environment, the use of coalitions is more important than ever. It demonstrates that establishing support among a diverse set of interests is the best way to inoculate against the slings and arrows of the partisan logjam in Washington. The example Chairman Shuster has set with WRRDA should be lauded by his colleagues in Congress and used as a primary tool for public affairs professionals. Come to think of it, maybe the health care debate would be a good place to start.