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Shuster Uses Social Media in Innovative Pitch for Water Bill

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Shuster and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staff have used social media to share information about the House version of a water projects bill.

“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.”

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