With all the talk in America about infrastructure investment, it was about time for NUCA members and partners to get to work influencing lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
NUCA’s 2017 Washington Summit was held May 16-18, in Washington, D.C. Members flocked from near and far for the opportunity to make a difference in their industry.
Acting Administrator of the EPA’s Office of Water Michael Shapiro kicked off our Legislative Issues Conference. Members witnessed Shapiro’s depth of knowledge and understanding from the very beginning. Running through the entire history of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) infrastructure investment programs, beginning with the creation of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRFs) in 1987 and 1997, respectively, and running up until the most recent addition of the Water Infrastructure Financing Innovation Act (WIFIA), Shapiro explained how these pivotal infrastructure investment mechanisms are administrated by the EPA.
Attendees also had a frank discussion with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Water and the Environment Chairman Garrett Graves (R-La.) about the prospects of a large and broad reaching infrastructure plan in 2017. Rep. Graves challenged attendees to think outside the box about how they would develop and implement a $1 trillion infrastructure package if they were in control. Citing the need for innovative approaches to funding and project deliveries, Graves encouraged and empowered attendees to take advantage of the opportunity to discuss plans and priorities with their lawmakers.
Finally, Elizabeth Fox, who is the majority staff for the Water and Environment Subcommittee, addressed our group about the regulatory environment for infrastructure construction and what members can do to encourage changes toward solutions. Specifically, Fox addressed Buy American provisions, their differences and intricacies across infrastructure types, and struggles the industry faces with compliance. In addition, Fox provided some changes NUCA members could propose be changed to make Buy American provisions more workable.
After lunch, attendees began our Legislative Issues Briefing with newly updated brochures, which were designed to be left behind at Capitol Hill Meetings, and the newly created Legislative Issues Briefing Guide, which is a comprehensive information and education packet that takes a deep dive into the specifics and details about NUCA’s advocacy priorities for the 2017 Summit. For each legislative issue, talking points were given to ensure the consistency of our message and to help facilitate a simplified and streamlined conversation.
Beginning with the need for infrastructure investment, attendees agreed that the need for infrastructure investment goes far beyond the surface navigation infrastructure that is generally referred to when discussing infrastructure on the national scale. Yes, we agree that roads, bridges, ports and levees are an important piece of our infrastructure, but we cannot forget sub-surface infrastructure, and must insist that water, wastewater, dry utility and underground infrastructure be included in any definition of infrastructure that may come within a large investment package. The benefits of including such projects make the overall infrastructure package more comprehensive in scope, more economically beneficial and more environmentally friendly.
Our second issue, developing greater workforce development, is a crucial part of NUCA members’ businesses. Finding and retaining qualified and skilled employees has been a struggle of the construction industry for many years, and NUCA has undertaken the task to make job training both more accessible and more in-line with industry needs.
The third major theme of our advocacy efforts focused on easing the bureaucratic and regulatory burdens businesses face that add significant costs, delays and administration to members workloads. Easing and streamlining regulations that are necessary and eliminating regulations that are cost-prohibitive, unnecessary, or that do not achieve their desired outcome should be undertaken by both the legislative and executive branch, and measures should be implemented to ensure cost and viability for new regulations are considered with scrutiny.
Once every issue, talking point and legislation was discussed, attendees had an opportunity to discuss and pose questions about how to best advocate for these issues and how to be most effective. In this light, three mock-hill meetings were conducted by volunteers to help illustrate what Capitol Hill meetings are like and what to expect. Different likely scenarios were presented in order to guide members through common scenarios.
After the briefing, members unwound and had some fun during our happy hour and trivia night.
On Wednesday, NUCA Summit Attendees had the chance to shine as many were on Capitol Hill before 8 a.m. in meetings with representatives and senators. This year’s lineup of meetings was impressive, continuing the tradition of improvement that was started five years ago when I joined the team. Some notable meetings included face-to-face interactions with Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.); in addition to a whole host of representatives.
After a Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) hearing on transportation and infrastructure financing, NUCA’s Chairwoman of the Board Kara Habrock found herself in an elevator with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. After Habrock thanked the Secretary for her testimony before the committee, Chao encouraged Habrock to persuade her ‘great’ Senator from Nebraska, Sen. Deb Fischer, whom Habrock was on her way to meet with, to take action on infrastructure.
In total, NUCA Summit attendees visited well over 100 Members of Congress in one day.
In the aftermath of our Capitol Hill meetings, several of our members reported a different tone within their meetings from previous years. Several groups saw a noticeable decline in the partisan blaming for inaction or blocking, instead expressing optimism, even if only canned. This should be viewed as a positive sign, even if the positivity is only linked to infrastructure. In years past, the hyper-partisanship has limited even the very conversation of progressing legislation to benefit infrastructure. Any easing of the hostility is a good sign of possibilities to come.
While NUCA Summit attendees did a magnificent job taking our priorities to Capitol Hill, much work remains to ensure our priorities move forward. However, as with last year, we did achieve a meaningful victory from our meetings. On May 17, the House Education and Workforce Committee advanced the Perkins Act reauthorization language that will streamline career and technical education (CTE) and foster a collaborative relationship between vocational and job training schools and NUCA members that will help foster growth in the qualified labor market and help members find and retain trained and skilled employees. This is just the first of the victories NUCA can expect to reap from the Summit, but only if all NUCA members, whether they attended the Summit or not, stay engaged with their lawmakers and promote our priorities. Members of Congress should hear from us regularly, and we must follow-up to ensure we are holding our lawmakers accountable.
One such way to engage in beneficial advocacy is to engage during NUCA’s August Recess Challenge. Congress will be in recess, and Members of Congress will be back in their districts (and closer to you) from the first week in August until the week after Labor Day. This provides an excellent opportunity to meet with, host and invite your lawmakers to discuss NUCA’s priorities right in your backyard. The chapter or group that meets with the most Members of Congress during the period will win a prize and notoriety, but the more Members of Congress that are touched, the greater the benefits to all members.
The 2017 Washington Summit was a success, but we must continue our pressure throughout the upcoming year to truly reap the benefits of our accomplishments in Washington.
Mark your calendars for NUCA’s 2018 Summit May 22-24, 2018, in Washington, D.C.
Will Brown is NUCA’s director of Government Affairs.