Women innovate in the development of infrastructure plans in Congress


President Joe Biden and men from powerful House and Senate committees set out their visions for an ambitious infrastructure strategy they want to see adopted this year. But women will likely run much of the work as Congress prepares to start passing legislation that could cost trillions of dollars.

For the first time in history, the staff of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works are headed by women, and the subcommittees that oversee transport programs also have women directors. The increase in the number of women in senior management reflects the growing number of women parliamentarians, with 142 women in polling stations now – or around 26% of seats – up from 26 women at the end of the 80s.

“Women have a much bigger role than they did 20 years ago,” said Kathy Dedrick, who was named the first female chief of staff on the House transport committee when Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) Became president two years ago. “It’s not just at the staff level, but at all levels. Women are in leadership positions, and this was not the case in the past. “

Kathy Dedrick, Chief of Staff of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

Photo illustration: Jonathan Hurtarte / Bloomberg Industry Group; Photo: Handout

Biden has proposed a $ 2.25 trillion infrastructure package, including about $ 621 billion for transportation, and billions more for water projects, digital upgrades and other areas in the part of a broader definition of infrastructure. Now, from the outline of the president’s plan, Dedrick and other women in senior positions will help shape transportation, environment, broadband and other policies for decades to come. They could also decide on each state’s share in a massive fundraising pie. Lawmakers plan to allocate billions of dollars to projects.

In contrast, the development of the interstate road network in the second half of the twentieth century, the largest public works program of that era, was shaped largely by men, with a narrower focus on freight transport. and national defense.

DeFazio said women are well equipped to shape these political solutions. While men are “not indifferent” to issues, he said having female voices in the room is necessary given the complexity and breadth of what the committee is dealing with, such as needs. by public transit and by shuttle to parents and caregivers.

“Things we’ve done, like requiring airports to have booths for nursing, gender-specific things we’ve done that just hadn’t been considered before,” DeFazio said in an interview. “I think it made a huge difference.”

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“ Smarter than me ”

He also said that women can do good business. Dedrick, who came to Capitol Hill as his congressional front page, cut his teeth on the 2005 freight bill, which set records for spending and long list of brands.

“We negotiated this bill for months; she would call me to come to the Capitol at three in the morning, ”DeFazio said. “It went on day after day, night after night.”

Sen. Tom carper (D-Del.) Said he appointed a woman to lead the staff of the Environment and Public Works Committee after becoming chairman this year. He said the appointment of Mary Frances Repko to the post was in line with his overall approach: her chief of staff in her personal office is female and most of her assistants – including her transport advisor – are women.

“I surround myself with people smarter than me,” Carper said in an interview. “My wife says it’s not difficult to find them. In fact, many of them are women. “

Mary Frances Repko, Chief of Staff of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee

Photo illustration: Jonathan Hurtarte / Bloomberg Industry Group; Photo: Handout

As governor of Delaware in the 1990s, Carper said he also appointed Anne Canby as secretary of transportation. Canby had also been New Jersey’s first female transportation commissioner.

Canby, now director of OneRail Coalition, said women often tend to focus on listening rather than storytelling, an approach that helps bring different perspectives of transportation, including those who use public transportation. common and walk to where they need to go.

“You have to look like the people you serve,” Canby said in an interview. “If you only have one type of person and perspective, you’ll never do anything other than that.”

Men still play an important role in promoting infrastructure plans, with Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg playing a visible role in selling the package to Congress and the public. But behind the scenes, female staff members struggled to clarify the details of the legislation.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (RW.Va.), a member of the Environment and Public Works rankings, said in an interview that she also relies on women as she prepares for negotiations with the White House to win a smaller, more traditional package. than the one proposed by Biden.

“The girls do the job,” Capito said of his staff, adding that they bring a new perspective to the table.

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Dedrick’s team on the House Transport Committee also includes women in other high-level positions. Jill Harrelson, who previously served on the Senate Budget Committee, is the new chief counsel for the entire committee and Alice Koethe is deputy counsel.

The staff of the Roads and Transit Subcommittee is headed by Helena Zyblikewycz, a 14-year-old veteran. Prior to joining the panel, Zyblikewycz represented the AFL-CIO’s Transport Trades Department during negotiations on the 2005 Highway Bill.

The subcommittee will draft the legislation and determine the details, Zyblikewycz said in an interview. “We have a strong team of six, and four of us are women.”

Helena Zyblikewycz, Director of Personnel of the House Subcommittee on Roads and Transit

Photo illustration: Jonathan Hurtarte / Bloomberg Industry Group; Photo: Handout

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where Dedrick also worked, previously had female personnel managers, Repko said in an interview. But having the two groups led by women is new, as are the challenges of transportation, she said.

“I’m not sure any of us 10 or 15 years ago would have imagined the availability, even in Washington, DC, of ​​alternative modes such as being able to get a JUMP bike on your phone, or being able to use an Uber or Lyft, ”said Repko, who has long been interested in urban development. “We are also looking at climate change. Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in our economy.

Rebecca Higgins, Carper’s senior transportation advisor, said in an interview that men have long dominated engineering and have sought to build roads for maximum efficiency and resilience.

“Our transportation decisions are increasingly being recognized for broader community outcomes,” said Higgins, previously a Department of Transportation analyst, examining issues such as environmental reviews and project completion.

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An “ unparalleled ” expertise

The Sen. Maria cantwell (D-Wash.), The first woman chair of the Trade, Science and Transport Committee, which has jurisdiction over safety, rail and aviation. The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs is chaired by the President Sherrod brown (D-Ohio), but with Laura Swanson as personnel manager. This committee is working on the public transit portions of the bill.

The Capito team has already drafted a bill proposing $ 600 billion for traditional infrastructure, paid for with user fees and money left over from previous pandemic relief programs.

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Her main contributors to the committee include Lauren Baker, who previously served as policy advisor to former transportation secretary Elaine Chao. Murphie Barrett, Senior Advisor for Infrastructure and Economic Development, hails from the House Transportation Committee, where she worked for former President Bill Shuster (R-Pa.).

“Their expertise in transportation issues is unmatched and they have extensive experience working with the Department and the House,” said Capito.

Member of the transport and infrastructure ranking Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) Detailed Corey Cooke as general counsel to oversee the House’s GOP interests. He described her as “a great example of a smart, efficient and determined leader” that he has hired over the years. In addition to other committee services, Cooke was a person appointed by the Trump administration to the General Service Administration.

Corey Cooke, General Counsel for Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

Photo illustration: Jonathan Hurtarte / Bloomberg Industry Group; Photo: Handout

“We cannot continue to delay the infrastructure,” Cooke said in an interview, adding that the goal is to have “a bipartisan agreement in place that moves the needle forward”. She said she felt lucky to have always seen women in leadership positions both as members and staff of Congress whose voices are heard.

There was a change from years past when Canby, of OneRail Coalition, said she was told she was ‘pretty good for a woman’ when she ran state transportation services – while others questioned his qualifications.

“I can assure you they weren’t ready for a woman, especially to lead,” Canby said. When received comments questioning her abilities, Canby said, “Just stay focused on what you’re trying to do.”

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