An Interview with Rep. Bruce Westerman, P.E.
Engineering Influence welcomed Rep. Bruce Westerman (Arkansas-4) to the program to discuss his career in engineering and in Congress.
Host: Welcome to another edition of Engineering Influence, a podcast from the American Council of Engineering Companies. It's a pleasure to welcome Congressman Bruce Westerman to the show. Congressman Westerman hails from Hot Springs, Arkansas and represents the state's fourth congressional district in the House of Representatives. He currently serves on the Natural Resources Committee and as Ranking Member on the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the House. Congressman Westerman graduated from the University of Arkansas with a bachelor of science degree in biological and agricultural engineering. He is also a graduate of Yale University earning a master of forestry service degree or I guess master of forestry degree forestry. Yeah. which makes him doubly unique in Congress. He's not only an engineer, but he's also a Forester of which there are not many serving in the house right now. Pretty much just yourself, I believe. Just one. Thank you very much for coming onto the program.
Rep. Westerman: Jeff, it's great to be with you and a real honor to get to be on an ACEC podcast and talk about engineering and how that's benefited me with my service in Congress. You know, I had a nearly a two and a half decade career in engineering before I came to Congress and really enjoyed that. I always tell people I like my job in Congress, but I could go back in and be an engineer tomorrow and be perfectly content.
Host: Actually, I was here when you spoke to members of our senior executive Institute class last month here in DC about your background in engineering and how you've applied that to your work in Congress. And I think you made the comment of pretty much saying that, you know, members come up to you because you're an engineer and expect you to have answers on just about anything related to engineering. How has your professional work in the field of engineering helped you in your roles, both in your committee work and then also in the general work that you do as a member? And I believe you're also on the science committee previously how has that impacted your ability to be an effective Member?
Rep. Westerman: Being an engineer in Congress is you know, it's a, it's a small group of us that are up here. There's not many engineers and like we already said, there's only one Forester in the, in the House. So if you've got a particular area of expertise, people really want to seek that out, especially your, your colleagues because you know, they, they generally feel like they can trust you if you want to give them, give them information. But also being an engineer probably has some drawbacks because of things like our code of professional conduct where we're not expected or we're expected not to comment on things we don't have expertise in, whereas a member of Congress, you're expected to comment on everything. So I after my freshman term, I got voted the quietest member of our freshman class, and I always told them this because you've got two ears to listen and one mouth to speak with.
Rep. Westerman: So I'll try to try to be measured in what I say and try to be accurate in what I say. And of course Congress touches, touches everything from foreign policy to healthcare tax policy. And you really have to study and read a lot just to stay on top of the issues. But when those things come along, that engineering directly impacts it's great to have some history and background and the, the education and experience to be able to make pertinent comments on those those issues and add to the conversation. But I'll get asked to speak to a lot of engineering students around the country and I'll always tell them that the thing they probably don't realize now, but they'll will realize someday is that engineering is, is really glorified problem solving. You're learning a lot of science, a lot of math.
Rep. Westerman: You're getting all the tools in the toolbox to go out and solve problems. But what you really learn going through an engineering curriculum and what you learned doing engineering on the job is how to analyze issues, define the problem, come up with a plan implement that plan and solve a problem. That's beneficial. Whether you're in Congress, whether you're working in a corporation, working in your own business or whatever you do. Those problem solving abilities are very valuable to have. And I think that's the best thing that engineering gave me and prepared me for to come here and serve in Congress.
Host: That's really interesting point because one of the things that we talk about at ACEC and we're going to be doing a lot more with a new strategic plan that we just adopted on the role of engineering in society and engineer's not just as math side, the science side, but also the problem solving, the trusted advisor to clients of looking at a challenge and finding ways to innovative ways to solve those challenges and, and to apply their background and experience to, to those challenges. So that's a really interesting point. I do want to bring up the forestry side of things cause I'm a Penn State grad. We had a forestry program at Penn State. Not exactly Yale as far as, in terms of school, but I wanted to ask the question of how you got into and interested in forestry and where that kinda stems from.
Rep. Westerman: Yeah, it's kind of a unique combination, I guess having an undergraduate in engineering and a graduate degree in forestry. But I grew up in, in Arkansas, in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where I still live today, beautiful area, lots of national forest, a lot of private forest. And the career that I had for two decades was working for an ACEC member engineering firm. And we specialize in the forest products area. So when people asked me about my engineering career, I basically say that if there's some process that takes a tree and make something out of it, then I got the opportunity to design one of those facilities during my career. So getting a forestry degree was very natural and beneficial in the the business that I was in because you always started with what's the resource, what, what resources available and, and what's the most valuable product we can make out of that resource and what kind of equipment and machinery best fits the resource to convert that resource into a product that can be sold in the marketplace. And plus, I've always loved the outdoors.
Rep. Westerman: My Sunday School teacher was a world war II veteran. He, he flew in the bloody 100th bomb bombing squadron and he was just a fantastic guy, but he was, he was in the first forestry graduating class at the university of Arkansas at Monticello where our forestry school is. And I think Mr. Colepepper inspired a love for the forest and the outdoors and always wanted to go to graduate school. So it just, it worked out very well from a career and a personal goal standpoint to go study about trees. And another example of how being here in Congress and being the only, only person in the house where a forestry education and background, I work a lot on forest policy. And you know, the federal government owns a 193 million acres of timberland that's just in the Forest Service, but you throw in the BLM and the park service and you're between 250 and 300 million acres of public forest land.
Rep. Westerman: You know, today we're seeing the extreme forest fires in California and there's a lot of work that could be just be done just on the forestry side. And I'm really excited about it because forests are the link between clean air and clean water, which gets into a lot of the things that we as engineers work on. And you know, forests are the natural carbon sequesters. They're the most - good forest trees, the most pragmatic approach we can have to clean environment. And it's the best offensive tool that we've got. So I'm doing a lot of work in the forestry side of things here in Congress. And you know, one thing that we're really looking at is this new concept of mass timber and it's a new building system that's been done in Europe for quite some time, but we can now build buildings up to 18 stories tall.
Rep. Westerman: At my alma mater, the University of Arkansas, they just completed two five story mass timber dormitories. They had already built a mass timber library storage building. So it, it does a lot of, lot of things for you. Number one, it uses you can use locally sourced materials. These materials. Wood is on a dry basis, is 45 to 50% carbon, so it creates a huge carbon sink. It's a great insulating product, so you can build these buildings where they're sustainable and they don't use as much energy to operate and maintain. So a lot of positives with things like, wood, but then there's a lot of more research that can be done. We could use wood as feed stocks for chemicals. That's good feedstock for nanoparticles. I just saw something the other day where they've come up with a nano material made from wood cellulous that can be put into concrete that reduces the amount of Portland Cement and actually increases the strength and durability of the, of concrete. So the, I think the sky's the limit on what we can do with wood, which is a good renewable resource. And again, it, it's the lungs of the earth and the kidneys of the earth that cleans the air and cleans the water.
Host: And that's really an interesting point. And actually we covered the mass timber issue in our most recent private industry brief that Erin McLaughlin in our office puts together. And again, that was the change in December of 2019. The ICC loosened the restrictions to allow buildings up to 18 stories in height effective in 2021 compared to the limit of six stories and commercial structures currently. So that's, that's an interesting, that's an interesting nexus between the forestry side and the engineering side.
Rep. Westerman: As a result of those projects they're in, in Northwest Arkansas on the University of Arkansas campus, a company just up the road, Walmart, announced they're building a new corporate headquarters. Now you think about you know, the largest company in the world building a corporate headquarters, 15,000 people, there'll be housing. So it'll be like a small college campus. I think they told me three and a half million square feet, but they're going to build the whole facility out of Southern Pine mass timber grown and manufactured in Arkansas. So that's a great story to tell, not only from the environmental stewardship side, but these local economies for timber has grown or in rural areas. And it's a, it's a good story about how we can help the autonomy in rural areas and do something good for the environment at the same time. And there's a lot of other, I've been told that Microsoft, Adidas I think Google, there's a lot of major corporations that are looking to use more of this mass timber in there Buildings.
Host: You know, buildings like that would fit in perfectly in Seattle and, and a lot of the Pacific Northwest especially. I do want to stay with the whole idea of economic development, but shifting over to infrastructure. You serve as the Ranking Member on the Water Subcommittee and of course WRDA is probably the most, the big bill that subcommittee is going to be working on for the Congress. That's a critical bill for our ports, harbors, inland waterways, locks, dams, just all of that, not just the, the seaside ports like Charleston or Savannah, but also the interior - moving goods around the country. Now with a lot of the members who listen to the podcast, they're getting a lot of their news from CNN. They're getting it from Fox and they're not hearing everything that's going on. You know, at the granular level. Where does the WRDA bill stand right now and where do you see when you see as the prospects of getting that through?
Rep. Westerman: So we've got a good track record going on WRDA and we certainly don't want to disrupt that. I believe we've the past six years or maybe eight years, we've got a WRDA bill through Congress. I know the whole time that I've been here, we've got WRDA bills passed on a two year cycle and there seems to be bipartisan support to get a WRDA bill out next year. And I will say serving on T&I, and actually being the ranking member on water and environment subcommittee. I was very fortunate in this Congress, which seems to be highly partisan with, you know, the impeachment issues and everything else going on. We've got a pretty good track record so far on the water and environment subcommittee. We just got a bill passed off the floor to use the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to actually develop and improve harbors as it was set in place to do you know, nearly, you know, nine to $10 billion in that fund.
Rep. Westerman: But it wasn't getting used to maintain harbors and it was put strictly put in place for that purpose. So I'm glad to see we pass it off the House Floor in a bipartisan manner. I hope the Senate will take it up and get that signed into law. We also just out of Committee this week we passed the the, the loan fund for wastewater systems. And I think that's a great opportunity to go in and you know, have the funding mechanisms so that cities can, can borrow the money to repair these wastewater systems, which the, I believe it was American Society of Civil Engineers gave our wastewater infrastructure a D plus grade. And I know as I travel around in my district there's a lot of work that needs to be done on both wastewater.
Rep. Westerman: And potable water system. So we're, we're getting bills passed out of committee off the floor. Those, you know, it doesn't usually make Fox or CNN when you pass a water bill out of the House, but it makes a lot of difference across the country. And I feel very fortunate to be working on that. I'm really looking forward to working with the, the Subcommittee Chairman Grace Napalitano from California, Peter DeFazio, now the Democratic Chairman, and then Sam Graves who is the Ranking Member. We've got a commitment to, to get this word of bill done. And as you mentioned, it's very important to many parts of the country. You know, our navigable waterways took a beating in the flooding this past past spring and summer in my district and in many other places in the country. We've got a lot of work to do on that.
Rep. Westerman: There's a lot of work that needs to be done on again ports and harbors deepening channels and that sort of thing. So there's, there's no end of, of opportunities and good things that we can spend money on that are, that are good for the country. And I think part of the reason we have a federal government, you know, provide for the common defense and, and take care of interstate transportation systems and that's what T&I does. So those are the things we should be prioritizing and putting our funds towards because it helps grow the economy and and helps, you know, the country grow, which helps us be able to provide nice things and, and people to have jobs and find, make their own way through life. So excited about what we're doing on the, on the water subcommittee.
Host: And then I guess just to kind of wrap it up, I mean it, with everything going on in Washington, you know, it's so dominated the headlines by intrigue and pretty much inside the beltway, kind of partisan squabbles because it, you know, gets ratings. But you know, for your constituents and for members in the engineering profession out there who are listening and saying, okay, what's Congress doing? I mean, what, what message would you leave them with? As far as what Washington is doing and, and how things are, are looking at the end of the year and may shape up for for 2020?
Rep. Westerman: Well, right now I would, I wouldn't give Congress a very good grade on what we're doing. I mean, we're operating under a Continuing Resolution, which is been a huge pet peeve of mine since I've got here. If there's, if there's one thing I would, if I could change it and I've worked hard to try to change it that's to get us back to what I call regular order, where we do appropriation bills. We debate those bills in the open, we offer amendments on the floor, pass all 12 of them out of the House. And if the Senate would take those up and go through the same process, we know our fiscal year ends on September 30th every year. And we need a new budget by then. We know the timeline, we know what needs to be done. We're just not getting it done.
Rep. Westerman: And that causes all kinds of problems. When you look at, we don't even have a Defense Authorization bill done this year. And, and that's one of the primary reasons to have a federal government is provide for the common defense. If, if we can't get that done, if we can't get a budget done we really should be ashamed of the job that we're doing here. Now we can talk about some positive things on T&I. There's some small things that we agree on and they're getting done. And in the big picture, the politics are getting way too much in the way. And with the 2020 presidential election coming up with all the talk about impeachment it's really taken the focus off for the job of Congress. We've still got a huge, huge issue with healthcare in this country.
Rep. Westerman: We've got huge issues with immigration we need to be addressing. But there are a lot of us that are working on those policies and we've got bills drafted and we're ready to go. But you just can't get it in committee. You can't get time on the floor. The USMCA, a trade agreement that would be great for our country has got bipartisan support. You know, Mexico is now our largest trading partner. So you'd have your first and second largest trading partners with a new agreement that would benefit farmers, benefit the whole country. And we can't get it on the floor for a vote. It could've passed two months ago with bipartisan support. So that's frustrating. But again, engineers are problem solvers and I keep looking at it, you know, how can I make a difference? How can we change this?
Rep. Westerman: And it, a lot of times it's a slow change. And a lot of times it takes changes in leadership. It takes changes in which party is in control. But I see light at the end of the tunnel and you know, in on the positive side of things is the economy's doing quite well. We could do, we could be doing better and we see pathways to make that happen and I want to continue working on that and using hopefully what I learned studying engineering and doing engineering for a couple of decades and applying that here in the United States House of Representatives.
Host: Well, Congressman, thank you very much. There's still a lot of work to do, but like you said, engineers are problem solvers and you're going to be here to help solve those problems. So really appreciate your time this morning and coming on the show and, and, and hope to have you on the future. And I guess today you have some votes and then you're out, right? The this is, this is the end of the week legislatively.
Rep. Westerman: Yeah. This is a fly out day. It's a you know, I love my job, but the happiest day of the week are when I'm heading back to Arkansas, back to the real world. And the people I grew up with, the people I love and the people I get to represent here in this this great job in the U S so we do have a vote today actually a vote on the impeachment inquiry. So I wish we were voting on a WRDA bill or something like that, but it is what it is. And you know, I look forward to continuing to work is a lot of the things that people don't see that are here in DC is that when most members of Congress are back in our districts, we're working as much there as we are up here in DC. It's a different kind of work. And with, I've got a large rural district, so I spend a lot of time on the road, but always enjoy getting back.
Host: Well, Congressman Bruce Westerman, thank you very much for being on the show. Again, this has been another episode of Engineering Influence from the American Council of Engineering Companies.
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