‘Tiger of the House’: DeFazio reflects on bills and brawls

By Hannah Northey, Arianna Skibell | 04/27/2022 06:35 AM EDT

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.).

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). Francis Chung/E&E News

Rep. Peter DeFazio, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will soon end his 35-year political career, but the Oregon Democrat insists he’s not going to fall off the map completely.

“I’ll probably do some consulting work for people I like and support,” DeFazio told E&E News during a recent interview. “And I’ve got a boat here. It’s a cheap way to live.”

DeFazio, the longest-serving member of Congress in Oregon’s history and co-founder of the House Progressive Caucus, opted to retire from his perch representing the state’s 4th District after checking major wins off his to-do list — and facing some major frustrations.

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DeFazio last year publicly erupted after he was boxed out of negotiations surrounding President Joe Biden’s signature $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, calling the bill “crap.”

The final package failed to include DeFazio’s more ambitious “INVEST in America Act” to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, even though the congressman successfully moved it through the House twice, a situation DeFazio blames on a “dysfunctional Senate.”

DeFazio said the bill would have been “massive” for dealing with the existential threat of climate change. The transportation sector is the single largest source of carbon pollution in the country.

Yet DeFazio is now working with Biden officials like Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to push through similar reforms. The Transportation Department included DeFazio’s “fix-it-first” approach in recent guidance to states, much to Republican lawmakers’ chagrin (E&E Daily, March 3).

The climate hawk is also quick to note his long legacy includes improvements to aviation safety, the largest expansion of Wild and Scenic Rivers in the lower 48, permanent protection of wilderness areas throughout his home state of Oregon, banning the export of logs on federal lands to protect old-growth forests, and big financial boosts to the nation’s water sector.

The congressman said he’s hoping to return to those very same wilderness areas — to hike and boat — after he retires from Congress. But he’s also planning to return to spend time in Washington’s Capital Yacht Club, a community in the heart of the historic wharf on the Potomac River.

DeFazio talked to E&E News about living on the water, his legacy and the possible return of former President Donald Trump:

Are you going to miss Washington, D.C.? 

I won’t miss having my schedule mandated by Congress. And I won’t miss flying back and forth across the country three or four times a month.

But I will spend most of my time in Oregon and try to enjoy some of the stuff I saved. I want to get back to Devil’s Staircase, which I hiked before I got it made a wilderness — hardest day hike I’ve ever done in my life. And I used to do a lot of fishing, but my drift boat died of neglect while I was in Congress.

What will happen to your boat, the “Eastward Ho”? 

I got a different boat now. It’s called Stella Maris. I got my first real boat when I was 6 or 7. My dad ran a camp for inner-city kids on Cape Cod. He was a teacher and we had a saltwater pond. I got a rowboat my mother named Stella Maris, so it’s kind of in honor of my mother.

I like the community there, it’s called the Yacht Club, but it’s more like a co-op. It’s not people with white gloves and waiters, most people there are government employees, retired, military, other things. … It’s a community, and I like being on the water.

What do you see as your legacy? 

I think it’s more a list than any singular bill. I have spent a lot of time and effort on aviation, aviation security and safety. A lot of legacy on environmental issues, a lot that affect my home state.

[Former Republican Rep. John Mica] and I created the Transportation Safety Administration after [the 9/11 terrorist attacks]. Before then, the airlines were in charge of hiring the screeners, and they had never found anybody that they would reject with a low bid contract, including a couple of felons out of Pennsylvania who were running screening services.

Way back after the [1996] ValuJet crash, the committee finally accepted something I’ve been trying to do for quite a few years, which is to say that the [Federal Aviation Administration] did not have a dual mandate to promote the industry and regulate the industry.

What are your big climate wins?

I passed the “INVEST Act” out of the House twice, but we couldn’t get it into law. That would have been a massive legacy dealing with the existential threat of climate change.

Obviously, during the Trump era, zero.

Even since [Democrats have] taken back control, scant progress on really meaningfully dealing with climate change. The Senate did keep some of my provisions. The states are going to have to measure their CO2 emissions from transportation; DOT is developing guidance on that.

But unlike my bill, which would then mandate annual reductions and penalize them if they didn’t meet those goals, and take money out of their highway program if they didn’t meet those goals …. I didn’t get that.

The administration is pushing “fix it first,” which requires that states look at alternatives to highway expansion before they undertake these big projects and see if there are better things to do in terms of transit and light rail alternatives.

We’re making some progress, just because we have a Democratic administration, trying to implement some of the things that I couldn’t get into law. Those are positive.

You’ve been referred to as the “Tiger of the House.”

That’s a great compliment because my hero, former Oregon [Democratic] Sen. Wayne Morse, was the Tiger of the Senate.

What are some of the brawls you’ve had on Capitol Hill? You once called the infrastructure bill “crap.” Do you still feel that way?

Well, we got a record increase in rail, record increase in transit, a big increase in the bridge program, which is we have 42,000 bridges, and a national highway system that needs substantial repair and replacement or you’ll have another [bridge collapse like in] Pittsburgh. They did retain a few of my policies that dealt with climate change and some other things.

But in terms of dealing meaningfully, decisively, with carbon pollution from transportation, it was not a good bill. But it was all we could get out of a totally dysfunctional Senate.

Some of the most heated battles I’ve been in [stemmed from] founding the Democratic Progressive Caucus. Bernie Sanders and I and five other members co-founded the caucus, and our whole emphasis in those days was on income inequality, corporate dominance. We now have a president working to reverse those things through administrative directives.

Are you worried about Trump being elected again and erasing your legacy on climate or infrastructure? 

I’m very concerned. [There’s a] fantasy among some Republicans that they’ll take over the House and the Senate and restore Trump somehow outside the Constitution, which I just recently read about. Some whack jobs are proposing that.

I am concerned just about the next elections, and if they don’t go well, then I’m encouraging the administration to get as much of the climate-friendly money as possible committed, particularly the rail money, the transit money. They can future commit a lot of those funds and get them locked in.

Republicans pretty much hate transit and rail, and they will try and undo some of the progress we made there. There are only 13 Republicans in the House who voted for that infrastructure bill, written by 10 Republicans and two conservative Democrats. They thought it was too progressive.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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