DeFazio ends Oregon record 36 years in U.S. House
When Peter DeFazio retires after an Oregon record for U.S. House service, he will have achieved one policy goal — but a second eluded him — during his 36 years representing southwest Oregon's 4th District.
As chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he secured congressional approval of a $1 trillion-plus spending plan for public works that President Joe Biden signed last year — although the evenly split Senate ended up dictating its details.
"We're going to have the biggest investment," DeFazio said. "It's not going to be as progressive or as climate-friendly as I wanted. But it's my bill and my number (HR 3684), with a Senate shell underneath."
But the Democrat from Springfield, who represents what was once the nation's largest timber-cutting district, failed to resolve the decades-old conflict between industry advocates for logging and environmental advocates for protection of forests.
"I once wrote that forestry issues are a lot like religion," DeFazio said. "And they're about as easy to resolve."
DeFazio made these and other observations on June 2 during a wide-ranging conversation sponsored by the Oregon Historical Society.
DeFazio turned 75 in May. He announced back on Dec. 1 he would not seek re-election after an Oregon record 18 terms in the U.S. House. (The overall record holder for Oregon service in Congress is Ron Wyden, a Democrat who was in the House 15 years until he was elected to the Senate in 1996. Wyden is seeking a fifth full term on Nov. 8.)
DeFazio lost to Wyden in the Democratic primary for the Senate. He weighed bids for governor but decided against running in 2002 and 2010, when there was no incumbent. As an elected official outside Portland, he has drawn less public attention in Oregon despite his long tenure in Congress.
DeFazio said he has noticed a political imbalance that gives the metro area even more weight than its already largest share of Oregon's population.
"Coming from downstate, we are too Portland-centric, and that has driven wedges in our state," he said. "I'm not quite sure how we are going to heal that. But I hope there is someone who can heal that and bring us back together."
Getting to Congress
A native of Massachusetts, DeFazio earned a bachelor's degree from Tufts University in 1969. He enlisted in the Air Force Reserve, which sent him to graduate school at the University of Oregon.
"I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," he said of his first view of Eugene.
After he earned a master's degree in gerontology in 1977, DeFazio ended up in the office of U.S. Rep. Jim Weaver and led constituent services, among them helping seniors and veterans obtain federal benefits. In 1982 DeFazio was elected a Lane County commissioner and eventually led the five-member board.
When Weaver vacated the 4th District seat in 1986 after 12 years, DeFazio sought the Democratic nomination against two state senators, Bill Bradbury of Bandon and Margie Hendriksen of Eugene. DeFazio edged Bradbury — later Senate president and secretary of state — by less than 1,000 votes, and Hendriksen was close behind.
In addition to his county position, DeFazio earned recognition for his constituent-service work for Weaver and his participation in a lawsuit against the Washington Public Power Supply System, which ended up defaulting on $2.25 billion in bonds in 1983 and shelving four of five nuclear power plants after construction costs ballooned to $24 billion.
But DeFazio also credited his direct approach to voters in the highly diverse district, which covers not only the liberal university towns of Eugene and Corvallis (added later) but also conservative rural communities such as Roseburg and Coos Bay.
Even in an era before social media, he said, people appreciated straight talk.
"Many times people would walk up to me and said they disagreed, but at least you told me what you think, unlike all those other people," he said. "They respect the fact that you believe what you believe, and you are not another politician who says what they think they want to hear — and when it comes time to do something, does something else."
He won the 1986 general election with 54%. He had a couple of relatively close calls since then. In 2010, facing a challenge funded by hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, he defeated Republican Art Robinson of Cave Junction, 55% to 44%. Robinson ran four more times but never got closer. In his final race in 2020, DeFazio edged Republican Alex Skarlatos of Roseburg, 51.2% to 46.2%. (Skarlatos is the repeat GOP nominee Nov. 8 against Val Hoyle of Springfield, who was endorsed by DeFazio and emerged from an eight-candidate Democratic primary May 17.)
A trillion for public works
DeFazio is one of a handful of Oregonians to lead a U.S. House committee, taking over Transportation and Infrastructure when Democrats became the majority party in 2019. He has sat on that panel since he entered Congress in 1987. (The only other Oregon chairman in recent years was Republican Greg Walden, now out of office, who led the Energy and Commerce Committee in 2017 and 2018.)
But DeFazio's quest for more money for public works started years earlier, when he was one of the few Democrats to oppose a 2009 economic stimulus plan. DeFazio said President Barack Obama put in too much for tax cuts in a failed attempt to attract Republican support — only three voted for it in the Senate, and none in the House — and too little in the $787 billion plan for infrastructure work.
DeFazio, then a subcommittee chairman, had proposed $350 billion that Obama was willing to support later. But in 2010, Democrats lost a modern-record 63 seats and their majority — and that proposal never resurfaced.
DeFazio tried again when Donald Trump became president. In 2019, it appeared that Republican Trump was willing to deal with Democratic congressional leaders — Democrats had regained a majority in the House — and even raised the target amount from $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion. But Trump never closed a deal after other Republicans balked at the price tag, and he walked out of a follow-up meeting.
DeFazio eventually proposed a $1.5 trillion plan the House passed in 2020 and again in 2021. But it stalled in the Senate, where a bipartisan group whittled it down to $1.2 trillion — about half of it new money, the rest from funds Congress would have spent anyway — and shifted some of its priorities. The final bill, still bearing DeFazio as the lead sponsor, passed with 13 Republican votes in the House and 19 in the Senate — although Biden lauded DeFazio's role during an April 21 stopover in Portland.
"It has almost as much money as I proposed," DeFazio said. "They cut transit, but it's the largest amount of money for transit in history. They cut rail, but it's still the largest investment in rail. They kept some of my provisions for climate change, although not the most important ones."
DeFazio said the law also has a fix-it-first policy that sets it apart from previous spending weighted toward highways. "Before you build new highways, fix what you have first and solve the problem, as opposed to finding an alternative," he said.
He drew less attention in Oregon, but more nationally, as his committee pressed Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration for their failures in the design, development and certification of the Boeing 737 Max during an 18-month investigation. The aircraft was finally grounded after 346 deaths resulted from crashes in 2018 in Indonesia and in 2019 in Ethiopia. Trump signed legislation that the committee attached to a December 2020 spending bill to overhaul the certification process for new aircraft.
Forest policy fights
When DeFazio ran in 1986, southwest Oregon was the nation's largest timber-cutting region. A long-running conflict between logging and old-growth protection in federal forests eventually resulted in the 1990 listing of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species under federal law — and a sharp drop in logging.
"This would hit not only employment, but also all the services that counties provide really hard," DeFazio said, given that many counties relied on millions from the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management for timber cut on national forests and forest lands formerly owned by the Oregon & California Railroad.
"When I ran for Congress, I said we were over-cutting the forests," he added. "But I never said we should go to zero cutting, because that is not going to restore the health of the forest. So it became a thing between the way it used to be — massive over-harvesting — and never, ever cutting a tree again. Neither is going to solve the problem. So I kept trying to carve a middle ground."
That middle ground was "new forestry," developed by Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington and Norm Johnson of Oregon State University, that did away with both clear-cutting and no cutting. DeFazio said that approach also embraced no more cutting in old-growth forests, where trees average 100 to 150 years or more.
But Congress and then-President George H.W. Bush failed to resolve the dispute. When Bill Clinton became president in 1993, his administration developed the Northwest Forest Plan, which DeFazio said both sides disliked — industry, because it failed to provide certainty, and environmentalists, because it still relied on a share of production from old-growth forests.
Environmental advocates won some legal battles, but DeFazio — who eventually rose to be the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee — said nothing was ultimately resolved.
"We are still in court and still litigating," DeFazio said. "I told environmentalists that someday the courts are going to flip — and now there is a court that says we have to go back to what the (1937) O&C Act says. This is still ongoing after 36 years."
His reference was to a Depression-era law that provides for multiple use of the 2.6 million acres of O&C forest lands — but is also weighted toward timber production over environmental protection.
"I have tried to thread the needle," DeFazio said.
Under an accord by the industry and environmental advocates last year, and ratified by Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Legislature this year, a new habitat conservation plan will apply to the 10 million acres of Oregon's private forest lands. DeFazio said that Oregon's federal forests could benefit from a similar resolution of the conflict to allow some cutting.
"What are we going to make houses out of if we do not make them out of sustainable forest products?" he asked. "Besides which, we have a lot of areas around the state where we need to thin the forests."
"Make no mistake: What happened on Jan. 6 (2021) was an attempted coup against the government of the United States of America," DeFazio said of the Trump-impelled protesters who stormed the Capitol in an attempt to block congressional certification of the presidential election that Joe Biden won.
DeFazio, in the days leading up to the riot, asked Capitol police if they were prepared for potential violence and drew blank looks in response. He also brought a baseball bat and purchased two cans of bear spray in Virginia — although possession of self-defense spray, unlike firearms, is legal in Washington, D.C. — and was outside filming a video when he heard flash-bang grenades go off. A police officer told him that a mob had overrun the Capitol's east front and urged him to return to the Rayburn House Office Building, where DeFazio and an aide barricaded his office.
Afterward, DeFazio said Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, whose office is in the same building, requested him to join in a walk to the Capitol, where Congress had reconvened to finish the certification. But they used underground passages to avoid walking above ground in the aftermath of the riot.
When he first came to Congress in 1987, DeFazio said both Democrats and Republicans overlapped on the political spectrum — but that soon will be no more. "After this election, there will be no intersection," he said. "This is a dangerous time for democracy."
DeFazio also said that no matter what happens Nov. 8 — whether Democrats maintain or lose their current four-seat majority in the House — the three top Democratic leaders, all in their 80s, should make way for a younger generation.
Still, DeFazio said, he has not given up on Oregon even with its problems during the past four decades. Though there are nonstop flights between Portland and Washington, D.C., there still is no direct service from Eugene — and he is reminded of that every time he flies home. (His wife, Myrnie Daut, is a longtime Eugene city employee.)
"People still rush to the left side of the plane to take a look at Mount Hood" before landing in Portland," he said. "It gives you a thrill — and you realize we are still a very special place in this country as a whole."
(NOTE: As a reporter for The News-Review in Roseburg in the 1980s, Peter Wong wrote about Peter DeFazio's elections to Oregon's 4th District seat in the U.S. House in 1986 and 1988.)
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