Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio, a crucial and dependable ally for infrastructure advocates, announced this week his retirement after his 18th term in Congress ends next year. Now 74, DeFazio says he wants to recover from back surgery and hike the wilderness areas in Oregon that he helped preserve.
As chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, DeFazio became the undisputed congressional leader on transportation and infrastructure issues. His meticulous, detailed knowledge of wonky, technically complicated topics of all kinds will be hard to replace. A good example – it took him 25 years to pass legislation that ensures fees collected for harbor maintenance go for harbor maintenance. It took DeFazio 20 years to win repeal of a law that exempted health insurers from federal antitrust laws.
“Throughout his tenure, CFM Advocates has enjoyed a strong relationship with the Congressman and his office,” says Joel Rubin, CFM Federal Partner. “Most recently, CFM worked closely with his office to secure historic investments in bus transit for Pacific Northwest transit agencies and The Bus Coalition, a nationwide coalition of bus systems. CFM also worked closely with DeFazio to ensure multiple federal funding streams for large-scale projects of national significance, such as the I-5 Columbia River Bridge.” Rubin noted DeFazio, along with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, test drove an electric bus in Eugene to promote increased investment in public transit.
“Chairman DeFazio is one of my favorite House members,” Rubin adds. “He’s very much down to earth and doesn’t get bogged down in the typical Washington political speak. He is a passionate advocate for his district, Oregon and the country’s infrastructure network and is one of the smartest policy minds in DC. He will be sorely missed.”
The timing of DeFazio’s departure coincides with final approval of Oregon congressional redistricting, which gave his Fourth District a more Democratic advantage. He expressed confidence that a Democrat will succeed him. Oregon Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, like DeFazio a resident of Springfield, was the first candidate to declare. Senator Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, and Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, also are eyeing the race. Alex Skarlatos, a Roseburg Republican whom DeFazio defeated in 2020, is running again. More candidates are likely to surface.
In addition to his work on transportation, DeFazio is widely known for his efforts on land conservation, water, environmental policy and veteran affairs. A DeFazio staffer recalls how his boss stepped up after the 9/11 attacks to work on legislation to improve transportation security.
His breadth of interests and expertise was evident in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure measure that passed Congress and was signed into law by President Biden. “He’s been such a leader and a visionary on transportation,” Beth Osborn, who worked with DeFazio when she was with the US Department of Transportation, told the Oregon Capital Chronicle. “There are not a lot of people who truly understand what’s working and not in transportation systems and how that relates to policy.”
Osborn specifically praised his $715 billion surface transportation and surface water bill, which gained bipartisan support. “He produced one of the most innovative transportation reauthorization proposals I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I’ve been working in this area since the late ’90s and he put together a proposal that was really thoughtful about how to take a longstanding program and update it for the needs of today.”
Other members of the Oregon congressional delegation joined in praising DeFazio. Congressman Earl Blumenauer said DeFazio’s areas of interest, which extend beyond transportation and infrastructure to healthcare and animal welfare, are unparalleled. Senator Ron Wyden called DeFazio a “top-notch legislator” who fought for a transportation system that is “stronger and greener” and for good-paying jobs to build it.
During his congressional tenure, DeFazio championed protection of 390,000 acres of wilderness in Oregon, including Devil’s Staircase, which the retiring congressman said he wants to hike again when he no longer commutes to DC. He also is mulling writing a book about what’s wrong with America and how to fix it.
One of his remaining goals while still in office is to secure congressional passage of the Build Back Better Act, the human infrastructure and climate change legislation proposed by Biden. With DeFazio’s support, the legislation has passed the House and now awaits action in the Senate where two Democrats have withheld support and all 50 Republicans have lined up in opposition.
In his retirement announcement, DeFazio said, “I still have a lot of work to do in my remaining 13 months and I’ll be putting all of my efforts into that work, including helping to pass the Build Back Better Act that will bring down costs for families, create jobs, fight the climate crisis and help Americans get ahead.”
A native of Massachusetts, DeFazio graduated from Tufts University, served in the US Air Force Reserve from 1967-1971 and earned a master’s degree in gerontology from the University of Oregon in 1977. He landed a job the same year with former Fourth District Congressman Jim Weaver and was elected in 1982 to the Lane County Commission and served as chair for two years until 1986, when he won election to succeed Weaver who retired. When Barack Obama was elected President, DeFazio was considered a top contender as his Secretary of Transportation.
I’ve been working in transportation since the late ’90s and DeFazio put together a proposal that was really thoughtful about how to take a longstanding program and update it for the needs of today.
DeFazio is regarded as a liberal Democrat with wide interests. He was a founder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and is a member of the Medicare for All, Pro-Choice and Human Rights caucuses. He also lent his efforts to congressional caucuses dealing with rural issues, renewable energy, waterways and veterinary medicine. He founded and co-chaired the House Small Brewer’s Caucus.
DeFazio never feared butting heads. He called for the impeachment of US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts following the Citizens United ruling on corporate campaign contributions and joined Senator Bernie Sanders in urging a primary challenge to President Obama’s second term for what they saw as his failure to oppose Bush-era tax cuts. DeFazio echoed Occupy Wall Street protestors in calling for taxation of stock and bond trades.
DeFazio’s departure leaves a hole atop the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Strictly by seniority, the next in line for the top Democratic spot, whether as chair or ranking member, is Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who chairs the Highways and Transit Subcommittee. She would be the first woman, the first delegate and the first Black member of Congress to chair the committee. However, she will soon turn 85 and has yet to announce her intentions for next year. Another top contender would be Congressman Rick Larsen, D-Wash, who chairs the Aviation Subcommittee, an already top-tier subcommittee with a profile that has been elevated over the last few years.
DeFazio is the latest of 19 House Democrats who are retiring before the 2022 midterm election, which political observers predict could be a GOP landslide, recapturing majorities in the House and Senate. True to form, DeFazio said he doesn’t foresee a Republican resurgence next year.
You can watch DeFazio announcing his retirement here.