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Congress Ignores its Own Experts

September 3rd, 2021 by dk

Sen. Ron Wyden shouldn’t be surprised if he gets a call from Rep. Peter DeFazio, warning him not to work too hard on the upcoming $3.5 trillion Build Back Better reconciliation package. DeFazio has shown no signs of bitterness about the first infrastructure bill, now sitting in the House docket, but no one could blame him.

When DeFazio arrived in Congress in 1987, he was like a freshman on campus without a declared major. For somebody as curious and wonkish as DeFazio, he must have felt like a kid in a candy store. He joined the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation, as it was known back then.

He focused on highways and transit, building on what he had learned as a county commissioner across one of the most diverse terrains in the country.

He rose to chair the ground transportation subcommittee as those with more seniority retired. He became the ranking Democrat on the House Committee for Transportation and Infrastructure in 2015. He waited four more years for Democrats to win the House majority (making him Chair), and then two more for a Democratic President (making it matter.)

In 2021, after more than 30 years of on-the-job training, DeFazio finally reached the pinnacle of his political career. The timing looked perfect. Transportation funding packages are assembled roughly every six years, so this year was his first chance to put to work all that he had learned over four decades about moving people and stuff around.

Never one to avoid hard work, DeFazio rolled up his sleeves. He oversaw the committee’s work with 67 of his colleagues and hundreds of staff members. DeFazio sponsored HR 3684 – Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on June 4, 2021. It passed the House less than a month later.

Then the Senate threw it all out. They kept the container of HR 3684, but emptied it of all of DeFazio’s hard-earned expertise. Then they stuffed the container with what a handful of Senators (with nothing approaching the same expertise) thought would be better. They paraded their alternative for TV cameras. It passed the Senate and awaits a rubber stamp from the House.

Could you blame DeFazio for being livid? He may feel compelled to warn his Oregon colleague in the Senate. Wyden has risen to be Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. His committee has been charged with formulating the funding for the gargantuan reconciliation package, so that it completely pays for itself.

In fact, Senate leaders want it to raise an extra $1 billion, so they can claim they are paying down the federal debt. (To spare you the math, that projected “surplus” amounts to less than 0.003% of the total funding package. Cynical? Yes.)

You might think that Congress would respect the work of its committee structure and its resident experts. Think again. Inevitably, the work will get supplanted by a few high profile members with back-of-envelop calculations who don’t like the sound of this or that. Will Wyden’s deep knowledge — his Congressional career began in 1981 — be respected? DeFazio’s wasn’t.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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