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Gavel is Now in DeFazio’s Hand

January 18th, 2019 by dk

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio could have just about any Congressional office he prefers, but he’s happy with his corner of the Rayburn Office Building. It’s on the second floor, which affords a bit of privacy, and the balcony is large enough to offer group photos with the Capitol dome as a backdrop.

Congressional perks are often doled out by seniority. Corner offices are not least among them. DeFazio has regaled constituents with that corner balcony view for more than a decade. DeFazio is the longest serving Representative ever from Oregon.

He arrived in 1987, replacing Jim Weaver — for whom he had previously been an aide. He’s beginning his 17th term this month, sharing the eighth spot on the House seniority list with civil rights icon John Lewis and Michigan Republican Fred Upton.

Only three Democrats and four Republicans have served longer. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi came to Washington several months after DeFazio. When the 116th United States Congress convened last week, DeFazio will be given something he’s never had in Washington: a gavel.

DeFazio now chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, controlling budget and procedural debates for the government’s massive investments in transit connectivity. DeFazio has had his party’s seniority on four of its subcommittees, but now he will oversee the entire committee’s work.

During a time when infrastructure investment is getting dangerously overdue, his committee’s work will be vitally important in the years ahead. If President Trump’s olive branch to the Democratic House includes a revival of his promised $1 trillion infrastructure initiative, those twelve zeroes will be crossing DeFazio’s desk.

It’s about time.

“Public service” is sometimes overused to explain why politicians run for office, but this much is true. Every elected official comes to Washington hoping to somehow make a difference.

The truth is a Congressional seat offers five different paths to wielding substantial influence in Washington. The first three have very little to do with lawmaking, and the fourth has too much. DeFazio has pursued the fifth.

First, you can crisscross the country, raising funds and recruiting candidates for your party — as U.S. Rep. Greg Walden has done. Second, you can join your party’s legislative leadership team, whipping votes and setting legislative calendars. Third, you can make yourself available to the media to speak on your party’s behalf at a moment’s notice. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley has chosen this route.

Fourth, you can leave Congress and become a lobbyist — offering to write or reshape legislation that will benefit your clients. Former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith plays this role for the National Association of Broadcasters.

Or, fifth, you can show up for work and keep showing up. You must earn your colleagues’ respect, because seniority alone won’t get you a chairmanship. The majority on the committee must vote for you and your party must hold the majority.

Being the ranking member of the minority party, as DeFazio has been for several terms, doesn’t count for much these days. Bipartisanship has fallen far out of favor.

Only the gavel matters. And that’s what’s now in DeFazio’s hand.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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