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Peter DeFazio’s Gavel

December 17th, 2018 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.

Many Congressional perks are doled out according to seniority and preferred offices are not least among them. DeFazio has been posing with constituents on that plum corner balcony for more than a decade. No one has ever represented Oregon in the House of Representatives for longer.

DeFazio arrived in Washington to represent Oregon’s 4th District in 1987. He will begin his 17th term in January, after soundly defeating Art Robinson for the fifth time in a row. Robinson’s biennial campaigns have been financed largely by New York hedge fund executive Robert Mercer.

The populist Congressman got on Mercer’s bad side when DeFazio proposed a minuscule financial transaction tax that would dampen stock speculation and reduce its profitability. Mercer originally underwrote Robinson to teach DeFazio a lesson. It didn’t work. Lately, it seems Mercer and Robinson are running their opposition campaigns mostly out of habit.

DeFazio and his 1987 classmates now share the eighth spot on the House seniority list. Only three Democrats and four Republicans will have served longer. At 71, he doesn’t intend to stay in the job forever. When the 116th United States Congress convenes in January, DeFazio will be given something he’s never had in Washington: a gavel.

DeFazio will chair 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 the entire committee’s work will be overseen by DeFazio.

During a time when infrastructure investment is getting dangerously overdue, the 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.

There’s a dirty little non-secret about the legislative branch of our federal government. The political parties have gained such a stranglehold on the institution that most legislators don’t wield very much influence on Capitol Hill.

A Congressional seat offers only four paths to substantial influence — and the first three have very little to do with lawmaking. You can crisscross the country, raising funds and recruiting candidates for your party — as U.S. Rep. Greg Walden has done. You can make yourself available to the media to speak on your party’s behalf at a moment’s notice. You can join your party’s leadership team, whipping votes and setting legislative calendars.

Or you can earn your colleagues’ respect and wait until your seniority number comes up. Even then, seniority doesn’t count for much unless your party happens to also be in the majority. Being the ranking member of the minority party on any committee lost its leverage when bipartisanship became anathema.

The gavel is all that matters. And that’s what will be in DeFazio’s hand.


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

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