DeFazio has been an active member of the transportation panel since he was first elected to represent Oregon’s 4th Congressional District in 1986.
DeFazio becomes the 19th House Democrat to announce plans to leave office at the end of his term for either another office or retirement. DeFazio also is the third committee chair who will not seek reelection next year, following Reps. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), chairman of the House budget committee, and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chairwoman of the science, space and technology committee.
DeFazio represents a heavily Democratic district that is likely to remain so, since the redistricting process is determined by the Democratic-majority state legislature.
In a statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said DeFazio is “an absolute force for progress, whose 36 years of effective leadership in the House will leave a legacy that will benefit the Congress and Country for decades to come.” She said the Democratic Caucus “will miss a trusted voice and valued friend.”
“Chairman DeFazio is known and respected by all as a champion of sustainable, smart and green infrastructure, whose progressive values, passion and persistence have helped rebuild America and the middle class,” Pelosi said. “His legislative successes — including expanding preservation and conservation efforts, protecting affordable health care, advancing tribal sovereignty, rebuilding our highways, ensuring aviation safety and, most recently, helping pass the historic, once-in-a-century Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Build Back Better Act — leave an outstanding legacy of progress for America’s children and future.”
Punchbowl News first reported on DeFazio’s retirement.
DeFazio’s departure from Congress would follow a major win on infrastructure, an issue that has animated much of his public life, with the passage last month of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
But many of the transportation reforms he had sought — and that his committee had spent years honing — were left out of the bill after a bipartisan group of senators working with President Biden largely seized control of the legislative process.
DeFazio, for example, had wanted states hungry for billions of new highway funds to be required to first address huge outstanding maintenance needs before taking on major expansion projects. But that so-called Fix-it First provision in the transportation bill he shepherded through the House died in the Senate process.
DeFazio’s push for a fundamental shift in the infrastructure bill toward prioritizing reducing transportation emissions, the top U.S. source of greenhouse gases, was also pared back dramatically. He said he remains hopeful key provisions sought by the House will survive in the budget reconciliation bill that includes many of Biden’s climate and social policy priorities and is currently under consideration in the Senate.
Speaking to reporters last month after Congress passed the infrastructure bill, DeFazio said he shared the president’s view that it was a historic moment.
“It’s a pretty extraordinary achievement and long overdue,” DeFazio said.
Yet he also spoke plainly about what it was not.
“Is this the bill I wanted? No. But we aimed really, really high,” DeFazio said, noting that he and his House Democratic colleagues had passed transportation legislation twice over the past two years that would have represented “a definitively 21st Century infrastructure bill, with higher levels on rail, higher levels on transit,” and about the same spending on highways.
The bill that did pass ended up with the biggest transit investment in U.S. history and the largest investment in passenger rail since the founding of Amtrak, as well as major spending on broadband, drinking water and more.
“I don’t think the Senate would have even come close to those numbers without the comparison to our legislation,” DeFazio said.
He said when Republicans controlled the House, Senate and White House, President Donald Trump’s promises on infrastructure proved hollow. “They just kicked the can down the road,” DeFazio said. Compared to that, he said, the legislation Biden signed was “truly an amazing bill,” although one limited by Washington realities.
“We do what we can do. We are hobbled by a Senate which is operating with arcane rules that basically hobble its capability to do anything meaningfully over there unless one party has a supermajority,” DeFazio said. “So the president being able to negotiate this bill with the Senate was pretty amazing to me.”
And, he added, “This isn’t the end of what we’re going to do. We are now engaged in reconciliation.”
In his retirement announcement, DeFazio said he still has “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.”
During his time on the Transportation and Infrastructure committee, DeFazio served as chair or ranking member of four of the six subcommittees: Aviation, Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, Highways and Transit, and Water Resources and Environment. DeFazio has shepherded several other multibillion-dollar transportation reauthorization bills in the House through the years, building a reputation as a leader on issues of transportation and infrastructure. Earlier this year, he introduced a $715 billion surface transportation reauthorization and water infrastructure bill that passed the House with bipartisan support.
DeFazio approached the role in the Transportation and Infrastructure committee with an exacting edge and a willingness to wrestle with the potent minutia of transportation policy, from road repair to aviation safety.
His committee led an 18-month investigation into what it called a “horrific culmination” of errors by Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration ahead of crashes of 737 Max jets in 2018 and 2019, leading to passage of bipartisan legislation meant to improve oversight.
In the House, DeFazio had a long memory and willingness to state his disappointment plainly, even when it was with the leaders of his own party. DeFazio would train his at-times fiery oratory at GOP colleagues who he felt ignored the threat of climate change, yet also repeatedly knocked President Barack Obama’s decision during his first term to punt on a crucial transportation bill.
Among his other achievements, the Democrat’s office listed his work to fund 295 scholarships at Oregon community colleges, the establishment of a U.S. Department of Agriculture organics standard, the permanent protection of 390,000 acres of wilderness in Oregon and the restoration of the Coquille Tribe’s federal recognition.
DeFazio also serves as the dean of Oregon’s House delegation. He has faced serious challenges in his reelection bids only a handful of times in his 34 years in Congress, with one of his closest races being the 2020 election, when he beat Republican Alek Skarlatos by 5 percentage points. Skarlatos has filed to run again in the 2022 race.
In a statement, the National Republican Congressional Committee said, “Committee Chairs don’t retire unless they know their majority is gone.”
“Nancy Pelosi’s days as Speaker are numbered,” said NRCC Spokeswoman Courtney Parella.