Eugene Weekly : Lead Story : 10.13.11

DeFazio Does It
DeFazio takes on the frumious bandersnatch and other Oregon issues
by Camilla Mortensen

Photo by Todd Cooper

Congressman Peter DeFazio is taking his vorpal sword in hand again. In this time of political confusion that pits Tea Partiers against the Democrats and the Dems against themselves, and when half of what politicians say makes no more sense than Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” Oregon’s longtime 4th District representative takes great pleasure in cutting through the political confusion.

His Oct. 5 Occupy Wall Street-inspired diatribe on the economy and the financial bailout was vintage DeFazio. It’s not often that CSPAN coverage spawns a viral hit, but the clip of DeFazio railing against Wall Street and accusing financiers of having “gambled our economy into oblivion” is giving it a shot despite a lack of media coverage. 

If it seems like DeFazio’s last congressional race just ended, it did. Members of the House of Representatives are elected every two years, while senators run every six years. There’s little more than a year to go before the 2012 election, which looks to be a rematch with DeFazio running against Tea Party Republican Art Robinson. The fray has already begun. 

EW sat down with DeFazio to hear what he had to say about everything from Wall Street to county payments to the upcoming elections. 


American Awakening 

“DeFazio is one of the few congresspersons that is with the 99 percent,” writes one of the commenters on the less-than-four-minute general speech before the House in which DeFazio took swipes at Republicans, financiers and the Tea Party. “There’s been this amazing political jiu-jitsu where somehow the Republicans aided by the Koch Brothers who subsidized the Tea Party have changed the narrative,” DeFazio says in the clip. “It was the government. It was over regulation. Over regulation?” he asks sarcastically. “Oh come on guys, there were no rules; they gambled our economy into oblivion.” 

He continues, “But now this fall, something’s happening. Something in this land is happening, I call it the American Awakening. The occupation of Wall Street, which is now spreading to other cites.” DeFazio defends the protesters against critics who say they ought to be looking for jobs: “Their future has been stolen from them … No, they don’t have jobs! What are we doing to create jobs and give these kids a future in this country?

“It is time to begin to deal meaningfully with these problems in this country,” DeFazio says.

This isn’t the first time DeFazio has stood up and yelled about what he believes, and it’s not just Oregonians who have noticed his tendency to get a little hot under the collar and go forth kicking ass and taking names. Back in 2009 the Oregon Democrat came to national attention not just when he voted against President Obama’s stimulus bill, but also when Obama, in response to DeFazio’s call for more infrastructure spending, said to him, “Don’t think we’re not keeping score, brother.”

News-based satire newspaper and website The Onion did a feature on DeFazio in November 2010 in which the representative was the sole survivor of a literal congressional bloodbath, with lines like “the 12-term Oregon congressman and de facto leader of the free world acknowledged that although many challenges lie ahead — including explaining his situation to foreign nations, figuring out how to print money, and combating the marauding bands of Tea Party activists now violently patrolling the streets of Washington — he remains confident that he will soon be able to get the U.S. government back in working order.”


DeFazio on the Economy 

The real DeFazio is pretty confident he could get the government back in working order, if given the chance. And for this senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, infrastructure is the name of the game. Obama’s jobs bill is ok, he says, and better news is that the president has been stepping up lately, 

“This is kind of like the guy we selected and elected and voted for, for like two weeks now, and that’s great,” DeFazio says. “He has said he isn’t going to just take cuts, and he wants investment, so that’s good.”

But the congressman doesn’t hold back on his critique of the president and his administration’s handling of the economic crisis: “If you look at the bill itself, it’s 11 percent infrastructure, about another 7 percent school construction. Basically, building things is less than 20 percent of the bill, and 57 percent of the bill is tax cuts. And tax cuts don’t work.”

“I like the fact he’s fighting for something,” he says of Obama. “I like the fact that some of it is infrastructure and schools, but it’s not enough.”

DeFazio says he’s “taken a lot of flak recently for being too critical of Obama.” But he says to his own critics, “I’m trying to help. He has to succeed. Democrats have to succeed so we don’t wind up with someone like (Texas Gov. Rick) Perry as President.”

According to DeFazio, we have been cutting taxes since 2001, and we’ve expended 5 trillion dollars on them and doubled the debt. “We have the economy of tax cuts based on a quaint theory of economics that was relevant when I was in college, which was a very long time ago,” the 64-year-old congressman says.

Former president George W. Bush tried to solve the problem by writing big checks to a lot of people, DeFazio says. The idea was that folks would spend money and buy things. But “if people buy stuff, it was made in China,” he says. Or people used their refund to pay down debt or save. He says Obama’s former top economic adviser Larry Summers’ solution was to give so little money that people won’t know they are getting it and thus they would go ahead and spend it. “I said ‘Larry, that’s really bad economics and really bad politics,’” DeFazio says, “‘but other than that it’s a good idea.’”

DeFazio made headlines in 2009 when he suggested in an MSNBC interview that President Obama should fire Summers and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. 

If he could choose a new principal economic adviser, it would be 2001 Nobel Prize in economics winner Joseph Stiglitz. DeFazio also says that he’d go with 2008 prizewinner and The New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman too, now that he’s “come around” on trade. 

Obama’s current advisers? “They’re dealing with the financial crisis, not the structural economic crisis,” he says.  

In a recent letter to supporters, DeFazio wrote that there are 150,000 bridges across the nation in need of repair or replacement, and the Willamette River’s flood control system is at 85 percent of capacity because the Army Corps needs $100 million for repairs. 

“The vision from the other side is sort of nihilism,” DeFazio says. They “want a government we can drown in the bathtub.” He points out that if there is a rain-on-snow event and the dams fail, “How much is the damage going to be? More than a $100 million. How stupid is this non-philosophy of theirs?”

House Republicans are making a mistake, he says, in cutting infrastructure funding. “Tax cuts,” he says, “don’t create jobs.” 

 What’s DeFazio’s solution? “A quarter of the deficit is due to people not working,” he says, “Give me a hundred billion dollars; let me spend it on infrastructure. For that amount of money, I can put several million to work building stuff that will last for generations.” Money borrowed now could be used to fix infrastructure and bridges and create transit systems with long-term benefits, DeFazio says.


County Money

While the politicos in Washington, D.C., debate how to solve the nationwide economic crisis, DeFazio’s constituents back home in Oregon want to know where the man is on the logging and timber payment issues that affect Oregonians. 

Back in the 1990s, as the logging wars peaked, counties in Oregon, Washington and California started to get federal payments to make up the massive cutbacks on logging on federal lands that came into place as people began to realize the ecological effects of logging on endangered species like northern spotted owl and salmon. These payments made up for the loss of timber receipts in counties like Lane, where instead of tax revenue-generating private land, large areas are made up of federal land.  

In 2000 the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act was introduced to ensure counties would get their needed funding. It was reauthorized in 2008 and expired in September of this year. Now Lane County and other counties like it face a massive budget shortfall.

DeFazio has come up with a trust plan that he hopes would go a long way to solving some of the county funding issues, while at the same time preserving old-growth forests. DeFazio says the plan would be to split the BLM’s O&C lands between conservation and logging, with each of the two sections managed by a board of trustees, creating a conservation trust and a timber trust. 

So far this plan has not been written up into legislation, DeFazio says, and exactly what percentage of land would go into each trust has not been decided as he is awaiting a detailed inventory of the land in question. 

A bill was recently introduced in the Senate to renew the county payments and hopefully, DeFazio says, give counties time to work out a more permanent solution, such as his trust plan. 


Wingnut Opposition

DeFazio must have thought he’d fallen down the rabbit hole last year when his first serious opposition for the 4th District congressional seat that he has held for a 23-year stretch arose in the guise of radiation-embracing Tea Party favorite Art Robinson. This opposition got even weirder when it was revealed that this Mad Hatter of a candidate (who did not respond to a request for comment) got $750,000 from a New York hedge fund manager for his campaign. That same hedge fund manager, Robert Mercer of Renaissance Technologies, has began to contribute to Robinson again, possibly in opposition to DeFazio’s call to reinstate a tax on Wall Street speculators. 

“He’s capable of raising much more money than a normal nutcase,” DeFazio says.

In addition to advocating for small doses of radiation as a health measure and publishing articles in his newsletter Access to Energy on the benefits of dumping nuclear waste in the oceans, Robinson has claimed that human-caused global warming doesn’t exist, that the pesticide DDT should never have been banned and that public schools should be abolished, calling them “nationalized child-abuse.” (See EW 8/12/2010)

Robinson raised more than $1 million for his last bid against DeFazio and has already begun fundraising for the 2012 race. But some of Robinson’s Federal Elections Commission filings look a little odd. According to his FEC filings, Robinson reported receiving aggregate contributions over the maximum of $4,800 from 19 different donors. And 12 contributors made aggregate contributions exceeding $2,400 after the date of the May 18 Republican primary, but do not appear to have made any indication that Robinson was raising this to retire his primary election debt. 

Robinson has indicated his belief that he was entitled to raise funds under a separate $2,400 limit for both the Independent and Constitution Party because he was a candidate for those parties, as well as the Republican Party. The FEC has indicated in the past that this is not the case. 

Of the 50 or so donors to his 2012 effort listed so far on the FEC filings website, only seven are from Oregon.

Since the 2010 election, Robinson has retained the media limelight with attacks on Oregon State University. He accused the school of retaliating against his children because of his 2010 campaign against DeFazio. Robinson’s accusations appeared to have been based on DeFazio’s support for Oregon’s public universities and community colleges. Robinson called OSU a liberal socialist institution and labeled a professor in the nuclear engineering department a “militant feminist.”

As he approaches an election year where President Obama remains unpopular, Republicans control the House and his opponent could be able to raise millions against him, is DeFazio worried?

“I think I can be outspent 2-1 and still win,” he says.

To see DeFazio’s take on Occupy Wall Street, go to his YouTube page at