A Conversation with Chair Peter DeFazio, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
ACEC was honored to welcome Rep. Peter DeFazio, Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee onto the show to discuss the next steps for the bipartisan infrastructure bill and budget reconciliation in the House.
Host: Welcome to Engineering Influence, a podcast from the American Council of Engineering Companies. Today, we are honored to be joined by a longtime friend of ACEC and the engineering industry and a strong advocate for America's infrastructure, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio, who has represented Oregon's 4th Congressional district since 1987.
Chair DeFazio is a powerful advocate for transformative federal infrastructure investment and consequential action on climate change. He drafted the INVEST in America Act, which passed the House in early July and became the vehicle for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which cleared the Senate last week. With passage of that bill, the issue of infrastructure once again squarely lands in the House, which is expected to return from the August district work period later this month to address it, as well as a budget reconciliation bill.
I'm also pleased to be joined by ACEC CEO Linda Bauer Darr for today's conversation. Thank you both for taking time to join the podcast today.
And with those introductions out of the way, I will throw it over to Linda for the conversation.
Linda Bauer Darr: Great. Thanks for doing this, Jeff. And thank you, Chairman DeFazio for being with us. When we were getting started, you mentioned that you just adopted a dog, a Labrador. So, what's the dog's name?
Chair DeFazio: Liddy. She's now learning her name. She came from a pound in Texas. They named her Lydia, and we've stuck with it.
Linda Bauer Darr: So, you're sticking with it. So how old is she?
Chairman DeFazio: A year and a half. The story was that she had pups and was in the kennel with the pups. The pups got adopted. She didn't. They put her on a transport, she came to Oregon, and we got her. So there are a lot of dogs in Texas that are apparently neglected.
Linda Bauer Darr: Well, you've joined a long line of people who have adopted pets during COVID. I'm down one pet during COVID, so I'm on the other side of that fence, but congratulations, and I'm sure you will have a great time with Liddy.
Linda Bauer Darr: We'll go ahead and get started. You were able to secure passage of the Invest Act in the House. By the way, great job. I know that was a Herculean effort. No doubt that had an impact in showing people that the bipartisan package was on its way and that it was going to make it through the Senate. What stands out to you as the most important provision that you secured in the bill? Or what would you be most proud of?
Chair DeFazio: First that we went through a real legislative process. We were in committee for a total, I think, of close to 60 hours over the two years. Hundreds of amendments in committee, hundreds of amendments on the Floor. An actual legislative process. Yeah, I didn't get a lot of Republicans for it in the end, but quite a number of their amendments were included in the bill, in contrast to the Senate bill written behind closed doors principally by people who don't even serve on the committees of jurisdiction in the Senate. So, you know, my bill was transformative. It was really to take the country beyond Eisenhower 8.0 and into the 21st century for transportation policy, dealing with climate change, resilience, and social equity and creating one whole hell of a lot of jobs. Unfortunately, their bill is Eisenhower 8.0 for the most part with a little green dressing on the side,
Chair DeFazio: There's more money spent on subsidies for fossil fuels in their bill than on alternative fuels. When you add it up properly you know, they, they say that 25 percent of the zero-emission bus policy has to be spent on polluting buses. Half of the $18 billion for fossil fuel reduction can be transferred to highways. There are a number of provisions like that in their bill. Their bill is slightly bigger on highways than mine, but way less on rail and transit and way less on social equity, way less on wastewater drinking water and lead pipes, which came out of Frank Pallone's committee. So we're going to deal with those deficiencies in Reconciliation, which is in part why we're pairing the two.
Chair DeFazio: Reconciliation is going to continue a lot of the democratic agenda. I'm unwilling at this point to pass this bill without some changes. It's been made clear that the cabal who wrote it are not interested in going to regular order and having a conference. That the chairs of the committees of jurisdiction in the Senate were not consulted during the drafting is an absolute insult to them, to the legislative process, and to the House of Representatives. And it's not how you get the best legislation when a group of people write something behind closed doors. So we're going to do our best to fix it.
Linda Bauer Darr: I will applaud you on regular order. I think people who have been in Washington for a long time have been very eager to get us back into that good rhythm. And even if neither the Senate nor the House has the perfect bill, the fact that we're exercising those muscles again, I think is hopeful. So, you talked a little bit about Reconciliation and you know, how you're going to marry these things. Can you talk a little bit more about that and the strategy and how you think that's going to work?
Chair DeFazio: Reconciliation is going to go through—at least in the House—a committee process. I assume it will in the Senate. It came out of the Budget Committee. The House will pass the budget, and then the committees of jurisdiction will be given their apportionments and we'll work through a legislative process committee-by-committee to put together a bill by mid-September. I think the deadline for us to have legislated our parts is the 15th of September. I'm going to mark up on the 12th of September in my committee.
Chair DeFazio: And I'm dealing with the White House since there have been some vague pledges that I'm not quite sure of from the President saying no more money for things that are in this bill, but I didn't make that agreement and I think there are ways to work around that. It can be just a little bit different but I'm working to add back money to transit. We got $100 billion just to bring it up to a state of good repair, let alone to provide new options for people. My bill critically included frequency, which would really help with ridership. Their bill has no decent policy in it. They don't understand transportation. Then rail, Amtrak's doing pretty well, but high speed rail didn't and I very much hope to come up with a different novel high-speed rail category. Then social equity, again, under-funded in the Senate bill. Didn't include my sidebars for affordable housing and to prevent gentrification, which has happened in a couple of cases where we removed freeways. Great, we've just rejoined a community that's been split asunder, and now they're all being driven out. So, I'm not sure how we can deal with that under the Dead Guy Rule, so-called Reconciliation, the Byrd rule, but we're going to try and deal with that. Wastewater is a tiny fraction of the investment we need and way less than I had in my bill. I'm hoping to increase wastewater. I'm hoping also to figure out how to bring back in a green infrastructure for wastewater, which has tremendous promise in addition to methane capture and electricity generation. And then certainly again, I partnered with Frank Pallone on this, drinking water and lead pipe removal were way under-funded. Hopefully we can deal with those things. And then EV charging is very lacking also, and they didn't include Park and Rides. I mean, seriously, I know that truck stops were fighting viciously against including rest areas, but I didn't know anybody was against EV charging at Park and Rides. Unless you're trying to tell people not to take transit. I don't get that one. It might by a that might be a Toomey amendment as he hates transit. I don't know.
Linda Bauer Darr: You said that high-speed rail didn't get what you felt it deserved. And then, of course, Amtrak did pretty well. I imagine that had to be one of the President's "This is the deal, and you're going to have to accept it." I imagine it was a huge priority for him. And probably also something that ultimately was pushed by Senator Carper. Obviously their long-term friendship was helpful.
Chair DeFazio: Carper didn't have a voice in writing this bill. I talked to him. They did not consult the chairs of the committees of jurisdiction. It was written by the likes of Sinema and Portman and Collins and a cabal of other people and Manchin who got his $8 billion for blue hydrogen, which by the way, if you read the New York Times three days ago—and I've known this for a long time—so-called blue hydrogen is more polluting than CNG. And there are a lot of elements in that bill that are parochial and not dealing with climate change and not dealing with the investments we need to make.
Linda Bauer Darr: So how does this all get worked out? You put a lot of time and effort into your bill. It goes over to the Senate and the Senate has negotiated, or some of the leaders in the Senate have negotiated, with the President. We've got it through the Senate. Now we have to come back together. How does this play out ultimately, and how can you have a voice in this process?
Chair DeFazio: We are going to have a voice in the process because Reconciliation originates in the United States House of Representatives. We are intending both for the Build Back Better agenda, the things the President wants to do for families, for childcare—so more women can get into the workforce—all those things, in addition to what we can do to at least mitigate some of the shortcomings of the Senate infrastructure bill. Which is why we are pairing the two together. If we moved this infrastructure bill tomorrow, first off, it doesn't go into effect until October 1st, so what's the rush? And secondly, I predict that then we wouldn't even get a Reconciliation bill. It's very likely that wouldn't happen. Often around here, the next thing doesn't happen.
Chair DeFazio: Iremember when I voted against Obama's recovery act because they had dramatically reduced real investment in jobs, investment in infrastructure, school construction, and other things for tax cuts too small to notice because of that jerk Larry Summers. I tried to get Jim Oberstar to vote the whole committee against it, and I said, Jim, we've got to fix this. He said, "No.They promised me the next thing would be a big infrastructure bill," which then Obama killed. So next thing never happens around here. And that's my opinion on Reconciliation. If we were to just blithely pass. without addressing some of these concerns in the infrastructure bill, we would never see reconciliation.
Linda Bauer Darr: You've talked a lot about sustainability and climate and those issues are very important, and frankly that engineering plays an enormous role in—as well as equity—so, you've been vocal about these things. What are the other differences that you see in the Senate bill that stand out to you as red flags?
Chair DeFazio: The fact that there is more investment in promoting fossil fuels, requiring that one quarter of the zero-emission buses be fossil fuel buses, allowing the transfer of half the funds into highways, no fix-it-first provisions. Not to make states look at whether more lanes are the best way to go. Senator Kaine tried to do this as an amendment in the Senate because Virginia is the poster child for this. Republicans were in charge. They said, More lanes on 95. It's backed up all the time." But the projections were, in 10 years with two more lanes, one each way, that it would be just as congested as it is today with induced demand and no alternatives at a cost of 10 to $12 billion.
Chair DeFazio: And they instead are coming up with an innovative rail project, working with CSX, new right-of-way, new bridge over the Potomac River for rail, the other one's at 99 percent of capacity. CSX likes it. And they're going to run fast trains—not high-speed trains—but fast trains down to Richmond from DC at half the cost, reducing all that pollution. And they have great projections on how much it'll reduce congestion. I was doing a press conference with the mayor of Richmond and he said he never really wanted to be a bedroom community in DC, but it's way less expensive down here. So, things like that that were left out, and they're going to be hard to fix. The other thing is that Secretary Buttigieg under this bill is going to have $100 billion of discretionary grants. I'm working with the White House on how we're going to mitigate some of the boneheadedness in the Senate bill through that $100 billion dollars of discretionary spending.
Linda Bauer Darr: That brings to mind years ago when I was at the Department of Transportation, and they were talking about a talent drain, how people were leaving government. And the last Administration, obviously, made an effort to reduce the size of government. How are we prepared in the Department of Transportation to take this money and run with it, considering a lot of it is going to be discretionary and there's going to be a process that needs to be taken on?
Chair DeFazio: I'm hopeful that DOT will act with unusual dispatch, and hopefully this won't require a lot of laborious rulemaking. I'm not totally conversant with the details of the discretionary money yet, but we will certainly look at ways to expedite it. If DOT needs more staff to deal with these things or people with different talents, I'd be happy to look at dealing with that either in Reconciliation or in appropriations. I'm already looking at that with the FAA. They lack inspectors both to deal with air rage and with ongoing problems with the industry and the manufacturers. So, if other parts of DOT have been hollowed out—I wasn't aware of DOT getting as hollowed out as the State Department or a whole bunch of other agencies that Trump decimated—but I'll ask on my next conversation with the Secretary what he needs.
Linda Bauer Darr: Well, that'd be interesting, if after all this effort, we ran into that bureaucracy, when the money is finally flowing towards projects, that we are all excited to get started on. So, this one is not a question. It's really more a word of thanks. You know that the engineering industry is facing a challenge among firms that took these PPP loans to save jobs and are now being told that they have to give those forgiven loans back because of a quirk in the Federal Acquisition Regulations. You and your great staff on the T&I Committee were very helpful in getting language attached to the Invest Act to lessen the impact of the problem. It didn't make it through in the Senate. At one point, we were making great progress with Senator Braun and some others who had actually even expanded on the work that you did. We were excited about that. Ultimately, it got held up by the process. A lot of the amendments that had a good support behind them fell out, particularly by Rand Paul. He was kind of the party killer. We were very close to getting it done.
Linda Bauer Darr: If it comes back to the House, I hope that we're going to be able to count on your support. We've talked about this issue before. It really is unfair. We've got contractors and everyone else that contracts with the government being treated differently than the engineering industry. We're being pulled out and told that "This money that you were given as basically a grant. Well, everybody else doesn't have to give it back, but we're going to take it out of your hides going forward in future projects. So, in some cases you're not going to be paid for the work that you're doing." That, to me, is just insane. We're hoping very much that we're going to be able to get this taken care of, and we hope that will be something that's important to you as well.
Chair DeFazio: It's important. It's outrageous. I was not a big fan of the PPP program. The restrictions that were put on people. This is one glaring example. The fraud that occurred through that program. The thing I did for aviation, the Payroll Support Program, had zero fraud and no questions. I know the fix I did in the House wasn't everything you wanted. Unfortunately, I don't have complete jurisdiction. I deal with two other committees who objected. I didn't know how close you came in the Senate. And it's sad that that's a body where one person can stop something that has I think extraordinary merit and we'll continue to work on it, continue to work with the green eyeshade people at DOT, and see what we can do in the House.
Chair DeFazio: We’re very bound by the Dead Guy Rule, the so-called Byrd rule, the Reconciliation rules, but we'll see what we can do. Policy is tough under his rules. It's pretty absurd that we're held up by a rule written by a Senator dead 12 years and written 28 years ago. It makes no sense to me. And the Senate does have discretion, which they seem loathe to use to just have the chair rule things in order. And then it takes 60 votes to overrule the chair, which turns the filibuster on its head and ultimately in a good reconciliation bill, if the parliamentarian and seance with Robert Byrd is saying, you can't do these things, I'm hopeful that the Senate leadership puts Harris in the chair to rule it in order. And then the Republicans are going to have to get 60 votes to overturn her ruling. And they can just go forward with the bill with 50 votes.
Linda Bauer Darr: We will be in there pitching, and we'll do everything that we can to try to make sure that people have the information they need to make a decision. We absolutely appreciate, again, your support and hope that we can continue to count on it, which it sounds like we can. It's just the process and anything can happen with the process, so let's work towards that. Let's assume and hope that we're successful and we get this major infrastructure package to the president's desk this year. Then what? Other than a vacation, clearly, what's next on your list of committee priorities? What else is up?
Chair DeFazio: We’ve already started working on the Water Resources Development Act, which we try to do every two years. And this time not to use the around-the-barn, indirect way of funding individual projects. I intend to go through a similar process to that that I went forward with, which is very rigorous and scandal free on member directed spending, in the Surface Transportation bill, which, by the way, I haven't given up on yet, We have some ideas of reconciliation. Although individually we can't do a projects, we have some ideas. And then some water resources, Coast Guard authorization, reforms at the Federal Emergency Management Agency I'm hoping in reconciliation to create a new pre-development program substantially funded at the Economic Development Administration, which could help a lot of the smaller communities who don't even know how to begin to try to access a federal grants for wastewater, drinking water, housing, or any other thing that relates to economic development. So that that's also something that we'll be working on, plus all the usual burdens of oversight and trying to get the money out the door. This bill will go into effect October 1st, and we want to have a really robust construction season.
Linda Bauer Darr: We're with you on hoping for that. I know you don't have a lot more time, but you did reference member-directed projects, which to me is code for earmark. Is that right?
Chair DeFazio: Yes, except technically an earmark is something the Appropriations Committee does that isn't authorized. We always did designated spending in surface transportation bills in the House, and they always went through a legislative process. In the Senate, not so much. Things got airdropped in. We went through a rigorous process. 109 Republicans and almost all the Democrats had projects up to $20 million. They had to work with their local governments with their states. And there are a lot of really good projects in there that the state bureaucracy or the federal bureaucracy is never going to get to in people's districts. It was about 1 percent of the bill, and I'm still working on that because I think it has a lot of merit. There are some ways—I’m not going to go into detail—but we have a couple ideas to get around the Dead Guy rule.
Linda Bauer Darr: You and I had talked about this over a year ago. I'm with you on the need to give the members some ownership of these projects, give them something to bring back to their communities, because frankly they're there to represent their communities and make the case for their communities when infrastructure projects are required. It seems to me like this is an even bigger issue than what we're working on with infrastructure. It's the ability for Congress to collaborate and compromise. The opportunity to reach across the aisle and say, “I want to help you on this priority. Will you help me on this?” Or “I can do this. It's just doing business.” And it seems like when we were deprived of that. Regular order came to a halt, the wheels of Congress grinded to the halt, and there was less bipartisanship as a result. So, I think you feel passionately about that. I know we at ACEC feel very passionately about it. I think it's important going forward. We thank you for recognizing that. And you know, before we wrap, I am curious, how did you go about vetting those member requests? That's got to be a difficult job, right?
Chair DeFazio: It just about killed the staff. We brought in hired some additional staff. First we had to get a vendor to create a software program. And then they had to be submitted online, posting online all of their documentation, showing local support, affidavits of no pecuniary interest, all those things that in the past led to scandals. Plus, obviously, I created equity. I got 20 million bucks and the newest freshmen got 20 million bucks. And you can do a lot. I spread it around between wastewater that'll help a small port in my district attract a fish processor, worked with the port of Coos Bay on rail sidings that will enhance the port activity and get more product on rail instead of truck, and I had a number of projects for electric buses and multi-modal facilities. There were a lot of things that people liked.
Chair DeFazio: Quick story, when the whole earmark thing blew up back after ‘06 and the Tea Party came in and they got this bad name and Republicans banned them. I was down in my second most conservative county. Most of my counties are red except for two. And a guy stood up and said that earmarks are horrible. And I said, “I know there have been some issues, but what do you think about the Weaver River Road bridge,” which is a bridge over the freeway that opened up an industrial park. He was “Wow. It's great.” And I said, “Sir, that was an earmark. He said, “That wasn't bad.” And I said, “Yeah, the state wasn't going to do it and the county couldn't afford it. I got it done.” I did a lot of them in my years on the committee and there's never been a scandal. I had some people object to joining North Bend and Coos Bay with a bike path, but tourism is a really important part of our economy.
Linda Bauer Darr: That’s a great example there. And who knows better than your constituents about what the needs are and who is better positioned to deliver for them than you, but you have to have that opportunity. The reason for us having this federal program is because it all needs to tie together ultimately. It's like the circulatory system of the body, right? At the center of it maybe is the federal government, but then the state portions and the local portions go out from there and they need to be right on, and we need to make sure that the blood is flowing between the heart and the end of the system and make sure that all the communities are weighing in and earmarks are a way for us to do that. So, we agree with you. It's good for the nation, and I think, it's good for government. And it's good for your constituents ultimately. So again, thanks for being bold and going forward with that, because I don't think without your pushing that it would have entered into the frame again. So, thank you for that.
Chair DeFazio: Okay. I enjoyed doing the interview. Liddy and I have done three Zooms in a row. She needs a break.
Host: So. Mr. Chairman, I do appreciate it. And thank you for your time today. Good luck in the legislative session ahead. And we appreciate your strong voice for the built environment and for infrastructure. And we do appreciate for everything that you do, and Linda, thank you very much for joining us today on the program. Thank you.
Chair DeFazio: Thanks Jeff. Thanks Linda. Hi to everybody who listens to this podcast.
Host: And again, this has been Engineering Influence, a podcast from the American Council of Engineering Companies. We will see you next time.