DeFazio looks to try again on his progressive transportation agenda

He wants to advance transit, electric vehicles and climate goals in reconciliation package

Oregon Rep. Peter A. DeFazio is looking to the budget reconciliation bill to advance progressive goals after seeing his transportation measure set aside by the Senate. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Oregon Rep. Peter A. DeFazio is looking to the budget reconciliation bill to advance progressive goals after seeing his transportation measure set aside by the Senate. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 20, 2021 at 2:30pm

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter A. DeFazio was once deeply skeptical of the budget reconciliation process.

But now, that process may present his best shot at effecting the “transformative” change the Oregon Democrat wants in transportation policy.

After a bipartisan group of senators largely ignored his $767 billion, five-year surface transportation and water bill in favor of a more modest measure, DeFazio was initially irate, vowing to vote against the infrastructure bill unless the Senate agreed to conference its version with his, which passed the House on July 1.

But when it became apparent that the bipartisan group, which he calls “the cabal,” was not interested in conferencing with the House, the veteran lawmaker formulated Plan B.

Despite his disappointment with the Senate bill, he’s now hoping to use the reconciliation process to increase money for transit, electric vehicle charging stations and wastewater. He also wants more money for a program that would rebuild Black and brown communities divided by federal infrastructure policy.

And DeFazio, who once rarely bypassed an opportunity to criticize the Senate’s reconciliation process, is now a critical part of efforts to convince House Democrats to vote to advance that process next week. His office confirmed a report that he urged Democrats in a call to “stay together” on next week’s planned budget vote. He also sent a letter to colleagues urging them move forward with the reconciliation process.

“The final reconciliation package to advance critical Democratic priorities on infrastructure and other areas will be strengthened by a negotiation that allows House Members to advocate for the priorities of this body,” DeFazio wrote on Tuesday. “The Senate has had unilateral control over the infrastructure bill. If we want House priorities to be considered, we cannot let the same thing happen in reconciliation.”

Next steps

The budget resolution approved by the Senate on Aug. 11 calls for $35 billion in new transportation spending over the next five years in addition to the $550 billion in new spending included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, according to a tally by the Eno Center for Transportation.

The resolution is expected to get a vote in the House next week, though the outlook has been clouded by resistance from a group of House Democrats to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plan to hold the infrastructure bill until a reconciliation package is passed in the Senate.

DeFazio’s committee, meanwhile, can increase the deficit by no more than $60 billion between 2022 and 2031, according to the reconciliation instructions by the Senate.

His committee will have its portion of the reconciliation bill done by Sept. 14 or 15, DeFazio said this week, with the House setting a goal of full passage the week after. He told the American Council of Engineering Companies this week that he hopes to mark up the bill the week of Sept. 12.

DeFazio said he’s sensitive to an agreement President Joe Biden made with the Senate negotiators not to add money to programs funded in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but “I think there’s ways to work around that,” including by “creating new programs that are not the same as the ones that were funded” in the bipartisan bill.

Still, using reconciliation to work his will won’t be easy.

The Byrd rule, named for Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who died in 2010, limits what can be put in a reconciliation package and may make it difficult for DeFazio to implement the substantive policy changes he craves.

A common DeFazio refrain is to complain that the Senate parliamentarian “has to have a seance with a guy who has been dead for 11 years” in order to figure out whether to allow a provision in the bill. When he’s feeling more charitable, he simply refers to the Byrd rule as “the dead guy rule.”

Where once DeFazio condemned the rule, though, He’s now trying to find ways around it.

“The Senate does have discretion, which they seem loathe to use, to just have the chair rule things in order,” he told ACEC. “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 in a seance with Robert Byrd is saying, you can’t do these things, I’m hopeful that the Senate leadership will have the guts to do that, put [Vice President Kamala] Harris in the chair, have her 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,” DeFazio said.

Earmarks push

He’s also hopeful to use reconciliation to reinstate the 1,475 earmarks, or member-requested projects, included in the House transportation bill. The Senate parliamentarian has traditionally been reluctant to include such projects in reconciliation bills, but DeFazio told ACEC, “We have a couple ideas to get around the dead guy rule.”

But Jeff Davis of the Eno Center said the Byrd rule will also require that every dime of the committee’s $60 billion be spent by Sept. 30, 2031. “Which means that Mr. DeFazio can’t just beef up the high-speed rail or new subway accounts because some of that money would take longer than ten years to spend out, per (the Congressional Budget Office),” he said by email. “It has to go to programs that will spend 100 percent of the money in 10 years.”

DeFazio’s optimism that he’ll be able to successfully pursue policies in reconciliation stands in stark contrast to his reaction in July, when he expressed bitter disappointment that Senate negotiators bypassed his bill, instead folding the five-year reauthorization bills by the Senate Environment and the Public Works Committee and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee into their bipartisan package.

DeFazio, who was then watching his state struggle through a heat dome that sent the temperature as high as 118 degrees in some areas, was incensed. Climate measures had been woven throughout his bill. The Environment and Public Works bill had a climate title “on the side, like dressing,” he said.

“Climate change is happening more quickly and more severely than most people anticipated,” DeFazio said. “And so anybody to deny it now is doing an incredible disservice to their constituents, the United States of America and the world. They are aiding and abetting in destroying the planet.”

Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, said DeFazio’s anger at being cut out of the bipartisan negotiations was justified.

“He’s genuinely and, I think, rightfully aggrieved because of the work that (went into the House bill),” he said Aug. 9.

But Malinowski argued that for pragmatic lawmakers like DeFazio, the need to govern would prevail.

“You deliver what you can and then you fight another day,” he said.