The Tufts alum and longest-serving congressman from Oregon reflects on his career and on the future of democracy
After more than 35 years as congressman for Oregon’s 4th district, Tufts alumnus Peter DeFazio, A69, has announced that he will retire at the end of his term this year. DeFazio is the longest serving House member from his state.
Throughout his career he has maintained a reputation as a progressive firebrand with a policy wonk’s detailed knowledge, particularly for the ins and outs of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which he has served on since 1987 and now chairs.
“I’m never bored, constantly stimulated,” he said when asked what he will miss most about Congress. “It’s almost like being in a perpetual graduate course. I’m still learning stuff after 35 years.”
On April 11, DeFazio spoke to reporters and an online audience when he visited with Tufts virtually as part of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life Solomont Speaker Series. Deborah Schildkraut, professor and chair of the political science department, asked the congressman about his career and legacy. Here are a few takeaways.
His progressive ideals have their roots on the East Coast. The Needham, Massachusetts, native first learned about politics at the knee of a great uncle. “He would run Republican and bastard into one word—Republicanbahstud,” DeFazio said.
During DeFazio’s years at Tufts, the Vietnam War was ending, and activism was everywhere. But he was also influenced by his time on the wrestling team. “It really prepared me in a lot of ways for politics,” DeFazio said, and not just in the complicated tangles one can get in. “It’s a one-on-one sport. If you screw up, you can’t blame anyone else on the team.”
A member of ROTC, he convinced the Army to send him to graduate school in Oregon, where he fell in love with the beautiful landscape and eventually landed a job as aide to U.S. Representative Jim Weaver. When Weaver retired, he ran for the post and won in 1986.
In 1991, DeFazio and five other U.S. Representatives, including Bernie Sanders and Maxine Waters, formed the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which now has nearly 100 members and is the largest ideological caucus in the Democratic Party.
He says money in politics is threatening democracy. Perhaps not surprisingly, the long-serving congressman said he does not favor term limits, saying it is only after years spent learning on a committee that a politician can understand programs and their dysfunctions. “You want to talk about giving power to the bureaucracy, adopt term limits,” he said. “Term limits would totally empower the permanent government.”
But he sees plenty of other areas that are ripe for reform. In announcing his retirement in December, he said he was considering writing a book about saving democracy. Once he might have focused such a book on deregulation and free trade and how that puts the middle class at risk, but he said the biggest issue now is getting money out of politics. He pointed to a race in Oregon’s newest Congressional district where PACs have already contributed millions.
“I was the first member of Congress ever attacked by a super PAC, so I take super PACs very personally,” said DeFazio. In 2010, a multi-billionaire gave more than $600,000 to a group called Concerned Taxpayers of America that spent more than $500,000 attempting to defeat DeFazio. DeFazio retained his seat.
“We don’t want the best government money can buy—and we’re kind of headed that way,” he said. “That is the death of democracy.”
He also warned that gerrymandering by both Republicans and Democrats is destructive. “I would be happy to do away with it,” he said, saying he believes in “independent redistricting that’s done well.”
Making air travel safer is one of his biggest accomplishments. Asked about his proudest moments as a congressman, DeFazio could have talked about his efforts in crafting last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which included the largest investment in public transportation in the nation’s history.
He shepherded it through the House, although he lamented that several provisions that were important to him, including ones that would do more to combat climate change, were left behind in the Senate version. “It’s still a big step on climate, but not what I wanted,” he said.
DeFazio could also have pointed to the fact that he has voted against and refused to accept every congressional pay raise while the government is deficit spending. Instead, he has used his pay raises to fund scholarships at five southwestern Oregon community colleges, contributing $445,744 of after-tax salary toward more than 270 scholarships and debt reduction by the end of 2021.
Instead, DeFazio first thought of his contributions to aviation safety, the most recent being the investigation of Boeing and its 737 Max planes after 346 people died in two crashes in 2018 and 2019.
He called it “the most extraordinary investigation in the history of this committee.” The documented failures in federal oversight of Boeing, which pointed to the FAA acceding to demands from company managers, led to bipartisan legislation in 2020.
“We have totally changed the way we’re going to certify aircraft in this country so that we don’t have a captive regulator anymore,” DeFazio said, noting that he was gratified to appear in the recent documentary Downfall: The Case Against Boeing.