Peter DeFazio logo



You are here: Home > Biography
In Washington: Pick almost any topic, particularly those high on the GOP leadership’s legislative agenda, and the chances are good that DeFazio has made a House floor speech on the subject. And those speeches have usually been delivered in a loud and emotional tone, often heavy with irony or sarcasm.

That is DeFazio’s public persona: speaking his mind and not really caring about what his colleagues think. He relishes the image.

DeFazio reading to kids“Populist and pit bull” is the headline on a Eugene Register-Guard profile of DeFazio (da-FAH-zee-o), who thinks that is a fair description, although he might prefer to be compared to a Chesapeake Bay retriever (“they make great watchdogs”), of which he is the proud owner of three. DeFazio thinks he has mellowed some since he first came to Congress in 1987, but, as he told a Portland newspaper reporter in 1997, “I don’t think I’ve lost my fire or anything. I’m still down on the floor waving my fist ... and pounding on the dais.”

DeFazio keeps busy in the House, jabbing at Republican policies as the chairman of the Progressive Caucus, a group of the chamber’s most liberal Democrats particularly keen on cutting defense spending. But while Republicans are often DeFazio’s target, President Clinton is not spared. In 1997, DeFazio opined that Clinton had sold out Democratic principles in trying to find common ground with the GOP.

One of DeFazio’s political heroes is former Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse, whose picture occupies a prominent place near his desk in his office. The independent-minded Morse served 24 years, first as a Republican, then as an independent, and finally as a Democrat. Morse was proud of the fact that he was one of just two members of the Senate to vote against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which opened the door to American military escalation in Vietnam. For his part, DeFazio notes with pride that he was one of just 16 members of the House to vote against the 1996 telecommunications bill, which, among other things, deregulated the cable television industry. DeFazio says that many of his colleagues now realize “they were idiots.”

DeFazio’s independent streak, buttressed by a populist philosophy and the belief that his constituents appreciate his straight talk even more than they might appreciate a few extra federal dollars, has shaped his career. He encourages the populist image by driving a 1963 Dodge Dart around the district and offering up a recipe for home-brewed beer on his Web site.

His interests are wide, and his breadth of knowledge is fueled by the reading he does on the long weekly airplane flights between Eugene and Washington. He acknowledges his need to be reminded that effective legislating requires narrowing one’s focus to a smaller number of subjects.

DeFazio is active on a broad range of consumer issues that arise in legislation dealing with trade and government regulation, and on aviation and surface transportation issues that come before the Transportation Committee on which he serves. Another big concern is timber — whether to cut it or preserve it, a question that provokes intense debate in the 4th.

DeFazio shares with many of his constituents a skepticism about international entanglements, particularly in the trade arena. U.S. trade policy, he believes, “exports our jobs, drives down wages and destroys the environment.” In the 105th Congress, DeFazio spent much time fighting the Clinton administration’s request for congressional approval of fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements that Congress cannot amend. Also in the 105th, DeFazio opposed foreign currency bailouts by the United States and renewal of China’s normal trade status. In the 103rd, he was the only Oregonian in the House to vote against both the North American Free Trade Agreement and legislation to implement the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

In the 105th, while preparing for a fight over proposals to deregulate the electricity business, DeFazio pointed out that reduced safety standards, poor service and increased costs had arisen in industries that Congress already had largely set free from federal regulation — aviation, railroads, telecommunications and cable television. And he warned against the trend toward airline alliances that “look like mergers to me.” In each instance, consumers are getting a raw deal, DeFazio says.

DeFazio at the fairOn the electricity deregulation front, DeFazio counsels Congress to take a “go slow” approach. He has made himself the region’s expert on energy policy, and he opposes electricity deregulation not only on the grounds that retail electricity is a natural monopoly, but also on the practical grounds that Northwest ratepayers, who now benefit from low-cost power from the Bonneville Power Administration, would likely see their electric bills increase.

On the Transportation Committee, DeFazio has had some success, aided by the more bipartisan nature of the panel and also by his willingness to moderate his stridency, if not his persistence. In the 104th, he played a role in changing the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) mandate from the dual role of regulating and promoting air travel to the primary role of ensuring safety.

In the 105th, he charged that the FAA and aviation industry were dragging their feet on taking needed safety measures such as installing smoke detectors in cargo holds. He achieved some success with such efforts as a crackdown on the use of defective aircraft parts. He also was successful in 1998 in funding a number of transportation projects for his district.

DeFazio finds it harder to make headway on legislation from his seat on the Resources Committee. He has a tough juggling act when it comes to forest and resource management questions. His district and state include strongly conflicting interests on those issues — the loggers who oppose restrictions on timber cutting and the environmentalists who want restrictions. He notes wryly that he has been blasted, on a case-by-case basis, by both the timber industry and environmentalists.

DeFazio generally favors continuing the commercial sale of timber on federal lands, perhaps at a slightly lower volume and with more deference to environmental considerations in logging operations. Just about the only thing that both sides can agree on is that the area’s timber should not be exported, which takes away work from local timber mills. On that issue, he was on the losing side in a 1997 battle with Washington GOP Sen. Slade Gorton, who was able to substantially weaken an export ban. But he was successful in the 105th in opposing a proposal to drastically scale back spending on Forest Service road maintenance and construction.

DeFazio says that “there is some appreciation, even around here, for straight talk.” And he believes that his admitted tendency to annoy his colleagues hasn’t really hurt his effectiveness. For one thing, his style and his district’s needs combine to produce a smaller-than-average list of essential needs that he must fill. “There’s always a price if you want something,” DeFazio says.

He does acknowledge, however, that he annoyed former Democratic Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski to such an extent that it cost him a seat on the Appropriations Committee in the 103rd. Nevertheless, he believes he has had more luck in committee and in offering floor amendments under GOP rule than he did in his early tenure when Democrats were in charge.

At Home: DeFazio’s first taste of politics came as a youth in Massachusetts at the knee of his great uncle, a classic Boston pol who made it seem to young Peter as if the word Republican was always followed by the Boston-accented epithet, “bastud,” uttered so closely in conjunction with “Republican” that it was made to sound as one word. Populist leanings were imbued at an early age.

DeFazio discussing issuesAfter earning a graduate degree in gerontology from the University of Oregon, DeFazio went to work for Democratic Rep. Jim Weaver, a hot-tempered populist. He handled senior citizens’ issues in Weaver’s Eugene office, spent two years in Washington as his legislative aide, then returned to Eugene as Weaver’s constituent services director. After that, DeFazio won election to the Lane County (Eugene) Commission in 1982. In office, DeFazio proved to be less abrasive than Weaver but equally aggressive. He sued to nullify contracts between Oregon utilities and the Washington Public Power Supply System, whose failed nuclear projects had resulted in utility rate increases. He also led the fight against a 1983 proposal for a Eugene city income tax.

When Weaver announced he would not seek re-election in 1986, DeFazio stepped in. He had ties to environmentalists and liberals in Eugene’s university community, a residence in the timber-oriented suburb of Springfield and name familiarity throughout Lane County.

DeFazio’s strength and weakness as a candidate were the same: He was identified with Weaver. In the end, the Weaver connection was more help than hindrance. DeFazio portrayed himself as heir to Weaver’s populist appeal, and he narrowly won the Democratic primary.

Republicans nominated Bruce Long, who had taken 42 percent against Weaver in 1984. Long sought to cultivate the many voters Weaver had alienated over the years; time and again, he described DeFazio as “Jim Weaver Jr.” Allegations that Weaver had used campaign funds to play the commodities market made DeFazio’s ties to the incumbent seem even more undesirable.

But DeFazio had no connection to Weaver’s financial troubles, and he deflected the “clone” critique by insisting that he was an independent thinker. DeFazio took 54 percent, and since then, he has won re-election with ease.

In 1995, DeFazio sought to move to the Senate in a special election to replace Republican Bob Packwood, who had resigned. In a Dec. 5 ballot-by-mail primary, Democratic Rep. Ron Wyden, drawing on his fundraising prowess and name recognition, won nomination by 6 percentage points. Wyden went on to take the seat.

Paid for by DeFazio for Congress P.O. Box 1316, Springfield, Oregon 97477.
Questions or Comments about this web page? Contact the webmaster