Hotseat: Rep. Peter Defazio

The Oregon Democrat talks about his disappointment with Obama and the cost of the CRC.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio has held his Oregon seat in Congress for more than 25 years. The 4th District Democrat has been a pugnacious progressive, advocating, for example, a transaction tax on big Wall Street trades.

In 2010, he faced his most serious challenge yet—a well-funded Republican opponent, Art Robinson, who is again taking on DeFazio in 2012. Robinson, who finished with 43 percent of the vote, was helped by attacks on DeFazio, funded by a millionaire hedge fund director.

DeFazio, 65, talked with WW about working with Tea Party members in Congress, his dissatisfaction with President Obama, and his connections to the state's craft brewing industry.

WW: You've been involved with transportation funding for years. The House under Republican leadership is holding up what seems to be a basic spending bill.

Peter DeFazio: We had the first-ever partisan transportation bill since Eisenhower. [Democrats] were not involved in drafting the House bill. They wouldn't show it to us. Even though [Republicans] keep saying, "Oh, we shared with them. They knew everything." Bullshit. We didn't see the bill until the day they released it. The lobbyists who wrote it had it before we did.

The most prominent thing was, they wanted to end all federal investment in transit. They wanted to eliminate all transportation enhancements—pedestrian cycling, anything that's an alternative.

The House is no longer doing budget earmarks. What are the odds Congress will approve money for the Columbia River Crossing?

People have been coming in to see me about this, and I always caution them to be reasonable in their expectations. But this wasn't a controlled process. You put the two state [departments of transportation] in a back room somewhere and said, "Don't worry about money, and have at it." As engineers would do, they said, "Well, let's solve every transportation problem in what we consider, under our standards, to be an optimal way, under a 15-mile stretch." When I start hearing prices, I'm like, "Wow, how can it be so expensive?"

It became clear to me we aren't just building the bridge, you're trying to solve every problem over a huge stretch. We cautioned them there isn't going to be anywhere near that kind of money.

You've been critical of President Obama's approach to economic reform.

The average American would be absolutely right when they think that for years Congress and the administration have been bought and paid for by the financial-services industry recovery. 

The worst deregulation was done by Bill Clinton under the leadership of Svengali [former Treasury Secretary] Robert Rubin. And with his little acolytes—[Treasury secretaries Timothy] Geithner and [Lawrence] Summers.

Do you have any hope a second Obama administration would appoint new economic advisers?

Many of us advocated for [Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph] Stiglitz or [Paul] Krugman. [Obama's] rationale was we wanted Geithner because Wall Street's comfortable with him. I want someone who Wall Street isn't comfortable with.

Why does Wall Street have such undue influence in D.C.? 

Look at the last seven secretaries of Treasury. Every one of them until Geithner worked for Goldman Sachs. He regulated Goldman Sachs—supposedly. Part of it is obviously campaign finance contributions. There's total deference.

I'll talk to people about my transaction tax, and they will say, "You had that guy on Wall Street spend all that money against you last time—should I join your tax?" And I'm like, "It's the right thing to do." There's fear, but there are a lot of things to fear in the citizen's eye. It isn't just Wall Street.

What's your overall critique of Obama?

Maybe our expectations were too high. Maybe we took some of his campaign too seriously. We thought we were gonna have a progressive administration that would begin to undo damage from the Clinton era, the Bush era and the Reagan era.

Granted, he was dealt a horrible hand economically. We could have done a lot better in terms of the stimulus. He just let the Democratic leadership run wild with stuff that were total turkeys—and then made health care a priority before economic recovery.

[On] international stuff, much better. We are no longer a pariah. We have allies. On Iraq, he delivered on getting us out. Good social policy, obviously. I give him high grades on dealing with gays and lesbians. Civil rights, problematic, with the Patriot Act and that kind of stuff. 

What's your favorite Oregon microbrew?

Last night when I got off the airplane and went to the hotel, on tap they had Terminal Gravity IPA, and then I had a Double Mountain Red. I had two beers, and then I went to bed.

You've brewed your own beer.

Yes, but I haven't recently. I've been too busy. I'm co-chair of the House craft [brewing] caucus. I've been a keynote at the international draft brewers [convention] three years running. I've developed a following in that community. I was criticized by my opponent for taking money from big beer executives. That would include Jamie Floyd from Ninkasi Brewing and Brett [Joyce] from Rogue and all those other “big” executives who are supporting me.