After Trump won in 2016, Portland Congressman Earl Blumenauer told us he was both appalled yet assured. He said the presidential election was “grim” but that wins for transit and other issues he cares about gave him hope. At the 2017 National Bike Summit just three months after Trump moved into the White House, Blumenauer said cycling might be one way for America to heal its divisions.
Fast forward to 2020 and a Democrat is headed back to the White House. I spoke with Blumenauer on the phone this morning to hear his perspective on the last four years and what might lie ahead. I’ve edited our conversation below for clarity and brevity.
I just watched your recent digital town hall with Congresswoman Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez and it reminded me of the larger debate right now about the future of the Democratic party and how much it should embrace policies of the “left”. Seeing you two side-by-side in such broad agreement, I couldn’t help but see you as a potential bridge toward a more progressive party.
Well it’s interesting you would make that observation. I’ve been around the block a couple of times and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of helping people understand that so many of the issues that look like they’re a flashpoint, don’t have to be. I think there are a number of people who may have apprehension about what they think they know about AOC. The things we’re talking about are not nefarious. I mean, some of the basic things we need to do in terms of having a transportation system that works and is cost effective, what we need to do in terms of getting the federal government back into the housing business, to be able to deal with no-income people and atone for past sins. Look at the success of our cannabis agenda — so much of what we’re working on doesn’t need to divide people. In fact, it’s the other way around. These these issues actually bring people together if we can get past the rhetoric. I work really hard in Congress to find things like bike-partisanship that bring people together and have the potential of bridging differences. And one of them that I’m really kind of excited about is that we might be able to do that with transportation.
“[Trump] had a transportation department that I won’t say was rudderless, but you know, [Transportation Secretary] Elaine Chao, every time I would be in the same room with her my heart would sink.”
What does the election mean for transportation policy?
I think it’s a difference between night and day. Basically, the federal government was missing-in-action the last four years. Trump talked a good game about infrastructure — actually he didn’t even talk a good game. He wanted to invest $2 trillion but had no vision about what that meant and no sense of how to finance it. He just couldn’t put the pieces together. And he had a transportation department that I won’t say was rudderless, but you know, [Transportation Secretary] Elaine Chao, every time I would be in the same room with her my heart would sink. This is a woman who’s not stupid, but had no sense of vision in moving it forward. The Trump people in the White House were political hacks and as long as they were there, it reduced the vision for others. It was also an invitation for the the Senate to scale down its aspirations for reauthorization [of the transportation bill].
“I think Peter [DeFazio] is likely to be the single most influential person in the infrastructure space in the next Congress.”
I had my differences with the Obama administration, but on balance they knew what they were doing. I thought Ray LaHood was an excellent secretary of transportation. And the TIGER grants were such a force multiplier. It was a relatively modest amount money, but it really got people to get their act together and solve multiple problems. And in the Trump administration the TIGER grants just basically became another way to funnel some money for roads and bridges into rural America without any planning or integration. With Trump it was all transactional politics — no vision, no policy.
I think we have an opportunity here with a new administration. The $2 trillion Joe’s talking about, that is real in his mind. He wants to invest in infrastructure, it’s just who he is. And I’m so pleased that [Eugene-area Congressman] Peter DeFazio was reelected. I think Peter is likely to be the single most influential person in the infrastructure space in the next Congress. It’s not just the committee chairmanship that he has, but Peter’s spent 35 years deeply immersed in the details. I mean, I think I know something about transportation and infrastructure, but Peter just leaves me in the dust!
What’s the outlook infrastructure policy if Democrats don’t take over the Senate?
It’s harder. I mean, we don’t yet know how much obstruction is going to be part of the Republican game plan. I imagine quite a bit. And the fact that most of them cannot even acknowledge Biden won the presidency and that we need a safe, rapid transition is a real head-scratcher. But I don’t think that’s going to be their long-term perspective. It’s just not sustainable. Biden will be the next president and he’s had decades-long experience with these people. And Biden’s not a bomb-thrower. I mean, he really he would like to make deals and much of what needs to be done doesn’t have to be narrowly partisan. It would help if Democrats controlled the Senate, it would be easier for him and for us, but it’s not impossible.
Do you see any daylight on transportation policy between Obama and Biden? Do you think there’s significant difference between the two?
I think that there will be more openness in terms of how we put the pieces together to finance them. Obama was just adamantly opposed to any fuel tax increase — even though it was a user fee and it was good enough for Ronald Reagan! I’ve had conversations with Obama officials where I tried to engage in the need for paying for this and raising the user fee, and just they danced around it. Then I’ve had them come up to me later and say, ‘Yeah I agree with you, I just had to say that.’ So in terms of raising the fuel tax and transitioning away from the gas tax I think there’s likely to be a little more openness than we saw before.
I think part of the experience is informed by how Obama dealt with the Recovery Act, where they under-invested in infrastructure. Transportation infrastructure was a relatively modest amount of the Recovery Act and yet our history shows that’s where more of the jobs were created and that it was popular. I think there will be less reticence from a Biden administration when we’re spending huge sums of money on the Covid recovery.
And I’m really excited about the convergence of so many people in our part of the transportation infrastructure community. There’s a lot of common ground. I think that helps. And I think a Biden administration will be receptive to working with state and local governments, various associations and other people who are part of the infrastructure game. I think there will be more openness to actually working with them to get something done.
Yes that “infrastructure community” is much larger these days. Here in Portland — and to some extent nationally — we’ve seen issues like housing and racial and environmental justice become closely tied to transportation. Do you think this will have a big impact on transportation policy going forward?
I hope they do, because they are inextricably linked. Some of the problems in our community are a result of… let’s just say… inartfully designed transportation projects that just ripped the heart out of communities like North Portland. Equity and safety haven’t been given a priority and I think these are the are the next logical steps for crafting transportation infrastructure and housing policies in an era of great division and controversy. If done right, think these issues — helping with housing opportunities, reducing the stress on families — can be unifying and I think these are things that blur right and left. I don’t think we’re as fiercely ideological if we can focus on our objectives and people have confidence that we can do what we say.
I guess the real question is, is the federal government capable of making those connections and making policy that actually ties those things together?
It’s a very important question, but I think there is a real opportunity to do that. I think if we understand that this is about the federal partnership — that the federal government plays its role in transportation and housing, that it deals with some of these fundamental issues of racial injustice and income inequality, and that unbalanced communities aren’t delivering what people want. And I think this is an area where it doesn’t need to be revolutionary, we just need to be making steps in the right direction. And I think we can.
How significant is the transportation secretary position? What type of person do you think can succeed at that job?
It matters based on the relationship with the president and the subject area. We had a Secretary of Transportation [Elaine Chao] who I mentioned was just kind of missing-in-action, who left no footprints. And it’s why the Trump administration couldn’t follow through on big talk about what they wanted to do. Having a secretary of transportation who understands the basic concepts and principles is important — they don’t have to be steeped in the details. In fact, I think that may actually be a benefit because people who are really zeroing in on micromanaging get distracted, and it’s too big an operation for anybody to know all the details. And to the extent that they know too many details, it keeps them from being able to provide the vision and the leadership to implement what the President wants, and then be able to communicate that to the American public.
I think, Ray LaHood was a great Secretary of Transportation. He wasn’t a subject expert, although he’d been on the [Transportation and Infrastructure] T & I Committee with me for three terms. But he worked with the Obama administration to assemble a great team. Ray was out there and was kind of a cheerleader, but people respected him and he could work with Congress and the private sector. Gerry Ford used to say, ‘We want someone who’s smart enough to do it and dumb enough to think it’s important.’
What do you think about people saying you should be next transportation secretary?
I’m just trying to be helpful to them and to Peter Defazio with what we’re doing in Congress — and do my day job at the same time, which is almost overwhelming right now. Smarter people will figure that out.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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