DeFazio looks back on 36 years in Congress in chat with students

Peter DeFazio, the longest-serving member of Congress from Oregon in state history, didn’t aspire to a career in elected office.

“I was never in the student council or any of that,” DeFazio told University of Oregon students gathered at the Hendricks Hall Hearth for cookies last month, describing himself as “kind of an accidental member of Congress.”

DeFazio visited with students from the School of Planning, Public Policy and Management. He earned one of the first interdisciplinary master’s degrees in gerontology and public administration from the Wallace School of Community Service and Public Affairs, one of the school’s predecessors.

The visit provided students an opportunity to learn how DeFazio applied his education to his career. 

“I’m a product of PPPM,” DeFazio said, using the school’s acronym. “It helped me a lot in Congress.”

DeFazio said serving as part of the Oregon delegation from 1987 to 2023 called on him to constantly learn new things.

“When I'm dealing with yet another new issue, I'd say, ‘Well, you know, liberal arts education is good for something,’” he said. “When I was chair in the Transportation Infrastructure Committee, really getting into details there, I'd say, ‘You know, this is like being in graduate school.’”

DeFazio initially arrived at the UO to pursue a graduate program as an Air Force officer. Then the Vietnam War ended. 

“They really didn’t need me anymore,” he recalled. 

So instead of training as an intelligence officer, DeFazio found himself drawn to the intersection of public administration and gerontology. He helped establish a senior companion program in Lane County. 

Then he heard about job openings in U.S. Rep. Jim Weaver’s district office. DeFazio worked there on senior, veteran and other issues for several years. 

“And then I said, you know, a lot of the problems I’m seeing come from Washington, D.C.,” he recounted telling the congressman. “And so he said, ‘OK, well, you want to come back and work?’” 

But DeFazio took issue with the way the D.C. operated. 

“What I found when I worked in D.C. is I’d sit in these hearings and I’d watch these members and they would have their cue card in front of them,” DeFazio said. “The witness just said something really interesting that really needed someone to say ‘Wait a minute’ and go after him.”

He didn’t see members of Congress rising to meet the moment. 

“They would be reading from their cue card the question that their staff had provided for them,” he told students. “So that’s how I kind of decided to go into elected politics and — very ancient history to all of you — but I called it the Jimmy Carter syndrome.” 

DeFazio recounted how Carter, as governor of Georgia, saw candidates for office stump in the Peach State.

“All these people paraded through Georgia,” DeFazio said of Carter. “And after a while, after he saw these candidates, he said, ‘These people can be president, I can be a better president.’ And he ran for president and won. So that was sort of why I call it the Jimmy Carter syndrome. So I said, ‘Yeah, I can do better than these people’ and not dump it on Jim.” 

So when Weaver ran for the Senate, DeFazio, who had since been elected to the Lane County Commission, ran to replace his boss in Congress.

He won.

“And then Newt Gingrich came along. Bam,” DeFazio said. “And I didn't get to chair a subcommittee until when we took over in 2006. So I've been in Congress almost 20 years before I get to chair a subcommittee.”

Working in the minority party in Congress could be grueling for DeFazio. 

“I would every once in a while get something done,” he said. “I'd be really discouraged by a lot of what was going on and then be, ‘Wow, I got that done. That's really cool.’ So if you've ever studied psychology, it's called intermittent reinforcement. It's very addictive. And so that's why I stayed in Congress for 36 years.”

In his final years in Congress, DeFazio finally served as chair of a full committee.  

As chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, DeFazio led efforts to make “record investment in our crumbling infrastructure roads, bridges, highways, rail, transit, water, wastewater, all of that,” he said. “And I passed it when Trump was president. Obviously, it was going nowhere.”

The 2020 election changed the equation. 

“And then Biden came in,” DeFazio said. “I met with him right at the beginning. He said, ‘I can't wait until this guy writes the infrastructure bill.’ And I said, ‘OK, I got the bill for you.”

DeFazio led the bill to passage in the House over opposition from Republicans, who took issue with elements of the bill focused on climate change. 

In the Senate, the bill ran into more roadblocks. DeFazio said Biden had to bargain with GOP senators to get the bill to the president’s desk. 

“They stripped out a lot of my climate change stuff,” DeFazio said, “but they kept the investment.”

Reflecting on serving in Congress as a career, DeFazio noted the perks — and downsides. 

“I got to talk to some people who are very interesting and very powerful, who otherwise wouldn't know I was alive,” he said. “The worst things are fundraising. And the second thing was the commute. Living on the other side of the country and working in Congress is not easy.”

Looking back on his career, DeFazio said he sees the connection to his UO education. 

“If you're heavily involved in public policy, it's really going to be lifelong learning,” he said. “The skills you learn here are going to prepare you for that.”

—By Mark Furman, University Communications 
—Top photo: Retired U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (far right) talks with School of Planning, Public Policy and Management students and Ben Clark, director of the school (center), in the Hendricks Hearth (Photo: Benjamin Zuk)