On the Job

Photograph by Jonathan Maus–bikeportland.org

Peter DeFazio, MA ’77, is Oregon’s longest serving sitting congressman, representing southwest Oregon since 1987. He’s a staunch progressive, known for being outspoken and independent, especially when he opposed the Iraq War and, more recently, President Obama’s compromise with Republicans to extend Bush-era tax cuts. A resident of Springfield, he graduated from the UO in gerontology and counseling.

You’re originally from Massachusetts. What made you stay in Oregon after graduating from the UO?

When I got to Oregon I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I couldn’t imagine a place so beautiful and ideal. I love the ocean and I love the mountains, so when I was a young man I thought this was pretty incredible. And the culture here. People were nice. It’s this open place, small-town kind of thing. It’s really different.

What is your favorite memory of your time at the UO?

It was a tumultuous time, so there were demonstrations. I remember being in an economics class in [Condon Hall]. The windows were open. It was a hot fall day. And there’s this [chant]—“Save French Pete, Save French Pete.” The professor looks out and says, “Oh, there’s Ken Kesey and a group. I guess they’re going to march down to the BLM office. It’s a beautiful day, and it’s a good thing to do so why don’t you all go along if you want.” So, I did and we marched over to the BLM offices. Then Kesey gets up in this buckskin jacket and starts talking about French Pete. I’m a month into Oregon and I’ve never seen anything like this before. That was definitely the beginning of my activist phase: French Pete and environmental issues and also the secret war, the bombing in Cambodia.

After twenty-four years in Congress, what achievement is the most satisfying?

I’m doing ten community college scholarships a year with pay raises I turn back. Legislative achievements are one thing, but when you’ve really made a definitive difference in somebody’s life, that’s incredibly gratifying.

What was your hardest vote?

Issues of war and peace. To be engaged in the briefings, the lead-up, the debate, and to know that you are part of a group that is deciding to send young men and women off to war, some of whom will not return and some of whom will return grievously wounded and changed.

You represent some of Oregon’s most liberal and conservative areas—how do you do balance those interests?

It’s not easy. I listen. I get out; hold town meetings. Part of it is treating people with respect even though their views are very different and responding forthrightly. You tell them your values and in some parts, they agree, and in other parts they say, “I think you are out to lunch but I appreciate the fact that you’re honest with me.”

How do you feel when you make a choice contrary to most of your constituents?

Well, that’s interesting. Particularly during the health-care debate, people [said], “Why don’t you do what people want?” Well, you hired me to get into the guts of issues, really understand them, and make a judgment in the end whether this is good for the country and for us in Oregon. If I did a poll, a lot of times I’d do things that seem popular at the time but a little later everyone would [say], “Why did we do that?” For instance, the Iraq War—remember the crescendo that built up, the “cheese-eating frog monkeys” or whatever they called the French, and all this bizarre stuff that went on? But later, people said [the war] wasn’t a good idea. Sometimes you go through a very difficult time, but all that changes. I’m not always right, but you just have faith that you’ve spent a lot of time on this. People respect that on some level.

After Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, were you encouraged about the progressive agenda?

Yes, incredibly excited. The potential was phenomenal. And then you get down to the nitty-gritty of governing. Unfortunately, things unwound pretty quickly.

Do you think Americans lost confidence in the progressive agenda?

No. A truly progressive agenda would have been getting to the bottom of what really happened on Wall Street, having subpoena power, putting some people in prison, sending a message about real reform, and rein[ing] in reckless speculation. People will argue for years over what happened. Some columnists’ retrospective is that Congress and “those liberals in the House” ran us off the rails. Actually, more of it came from the White House or the Senate leading us down paths that were not clear expressions of truly progressive values. So, I don’t think we ever had a chance. We never did express a progressive agenda, so I don’t think it was rejected.

What do progressives need to do over the next two years to regain momentum?

I’ve had truly conservative Republicans say, “We share your concerns about the debt we’re creating and the threat to Social Security, [let’s] talk about a better way to move us toward something fiscally responsible.” There may be new meeting of the minds in some very strange ways, or different ways, than we’ve seen so far.

Critics say your vote for health care reform revealed socialist tendencies. Do you think government is overreaching?

Look, that health-care bill, which constrains any competition by the public sector and doesn’t take away the health insurance industry’s antitrust exemption doesn’t go far enough with reform. [The] individual mandate is very controversial. The problem is that people who should buy insurance don’t until they get sick. There is another way to deal with that. I call it personal responsibility, but let’s have enforceable personal responsibility. Everybody when they do their taxes would be confronted with a choice: either have health insurance or sign a form waiv[ing] any right to any reimbursement under any government program for any health care you might obtain, and mak[ing] your debt nondischargeable in bankruptcy. There are different ways we could’ve done this that avoided this screaming about socialism, but the bill, in its essence, couldn’t be further from single-payer or public option or anything government-run than it is and still provide comprehensive coverage.

Do you find it hard to compromise?

As a legislator, I’m pretty good at working stuff out. I don’t know if I want to call it compromise. Some of it is mechanics. Persistence. Listening, hearing people, and saying, “So how about we do this?” I don’t compromise on big values. I’ll fight for them and if I lose, I lose. But to get things done you’ve got to be very pragmatic and willing to work within your value system.

With fewer moderates in the party, do you see the GOP compromising in the coming two years?

There’s some possibility—[with] people who recognize we’ve got big problems and not pretend all you’ve got to do is cut. There has to be some pragmatic compromise if people have a shared goal of a sustainable fiscal path, which is going to be a combination of more revenues and a robust discussion about spending and priorities. The first three or four months are going to be the new Republican majority feeling their oats in the House and jamming stuff through that isn’t going anywhere. But after that, they may want to start really working.

What is Sarah Palin’s impact on American politics?

She’s giving speeches inspiring to a segment of the society and earning a pile of money doing it. It’s the American dream for her. Hopefully, it won’t evolve into a serious presidential bid but I’ve been saying for quite some time not to underestimate her.

Finally, why is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington your favorite film?

I’ve had that poster up [in my Congressional office] for a long time. Those were the days when the Senate used to really filibuster. For the life of me—if people are doing something indefensible, expose it by making them stay and talk about it. When Republicans insisted on not allowing unemployment to continue, they called people “lazy,” “shiftless”; they said unbelievably mean and stupid things about people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own and are just trying to make ends meet. We used to have long fights over public policy that exposed where people stood. We don’t do that anymore and we are worse off for it.

By Kirk Bailey ’91, JD ’96