By Andrew Clevenger

The Bulletin

WASHINGTON — While many members of the U.S. House are waiting to learn what their committee assignments will be during the newly sworn-in 114th Congress, Rep. Peter DeFazio knows he will be the top Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

During the last Congress, the Springfield Democrat served as the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, a position he assumed in July 2013 after Ed Markey, D-Mass., the only Democrat with more seniority, was elected to the Senate.

Under House rules, members in leadership roles on major committees, such as Transportation, cannot also hold them in minor committees, such as Natural Resources.

So DeFazio’s election to the top slot on Transportation, which opened when Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., lost his re-election bid in November, by his fellow members of the Democratic Caucus spells the end of his time atop Natural Resources.

On Thursday, DeFazio said he welcomed the move to Transportation because it offers a chance to deal with the country’s aging infrastructure: crumbling bridges, potholed highways and strained transit systems.

“Transportation has the potential to put hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people back to work and make the country competitive,” he told The Bulletin. “It is one of the least partisan committees in the entire Congress. It tends to be more productive, and it focuses on things that create jobs, and there’s actually money there to do that,” including from the Highway Trust Fund and the Federal Aviation Administration Trust Fund.

The House Natural Resources Committee, while important to his district, is much more divided along partisan lines, he said. During the last Congress, the panel produced more bills that didn’t go anywhere because of a lack of broad, bipartisan support than the rest of the House committees combined, he said.

One notable exception was the bipartisan bill to rework forest management on the federally owned O&C Lands in Western Oregon, which DeFazio co-wrote with his colleagues from Oregon, Reps. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, and Kurt Schrader, D-Canby.

The House bill would have put around half of the 2 million-plus of forested acres into a public trust to be managed for timber production, and it easily passed the House as part of a larger forest management reform bill. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who was working on his own O&C legislation, viewed the trust as a nonstarter, effectively killing the House bill’s chances of passing both chambers and becoming law during this Congress, DeFazio said. Wyden’s plan included permanent protections for old growth forests and opened the remaining acres to logging under an “ecological forestry” model designed for sustainability.

“The Republican majority (in the Senate) is not going to move legislation that affects only one state that is opposed by both of the senators from that state,” DeFazio said. “That’s not the culture of the Senate.”

With 435 lawmakers vying for spots on various committees, House members are not guaranteed positions on more than one committee, the way Senate members are. DeFazio has asked for a waiver that would allow him to remain a member of Natural Resources, but he said he doesn’t know whether that will be possible.

DeFazio’s departure from leadership of the Natural Resources Committee follows Wyden’s decision to give up chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 2014 to become chairman of the Finance Committee. With Republicans now controlling the Senate, Wyden will serve as the Finance Committee’s ranking member.

For a brief period, Democrats from Oregon occupied leadership positions on Natural Resources committees in both chambers.

DeFazio’s and Wyden’s transition from natural resources panels reflects a change in Oregon’s economic priorities, said Jim Moore, an assistant professor of politics and government at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

“Oregon’s economy is moving away from reliance on natural resources, and it’s partly because of issues on the ground here,” he said. Oregon’s economy is moving toward more high tech and trade, and tax policy, good roads, bridges and air links will be needed to thrive in a more global marketplace, he said. These priorities were discussed during the Oregon Leadership Summit on Tuesday in Portland, he said.

In addition to DeFazio’s move, Schrader is trading his seat on the House Agriculture Committee for a coveted spot on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Moore noted.

Agriculture plays an important role in Oregon’s economy, but for the last 100 years, Congress’ agriculture policy has largely focused on crop subsidies and industrial farms in Midwest, he said.

Over the past 50 years, Oregon has steadily moved away from a natural resources-based economy, he said. “Agriculture and natural resources are still important parts of (Oregon’s) economy, but they’re not the growing parts of the economy, and it’s hard to see how they become the growing parts of the economy.”

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com

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