30 Oct

Avakian flags down Uber’s drive into the new economy

Brad Avakian better hope he never needs a ride anywhere.

Nobody wants to see Oregon’s labor commissioner standing forlorn on a street corner sticking out his thumb.

This month, Avakian challenged Uber, the iPhone app that became a $50 billion business featuring free-lance drivers summoned via iPhone using their own cars to carry off paying customers, with Uber setting the rules and then taking a piece of the action. Avakian is pursuing the labor law question of defining the drivers’ technical relationship with Uber, and whether in the new sharing economy the whole issue of legal responsibility is what you might call virtual.

Last week, Uber fired back at Avakian, arguing that we are in a whole new free-lance world where such questions are as outdated as a dial telephone. The issue is likely to be eventually resolved in the courts – and, of course, the streets, where the ride services are becoming more prominent. As Elliot Njus reported in The Oregonian last week, the Portland Department of Transportation reported that Uber and its competitor Lyft now have 60 percent of the city’s rides-for-hire business, outdistancing the market share of full-time taxicabs.

The stakes are rising faster than a taxi meter. The Uber and Lyft cars may not be carrying Avakian, but they’re carrying a whole new economy.

Issuing an advisory opinion, not spurred by any particular case but suggesting how he might rule on one, Avakian considered whether Uber drivers were actually Uber employees, which would raise questions such as minimum wage, worker’s compensation and insurance coverage. By his thinking, “the rigorous hiring process, the highly controlled directions as to how work is to be performed and at what price, the expectation of long-term employment, the insignificant investment of the driver when compared to the massive infrastructure provided by Uber and the integral nature of the driver’s work to the business are all characteristic of an employee relationship.”

In other words, no drivers, no Uber, and the equation makes the drivers employees.

Last week, Uber’s regional general manager for the West, William Barnes, honked back at Avakian, saying “the findings fail to acknowledge that about 50 percent of drivers using Uber drive less than 10 hours a week, less even than a typical part-time job. These are people who value their flexibility and independence: the ability to work whenever and wherever they choose.”

They are, in fact, “enterprising and entrepreneurial drivers,” and “Uber has created a new way for people to work on their own terms. People choose to drive with Uber because of the flexibility it provides, and the dignity that comes with being their own boss.”

Far from being by-the-book employees, argued Barnes, Uber drivers are more like wandering craftsmen, whose interests sometimes intersect with Uber’s. He noted that labor agencies in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, California and New York “have concluded that drivers are independent contractors.”

But last month in California, in the midst of a worldwide expansion, Uber encountered what you might call a speed bump. Federal judge Edwin Chen ruled that Uber drivers who met certain requirements qualified to be part of a class-action suit claiming employee status. (Uber both said it would appeal, and also questioned how many drivers would actually qualify.) A few days later, a state administrative judge found that a former Uber driver met the requirements for an employee and so was entitled to draw unemployment compensation.

These are both early and small indications, but – like Avakian’s advisory opinion – they directly challenge Uber’s business model. Right after the California news, Stephan Grendel calculated in Forbes magazine that if Uber drivers were treated as employees – and the company had to cover costs like Social Security, unemployment compensation, medical insurance and mileage expenses – it might cost Uber around $4 billion a year, a considerable hit for a company with annual revenues of $10 billion and so far no actual profits.

It may be that none of these arguments matter, that we’re in a new economy – or at least riding toward one – where workers are increasingly independent contractors, where fewer are employees and many more are brands. As Uber points out, many places have endorsed its model, and the new economy takes in ride-sharing, sleeping arrangements like AirBnB, and maybe all the people who allegedly make a living selling stuff on eBay.

On the other hand, a lot of our support structures – such as unemployment insurance and often health insurance – are based on an employee connection. We’ll have to rethink a lot of things for the new economy man.

The Uber mensch.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 10/25/15.

26 Oct

Uber’s positiion: Working for us doesn’t make you an mployee

Brad Avakian better hope he never needs a ride anywhere.

Nobody wants to see Oregon’s labor commissioner standing forlorn on a street corner sticking out his thumb.

This month, Avakian challenged Uber, the iPhone app that became a $50 billion business featuring free-lance drivers summoned via iPhone using their own cars to carry off paying customers, with Uber setting the rules and then taking a piece of the action. Avakian is pursuing the labor law question of defining the drivers’ technical relationship with Uber, and whether in the new sharing economy the whole issue of legal responsibility is what you might call virtual.

Last week, Uber fired back at Avakian, arguing that we are in a whole new free-lance world where such questions are as outdated as a dial telephone. The issue is likely to be eventually resolved in the courts – and, of course, the streets, where the ride services are becoming more prominent. As Elliot Njus reported in The Oregonian last week, the Portland Department of Transportation reported that Uber and its competitor Lyft now have 60 percent of the city’s rides-for-hire business, outdistancing the market share of full-time taxicabs.

The stakes are rising faster than a taxi meter. The Uber and Lyft cars may not be carrying Avakian, but they’re carrying a whole new economy.

Issuing an advisory opinion, not spurred by any particular case but suggesting how he might rule on one, Avakian considered whether Uber drivers were actually Uber employees, which would raise questions such as minimum wage, worker’s compensation and insurance coverage. By his thinking, “the rigorous hiring process, the highly controlled directions as to how work is to be performed and at what price, the expectation of long-term employment, the insignificant investment of the driver when compared to the massive infrastructure provided by Uber and the integral nature of the driver’s work to the business are all characteristic of an employee relationship.”

In other words, no drivers, no Uber, and the equation makes the drivers employees.

Last week, Uber’s regional general manager for the West, William Barnes, honked back at Avakian, saying “the findings fail to acknowledge that about 50 percent of drivers using Uber drive less than 10 hours a week, less even than a typical part-time job. These are people who value their flexibility and independence: the ability to work whenever and wherever they choose.”
They are, in fact, “enterprising and entrepreneurial drivers,” and “Uber has created a new way for people to work on their own terms. People choose to drive with Uber because of the flexibility it provides, and the dignity that comes with being their own boss.”

Far from being by-the-book employees, argued Barnes, Uber drivers are more like wandering craftsmen, whose interests sometimes intersect with Uber’s. He noted that labor agencies in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, California and New York “have concluded that drivers are independent contractors.”

But last month in California, in the midst of a worldwide expansion, Uber encountered what you might call a speed bump. Federal judge Edwin Chen ruled that Uber drivers who met certain requirements qualified to be part of a class-action suit claiming employee status. (Uber both said it would appeal, and also questioned how many drivers would actually qualify.) A few days later, a state administrative judge found that a former Uber driver met the requirements for an employee and so was entitled to draw unemployment compensation.

These are both early and small indications, but – like Avakian’s advisory opinion – they directly challenge Uber’s business model. Right after the California news, Stephan Grendel calculated in Forbes magazine that if Uber drivers were treated as employees – and the company had to cover costs like Social Security, unemployment compensation, medical insurance and mileage expenses – it might cost Uber around $4 billion a year, a considerable hit for a company with annual revenues of $10 billion and so far no actual profits.

It may be that none of these arguments matter, that we’re in a new economy – or at least riding toward one – where workers are increasingly independent contractors, where fewer are employees and many more are brands. As Uber points out, many places have endorsed its model, and the new economy takes in ride-sharing, sleeping arrangements like AirBnB, and maybe all the people who allegedly make a living selling stuff on eBay.

On the other hand, a lot of our support structures – such as unemployment insurance and often health insurance – are based on an employee connection. We’ll have to rethink a lot of things for the new economy man.

The Uber mensch.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 10/25/15.

25 Oct

For road funding, step on the gas (tax)

At some point, we’ll have a mileage-based road tax. Maybe we’ll have more highway tolls, and congestion pricing.

What we have now is the gas tax, and we need to make use of it.

Although gas prices have been dropping sharply, neither the federal gas tax nor the Oregon state gas tax has been raised since the early ‘90s. Over that time, our roads and bridges have steadily deteriorated. Drivers sit motionless in traffic, and if they do get up some speed, they risk losing their transmission in one of our expansive potholes.

There are costs to paying an increased gas tax. But there are also costs to losing time in traffic and to driving on roller-coaster roads that can reach up and damage your car.

And there are major costs to the economy when it takes longer than it should to get freight and people from one place to another. That’s why other developed countries spend a lot more on infrastructure than we do.

Groups from the American Trucking Association to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce support increasing the gas tax, and investing the money in improving our transportation system. It’s something to think about.

And if you’re trying to get anywhere in America today, you’re likely to have a while to think.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 10/24/15.

21 Oct

GOP candidates’ thinking on marijuana could make Oregon an outlaw state

Aside from the breaking news on how long it takes candidates to visit the rest room – fuller than full disclosure – one part of last week’s Democratic presidential debate deserved some more attention, especially here in the free-smoking Northwest.

One leading candidate for president announced he would likely support legalization of recreational marijuana, and the other one made it clear she was headed that way.

(Two other candidates appeared to have been sampling before going on stage, but that’s a different story.)

Ten years ago, those statements might have been as likely as a candidate using his opening statement to offer Wolf Blitzer a bong.

This is an issue of particular interest in our neighborhood – Oregon, Washington and for that matter Alaska – because while local voters have legalized marijuana use in the Northwest, it’s still federally illegal. The reason a lot of folks around here, and in Colorado, don’t have starring roles in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s filing system is that Barack Obama’s Justice Department won’t make a point of it.

Some other president’s Justice Department might make a different decision, which might be enough reason to inspire local watching parties for both parties’ presidential debates.
(Refreshments optional.)

In last week’s debate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked how he would vote on a Nevada legalization initiative, part of a cloud of smoke working its way east.

“I suspect I would vote yes. And I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses,” he said immediately. Then, pivoting back to his central theme, Sanders added, “We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana.”

Hillary Clinton said she wasn’t ready to take a position on legalization, but continued, “We have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana. Therefore, we need more states, cities, and the federal government to begin to address this so that we don’t have this terrible result that Senator Sanders was talking about where we have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana.”

She sounded uncannily like politicians winkingly declaring they were “evolving” on gay marriage, but just not quite there yet.

The comments were very different from answers in any previous presidential debate, and also different from some of the answers in a Republican debate – reason for supporters of Oregon’s new marijuana law (and its new marijuana economy) to watch next year’s contest with close if slightly reddened eyes.

While libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul appears to support legalization, and GOP candidates like Donald Trump and Jeb Bush would avoid interfering with states – Bush both admitted smoking marijuana in prep school and opposed a recent Florida medical marijuana initiative – some GOP candidates might complicate Oregon’s life considerably.

Rising hopeful Ben Carson has said that while he would let drug companies explore medical marijuana, he would otherwise enforce federal law. He recently explained, “When we do things like have our attorney general and our president say ‘Yeah, marijuana’s not that bad. You know, I used and look how I turned out!’ Well, that’s the problem.”

When Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, increasingly considered by deep thinkers a likely choice after Trump and Carson somehow disappear, was asked about enforcing federal law against states legalizing marijuana, he responded, “Yes. Yes, I think, well, I think we need to enforce our federal laws. Now do states have a right to do what they want? They don’t agree with it, but they have their rights. But they don’t have a right to write federal policy as well. It is, I don’t believe we should be in the business of legalizing additional intoxicants in this country for the primary reason that when you legalize something, what you’re sending a message to young people is it can’t be that bad, because if it was that bad, it wouldn’t be legal.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, still hanging in there, was asked on “Face the Nation” in June, “If you were president, would you return the federal prosecutions in these states like Colorado, Washington State? “and firmly replied “Yes.” States, Christie has said, should not be violating federal law and collecting revenue from marijuana.

This may not be next year’s crucial issue. But for a few states – and maybe a few more by next November – the question of who controls the U.S. Justice Department might be more than a smokescreen.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 10/21/15.

18 Oct

After Umpqua, Merkley and Democrats make another try on guns and background checks

Last week, after the most horrific mass shooting in Oregon history and 10 days of community agony, Umpqua Community College came back in session.

This week, after 10 days of what it calls “district work period,” Congress comes back in session.

It’s not easy to see how the two ever connect.

Unbridgeable gaps, of course, are all over the gun issue: between Congress and the country, between gun safety advocates and gun rights supporters, between urban and rural values.
After every shooting – which is to say, over and over again – the nation cracks open between those who would immediately change the laws and those who insist that the shootings are unpredictable, unpreventable acts of God.

This year in Oregon, a bolstered metro-based majority in Salem enacted stronger background checks for gun purchases. This month, demonstrators in Roseburg told the president of the United States he wasn’t welcome there for supporting the same thing.

Jeff Merkley was elected to the state legislature and then the U.S. Senate from Portland, but was born in Myrtle Creek, outside Roseburg, and spent his early years in Roseburg. He still has family there, and a cousin’s great-granddaughter was among those murdered on the Umpqua campus.

“There’s definitely a cultural gap,” Merkley says. “Guns play such a big role in rural life,” for hunting, for target shooting, for protection in places where patrol cars don’t roll by regularly.

Still, Merkley thinks there’s “something we can bring the American people together on.”

Earlier this month, Merkley, Oregon’s senior senator Ron Wyden and other Democratic senators announced a renewed drive to strengthen background checks for gun purchases, to make buying guns for people banned from owning them a federal crime, and improving the database of those prevented from buying. The bill would make federal law of the tightened background checks just enacted by the Oregon legislature

Merkley points out that 80 percent to 90 percent of Americans believe in stronger background checks, and he insists there’s a way to bring this consensus to bear on Congress.

Following the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings, similar legislation failed to gather the 60 votes to force a Senate vote – and at that point Democrats had a majority.

But this time, Merkley says, there is a strategy: Led by Charles Schumer of New York, slated to be the party’s Senate leader in the next Congress, Democrats plan to refuse unanimous consent for any Senate procedure unless they get a floor vote on their gun bill.

This could bring the Senate to a dead halt, although it’s not clear how anyone would notice. Then there’s the House, currently unable to organize itself, let alone pass any actual legislation.

Still, Merkley looks at the polls on the issue, and even after being in the Senate since 2009, declares, “I don’t think you can start with the assumption that it’s impossible to make a change.”

The principle, he says, is that “When a person is disturbed or a felon, he shouldn’t have access to a gun. It should be more difficult for a disturbed person to access a gun than to access help.”

Those principles, along with background checks, seem unexceptionable and are broadly popular, two things that Merkley and the Democrats might hope to invoke in support of their bill.

But it’s also not always obvious how much the changes would help; in so many of these massacres, in Roseburg and Sandy Hook and Thurston, the guns were legally purchased by someone in the household who would still have access under virtually any proposed restrictions.

But if the bill wouldn’t solve the problem, Merkley says, it would help: “If it has the effect of stopping a handful of shootings, or even one, it’s worth it.”

Of course, you never know what you’ve prevented – and a million gun purchases stopped by the Brady Bill background checks must have extended somebody’s life.

Still, Merkley knows the argument – if the bill even gets as far as an argument – won’t be about its specifics, but about grabbing guns from law-abiding Americans. He’ll hear that, he knows, although “There has never been a single proposal that I’m aware of to take guns from owners. That’s a scare tactic from the industry. It’s a false claim.”

Does he think his position is likely to be persuasive?

Citing years trying to explain there were no such things as death panels, Merkley says, “I don’t know about persuasion.

“All I can do is tell the facts.”

And try to close up some distances.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 10/18/15.

15 Oct

Without new revenue, Oregon’s schools and situation will never get any better

ASHLAND – To anyone looking at the growing Oregon economy and figuring we’re just about to reinvest in schools, higher education and early childhood, Peter Buckley has a deflating message:

“This is as good as it gets.”

And there’s no guarantee it stays this good.

Have a nice day – and don’t expect too much from the school year.

As co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee since 2009, the Ashland Democrat has overseen the last four state budgets, so he’s assembled spending plans much more painful than the one in effect now. But without additional revenue, he doesn’t expect the state’s financial outlook to get any better – which is a small part of the reason he’s decided four budgets are enough, and isn’t running again.

If the state comes up with some additional money, he figures, the budget will be manageable. If it doesn’t, well, he’s assembled a cuts budget before, and wouldn’t look forward to doing it again.

In the 2017 session, the legislature will face considerable new costs from the expansion of the Oregon Health Plan and the Supreme Court’s rejection of most of the PERS reform plan. At the same time, Oregon’s close to the limit of its revenue stream.

“There are no more major shifts to make in the state budget,” explains Buckley. “The economy is performing as well as it has in decades,” meaning there are no likely revenue surges from faster growth.

Following the sharp revenue changes from the passage of Measure 5, “We never solved the problem. We got through, but we never solved it.”

Buckley explained the state’s fiscal realities at the end of last month to a gathering of United for Kids, a coalition of children’s advocacy groups eagerly looking for the next advances in state funding. He explained it further last week in Ashland, during the kind of Southern Oregon autumn afternoon that can make you wonder why anybody would leave it for a Salem committee room, even if the numbers were a lot more encouraging.

Right now, he noted, “There are just so many people stressed to have a decent life,” and the state is just about at the limit of its capacity to do anything about it.

The hope for additional revenue is an issue likely to appear on next November’s ballot, which could feature a burst of measures from all sides, some previously blocked by former Gov. John Kitzhaber’s negotiations with business and labor groups. Buckley expressed interest in a measure to increase corporate taxes proposed by the group A Better Oregon, which this month is beginning to collect signatures. The measure would seek to reverse the steady decline in the proportion of state government costs paid by Oregon businesses, which by some calculations carry the lowest state tax burden in the country.

Many Oregon Democrats, including those who would welcome the money, have been hesitant about such an effort ever since the traumatic 2010 votes on Measures 66 and 67. Their passage saw the state budget through the Great Recession but tore open a painful rift with the business community.

The memory doesn’t scare off Buckley.

“Measures 66 and 67 were absolutely essential,“ he says. “If we hadn’t passed them, I can’t imagine what our system would look like now.”

To some surprise, both Measures 66 and 67 passed relatively comfortably, in a more conservative (and non-presidential) year than 2016 seems likely to be. And, Buckley notes, the predicted massive flight of companies and upper income taxpayers out of the state never happened. Some time later, The Wall Street Journal reported breathlessly that Oregon had many fewer high-income taxpayers, but the cause seemed to be less exodus than what the financial collapse did to incomes.

In Buckley’s view, a significant change in the state’s post-Measure 5 revenue structure could change funding possibilities across the board.

“It’s a game-changer for K-12, for early child care, for mental health, for higher education,” Buckley says after eight years’ immersion in the looming shadows of the state’s budget numbers. “We could imagine a generation of Oregonians graduating from college without debt.”

So is there a possibility of the state’s voters actually bagging what has been, ever since 1990, the great white whale of Oregon public policy: replacement revenue for the Measure 5 cuts?

“I think,” says Buckley, “people get to a point when they say, enough.”

As a title for a romantic comedy, “As Good As It Gets” is fine.

It’s less encouraging as the highest hopes of a state.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 10/11/15.

15 Oct

You can bet that this fall’s TV is all about gambling

We no longer have TV commercials for cigarettes. We concluded that smoking was dangerous to people, could have a bad effect on lives and wasn’t something we wanted to encourage between situation comedies.

Besides, this now leaves more TV space for advertising gambling.

On local television at the moment, gambling ads seem more pervasive than payday loan commercials. Bolstered by this year’s burst of advertising for the on-line sports fantasy betting sites DraftKings and FanDuel – according to CNN Money, more than $200 million so far in 2015 – fall TV is now all about gambling.

The fantasy spots join frequent ads from Northwest tribal casinos, now among the biggest tourist draws in the region. Those ads feature lots of young, attractive people, all of whom seem to be winning.

Then there are the Oregon and Washington state lotteries, bursting onto the local TV screens. The Oregon lottery, now a billion-dollar player in the state budget, currently offers not only its seasonal scratch-off ads but its own country-Western anthem to the state, “I Left My Heart in Oregon.”

Tony Bennett repeatedly leaves his heart in San Francisco, but that doesn’t seem to involve video poker.

Then there are the rollicking ads for Big Fish Casino, an in-line site with (following current U.S. law) no actual money at stake – although players can buy aps to help them play the games. (On-line gambling is legal in Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware, but only for bettors inside the state.) Big Fish is owned by Churchill Downs, owners of the Kentucky Derby racetrack and others. They might be speculating in gambling futures, positioning themselves for a time when, as in the United Kingdom, all Americans can gamble on their laptops, tablets and iPhones.

At that point, there may be no space on television for advertising anything else.

This year’s big explosion has been in spots for fantasy gambling, betting on the performance of bettor-assembled lineups.

“DraftKings and FanDuel have quickly become among the biggest advertisers on TV and the Internet,” Neil Irwin wrote recently in The New York Times, “with scenes of fantasy players celebrating their winnings.” In Oregon and most other states, it would be illegal (and this season, possibly unwise) to go on line and bet on the Blazers to win. But in Oregon and most other states (although not Washington) you can go on line and bet (again, perhaps unwisely) on a fantasy team composed of Blazers to outscore other fantasy teams.

Right now, of course, the customers are betting their National Football League fantasy teams, and the ads show them testifying to their huge winnings and beaming about how much more exciting Sundays are than back when they were just rooting for actual teams. As the company’s Facebook location boasts, “DraftKings is changing the way people experience sports.”

The bettors featured on the fantasy team ads are generally T-shirted young men, the folks likely to believe that they can guess which running back will have the best Sunday. In that way, the fantasy ads are different that way from the casino ads, which show carousing groups of festively dressed young men and women, sometimes with hints of the delights to follow when the couples finally depart the gambling floor for the night.

(Oregon Lottery ads don’t typically show people actually betting, although the public service spots piously urging you not to bet too heavily do.)

Fantasy football leagues used to be run by your friend who had too much time on his hands, but things have gotten far more corporate. According to Travis Houm on the Motley Fool website, DraftKings’ investors include Fox Sports, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer, while FanDuel is backed by the National Basketball Association, NBC Sports Ventures, Comcast Ventures and Time Warner/Turner Sports, as well as various NFL and NBA team owners. It seems lots of folks in the sports business are now doubling as bookies, although a few years ago the NBA got very self-righteous about an Oregon Lottery sports betting game.

Last week, after The New York Times revealed that a DraftKings employee, with access to activation statistics – the house always has an edge – had won $350,000 on FanDuel, the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts announced they would investigate. But since both states are, like Oregon, dependent on their own lotteries, they may just be going after a competitor.

Because these days, all over TV and the economy, everybody’s into gambling.

It’s enough to make you want a cigarette.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 10/14/15.

06 Oct

A House of Representatives that redefines Dysfunctional

Asked how he’s doing these days, Peter DeFazio replies unhesitatingly, “Miserable.”

Next year the Springfield Democrat, now 12th in seniority in the entire House of Representatives, completes his 30th year in office, and these days he’s looking back to the good old days.

You know, when Newt Gingrich was running things.

“The Gingrich era is a fond memory at the moment,” mused DeFazio last week, sounding indeed miserable.
“At least Newt believed in government. He just had a different a different idea of it.”

As opposed to the Republicans driving the current chaos in the House, where it just took the resignation of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to pass an emergency budget resolution to keep the U.S. government operating until December.

As for what happens then, no promises.

With Boehner’s resignation, an alliance of the House Democrats and about two-fifths of the Republicans (including Greg Walden, Oregon’s only Republican in Congress) passed an emergency budget resolution, with most Republicans apparently prepared to let the government close down Thursday unless the budget defunded Planned Parenthood. If Boehner had allowed the vote without resigning – as he’s used Democrats to win votes before – angry Republicans were reportedly ready to drive him from office.

No wonder Boehner showed up at his resignation press conference singing happily to himself.
Most of the House members who are staying are somewhat less cheerful.

“I don’t know how that works in December,” when the resolution runs out, projected DeFazio bleakly. If Boehner’s likely successor, Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., contemplates the same strategy, he figures, a majority of House Republicans might want to drive McCarthy out.

The House has, it seems, no functioning majority, and no leader who can command one.
And there aren’t that many voting days until December.

“This is pretty much unprecedented,” figured DeFazio, who’s seen a lot of House precedents. “I don’t think there’s ever been a time like this. Maybe just before the Civil War.”

As comparisons go, not the most reassuring one.

With most House Republicans seemingly willing to shut the government down – and in December, possibly refusing to raise the debt limit, creating the prospect of a first-ever U.S. government default – there are hopeful dreams of more bipartisan deals in the weeks remaining before Boehner leaves. For DeFazio, ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, that means a hope for a five- or six-year transportation package – the kind of thing that Congress used to do regularly, but that now seems almost unimaginably out of reach.

“I’m not willing to accept a long-term poorly-funded bill,” declared DeFazio. “(Ways and Means Chairman Paul) Ryan talked to me this morning, and said he’s going to come up with a bigger funding source.”

If that happens, it would be, of course, only the first step – and a lot of other things would have to line up. The typical funding source for an expanded transportation package would be an increase in the gas tax, but House Republicans have so far found that idea poisonous – and the Obama administration hasn’t been enthusiastic, either.

Moreover, not having a package at all doesn’t seem to bother a large part of the House.

“Unlike Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan (DeFazio’s tenure began in the Reagan administration), they’re content not to have funding to pay for crumbling infrastructure,” complained DeFazio. “Let the people keep their money, and if you need a bridge, you can pass the hat.”

Meanwhile, the House bubbles and festers. It’s now been 30 years since a speaker had an honored voluntary retirement. Dennis Hastert and Nancy Pelosi lost their party majorities, Spokane’s Tom Foley lost his own seat, Newt Gingrich forced the resignation of Jim Wright, and Gingrich himself was toppled, like Boehner, by an uprising in his own party. The House is coming to resemble the Senate – not the one across the Capitol, the one in ancient Rome – and the party divisions have grown ever more toxic.

It would be entertaining, if there weren’t a country to run – and at some point, a budget to pass.
The House Republicans are scheduled to elect new leaders next Thursday, and nobody’s sure what’s going to happen – or what’s going to happen after that. The reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank – important for business, vital for Boeing – would probably happen easily on a straight up-or-down vote, but nobody knows if that will ever be allowed.

“There’s a lot of chaos,” noted DeFazio. “On our side, we’re just looking at them with wide eyes.”

And thinking of the good old days under Gingrich.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 10/4/15.