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.