Peter DeFazio to Retire, Setting Off Race to Fill Head Dem Slot on T&I Panel

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, announced this week that he will not seek re-election to the House next year. As of this writing, the next two House Democrats in seniority order on the panel, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Rick Larsen (D-WA), have both announced that they are seeking to replace DeFazio as lead Democrat on the panel.

In a statement released December 1, DeFazio said:

With humility and gratitude I am announcing that I will not seek re-election next year. It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve as Congressman for the Fourth District of Oregon. For 36 years I have fought corporate greed and special interests to benefit Oregon’s working families–from delivering affordable health care under the Affordable Care Act, to preventing the privatization and destruction of the Social Security safety net, to protecting our natural treasures for future generations, to fighting trade policies that undermine American workers, to holding industry and regulators accountable to improve aviation safety, to asserting congressional war powers authority to stop endless wars, to making historic job-creating investments in our roads, bridges, ports and more under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Thank you for putting your trust in me.

It’s time for me to pass the baton to the next generation so I can focus on my health and well-being. This was a tough decision at a challenging time for our republic with the very pillars of our democracy under threat, but I am bolstered by the passion and principles of my colleagues in Congress and the ingenuity and determination of young Americans who are civically engaged and working for change.

Peter DeFazio was elected to Congress in 1986, and on Opening Day of the 100th Congress in January 1987, he was elected to the Public Works and Transportation Committee by House Resolution 9, where he initially ranked 27th of 31 Democrats. House Democrats generally being loyal to the seniority system, DeFazio had to work his way up the ladder for 28 years. He had to wait for the members ahead of him to die in office (Jim Howard (D-NJ)), be voted out of the chair by their colleagues (Glenn Anderson (D-CA)), retire from Congress after being chairman (Bob Roe (D-NJ), Norm Mineta (D-CA)), be redistricted out of office (Bob Borski (D-PA), Gus Savage (D-IL)), transfer from Public Works to another committee (Louise Slaughter (D-NY), John Lewis (D-GA)), choose to retire (Henry Nowak (D-NY), Bill Lipinski (D-IL), and others), lose their seat to a Republican in a general election (Jim Oberstar (D-MN), Nick Rahall (D-WV)), or be expelled from the House for ethics violations (the unforgettable Jim Traficant (D-OH)).

Finally, after the 2014 elections, DeFazio was unanimously selected by his colleagues to take over the top slot, despite a quixotic opposition candidacy by Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA). Following the Democratic takeover of the House following the 2018 midterm elections, DeFazio became chairman of the committee in January 2019.

There had been a lot of earlier speculation that DeFazio might retire, based on a combination of the usual Presidential party losses in the House in midterm elections and the tight nature of DeFazio’s district in Oregon, which DeFazio carried by 24,859 votes in 2020 (51.5% to 46.2%). Joe Biden carried the district over Donald Trump, 50.7% to 46.7%.

However, during redistricting three months ago, the Oregon legislature took great pains to make DeFazio’s 4th District more Democratic-leaning, transforming it from a district that was one point more Republican than the national average to one that was substantially more Democratic. analyzed the new Oregon districts and reported that “Arguably the biggest winner under the approved proposal is Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio, whose seat went from R+1 to D+9.”

So, from a pure electoral survivability standpoint, the redistricting made DeFazio’s survivability much more possible. (Though, some of the latest generic House ballot polls nationwide are so bad that that, were the election held today, the scene in a new OR-04 might not be pretty.)

But, in addition to the survivability issue, there is the surface transportation problem.  Earlier this year, the White House took the issues that DeFazio cares about most away from him, and instead negotiated a reauthorization bill with a rump group of Senators that incorporated hundreds of pages of Senate committee work product verbatim and almost nothing from DeFazio’s bill. These programs are now locked into law through 2026, meaning that if he wants to make legacy-defining changes to those programs, DeFazio has to win not one, not two, but probably three more elections.

And, while aviation programs will be up for reauthorization in 2023, the prospect of the GOP holding control of one or both chambers in the next Congress means that DeFazio’s chances of getting significant progressive policy change in that bill isn’t great, either.

Average all that together, and it appears that DeFazio is trying to exit slightly ahead of the way that his predecessor, chairman Norman Mineta (D-CA), did. Mineta was chairman in 1993-1994 and then became ranking minority member when the GOP took the House after the 1994 midterm elections. Mineta did not like being in the minority and resigned from the House in October 1995 to take a job with Lockheed Martin. (Democrats lost Mineta’s seat in the December 1995 special election, starting a bad trend where Mineta’s replacement as head Dem on T&I, Jim Oberstar (D-MN), lost his seat to a Republican in 2010, and then Oberstar’s replacement as head T&I Dem, Nick Rahall (D-WV), lost his seat to a Republican in 2014.)

Shortly after DeFazio’s announcement, the next-most-senior Democrat on the T&I panel, Highways and Transit Subcommittee chair Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), tweeted that she would be seeking the head Democratic spot on the panel, and followed that up with a letter to her Democratic colleagues the following day. The next-most-senior Democrat to Norton, Aviation Subcommittee chair Rick Larsen (D-WA), soon followed up with his own letter of candidacy for the top spot.

The decision on who will replace DeFazio won’t be made by the House Democratic Steering Committee until late November 2022, and the contest will mostly be held behind closed doors (despite the early quasi-endorsement-looking tweet for Larsen’s candidacy posted by the head of the AFA-CWA flight attendants union).

Ms. Norton was first elected to what is now the T&I panel upon her entrance to Congress, in 1991, where she was already 19 slots behind DeFazio, who had only been there four years before her. Larsen joined the panel a decade later, in 2001. (Larsen was last in seniority among Democrats on that election resolution, 26 seats behind Norton.)

As noted above, House Democrats, traditionally, have relied heavily on the seniority system when selecting committee leaders. (The House GOP jettisoned the seniority system in 1995, while at the same time instituting 6-year term limits for Republican chairmen and ranking minority members.) But seniority is now only one of several factors. A Democratic Caucus rule directs the Steering and Policy to use these criteria when selecting a new chairman or ranking member: “merit, length of service on the committee, degree of commitment to the Democratic agenda, and the diversity of the Caucus, including appropriate representation of the Caucus’ ideological and regional diversity…” (It doesn’t say it explicitly, but proven ability and willingness to raise campaign money for one’s Democratic colleagues weighs heavily into that “degree of commitment” criteria.)

Age may be an issue. Although Norton is in excellent health, she is 28 years and 2 days older than Larsen, at a time when more and more Democrats are chafing against the domination of Democratic leadership ranks by the Boomer and pre-Boomer generations.

Consider: the average age of the top three elected party leaders is 81 for House Democrats versus just 50 for House Republicans (now that Liz Cheney (R-WY), 55, has been voted out of leadership in favor of Elise Stefanik (R-NY), 37). The average age of the Democratic chairmen of the four “exclusive” committees (Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, Ways and Means) is 15 years higher than the average age of the Republican ranking members of those committees (76 to 61), and T&I ranking member Sam Graves (R-MO) is 16 years younger than DeFazio.

This cuts both ways, however. Norton is currently 84 years old, so it’s not as if her potential ascension to the top job in 2023 would block further upwards mobility for a generation, as Jim Oberstar did as head Dem on T&I from fall 1995 to the end of 2010, or as Pelosi and Hoyer have done in the #1 and #2 jobs in the party since they were first elected to those posts 19 years ago, in November 2002.

But the negative polling on the national generic ballot, combined with the generational angst, may mean that many more senior Democrats will join DeFazio, Science Committee Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee chairman David Price (D-NC), and others in retiring this cycle. A list of senior House Democrats, in seniority order, is below.

House Democrats With At Least 14 Terms of Office
Member Sworn In Current Chairmanship/Post Age
Steny Hoyer (MD) 5/19/1981 Majority Leader 82
Marcy Kaptur (OH) 1/3/1983 Energy and Water Subc. (Appropriations) 75
Peter Visclosky (IN) 1/3/1985 Defense Subc. (Appropriations)` 72
Peter DeFazio (OR) 1/3/1987 Transportation and Infrastructure 74
Nancy Pelosi (CA) 6/2/1987 Speaker of the House 81
Frank Pallone (NJ) 11/8/1988 Energy and Commerce 70
Richard Neal (MA) 1/3/1989 Ways and Means 72
David Price (NC)* 1/3/1987 Transportation-HUD Subc. (Appropriations) 81
Rosa DeLauro (CT) 1/3/1991 Appropriations (Full Committee) 78
Eleanor H. Norton (DC) 1/3/1991 Highways and Transit Subc. (Trans. & Infra.) 84
Maxine Waters (CA) 1/3/1991 Financial Services 83
Jerrold Nadler (NY) 11/3/1992 Judiciary 74
Jim Cooper (TN)** 1/3/1983 Strategic Forces Subc. (Armed Services) 67
Sanford Bishop (GA) 1/3/1993 Agriculture Subc. (Appropriations) 74
Jim Clyburn (SC) 1/3/1993 Majority Whip 81
Anna Eshoo (CA) 1/3/1993 Health Subc. (Energy and Commerce) 78
E.B. Johnson (TX) 1/3/1993 Science, Space & Technology 86
Carolyn Maloney (NY) 1/3/1993 Oversight and Reform 75
Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA) 1/3/1993 Homeland Security (Appropriations) 80
Bobby Rush (IL) 1/3/1993 Energy Subc. (Energy and Commerce) 75
Bobby Scott (VA) 1/3/1993 Education and Labor 74
Nydia Velazquez (NY) 1/3/1993 Small Business 68
Bennie Thompson (MS) 4/13/1993 Homeland Security 73
Lloyd Doggett (TX) 1/3/1995 Health Subc. (Ways and Means) 75
Mike Doyle (PA) 1/3/1995 Comms. & Tech. Subc. (Energy & Commerce) 68
Sheila Jackson Lee (TX) 1/3/1995 71
Zoe Lofgren (CA) 1/3/1995 House Administration 73
* Interrupted service – sat out 104th Congress 1995-1996
** Interrupted service – sat out 104th-107th Congresses 1995-2002

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