After 14 Terms, Portland’s Congressman Earl Blumenauer Has Had Enough with Congress

Earl Blumenauer

Earl Blumenauer, in an exclusive and instructive interview with The Planning Report, surveys his distinguished 50 years in elected office, including 14 terms of representing Oregon's 3rd Congressional District.  A political veteran trailblazer in bipartisan collaboration, Blumenauer, who recently announced his retirement rather than seeking a 15th term, reflects on his decision-making process, noting a desire going forward to focus on impactful civilian work outside of Washington, DC. Our conversation spans his truly prolific livable communities & transportation legislative achievements, including last session’s Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which he rightfully believes signify a transformative era for American infrastructure.

VX News: The headlines read this month: After 50 years of elective office and 14 terms of representing Oregon's Third Congressional District, Earl Blumenauer is retiring rather than seeking his 15th term. Earl, could you share the reasons for this decision?

Congressman Earl Blumenauer: I've gone through this process before. Every other year I have to figure out if I want to go through the election rigmarole and essentially dedicate three more years of my life to this. It's reached the point where it did not make sense for me to spend my few remaining years enmeshed in congressional activities. I could not justify three more years with elections and politics. 

Increasingly, it's clear that I'm better off working as a civilian on the things I care about, particularly coming off a spectacular couple of years. We did talk about this in terms of some of the accomplishments like the Inflation Reduction Act and the Chips Act. For me, I'd rather be able to pursue these things while not being encumbered by the political rigmarole and, frankly, my Republican colleagues are increasingly dysfunctional. They can't even agree on why they're impeaching Joe Biden. They don't agree with themselves. To me, it didn't seem like the things I care about. 

We've been talking for years about a livable community in terms of transportation systems that work for a low-carbon, equitable future. I don't think that is going to be most effectively pursued within the context of Congress, but rather being able to work as, I say, a civilian, on the things that I care about.

As a member of the House’s Ways and Means Committee for several years, you have helped fund some of the most consequential pieces of legislation in 75 years related to infrastructure, sustainability, and transportation, ie. the Inflation Reduction Act & Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Elaborate on the importance of last session’s policy successes. 

Well, we've been having conversations for a couple of decades on how to rebuild and renew America. I’ve been at the point of the spear in terms of additional resources. 

I left the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to go to the Ways and Means Committee to raise the necessary revenues to do the job right. We've had some success in the past but in the last couple of years, massive investments have taken place in terms of the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill that passed. We’ve seen record increases in resources for everything– from bicycles and balanced transportation to what’s happening with Amtrak and water infrastructure. 

For the very first time, we had a president who was committed to rebuilding and renewing America, willing to spend the money on it. I've been in a tug of war with Presidents of both parties, who talked a good game but when the chips were down, were reluctant to make a huge, necessary investment. We had some modest gains with the Obama administration, but with Bush and Trump, it was just off the table. That's now changed and part of it was the reaction to a global pandemic and the resources there. 

It's just a sea change in terms of what we're doing. We're taking the lead pipes out of the system. We are watching what happens in terms of bikes and pedestrians. We’re looking at what’s happened with the energy investments. These are long overdue items that are going to be transformational, and our goal right now is implementation. I've been spending time with people in the private sector, as well as the state and local governments. We're still implementing this and will continue to do so with guidance, coming down from the Treasury Department, for instance. That's where the action is right now; implementing all of the programs that we finally are funding.

You noted in a recent media interview: “I didn't pick things to pass, I picked things that I thought needed to be focused upon…” In that regard, thread together your livability agenda with what's been approved during your tenure by Congress. 

Well, I came to Congress dedicated to building upon a legacy that I established with the City of Portland. My focus there was to make Portland, Oregon, America's most livable city and we had some remarkable successes. I will say we've got some challenges, and now, no one's going to claim that Portland is the most livable city. 

That's one of the reasons for my Congressional departure, to be able to focus on healing my town. The notion that the federal government is the largest landlord, land owner, and employer in the United States means there is an opportunity and obligation to help make these pieces fit together. These are elements that are totally within our control. If we’re able to focus on things that bring people together, rather than divide us, I think it is a very powerful tool. 

We've joked about bike-partisanship, but we're watching a revolution take place around the country-- from New York City to Los Angeles to Bentonville, Arkansas, where people are discovering the bicycle as the single most efficient form of transportation ever designed. Burning calories instead of fossil fuel helps with the health of communities, the environment, and individuals. In many communities, we're now facing traffic jams, with all these delivery trucks that are clogging our streets and creating serious problems for local business districts, while people try to move through town. Interestingly, we're now watching a resurgence of interest in electric cargo bikes. 

It comes to mind that UPS started as a bicycle messenger service over a century ago in Seattle, and we're rediscovering that potential there. 

One of the policy challenges that you and I have talked about before, and it’s quite vexing, deals with the problem of affordable housing, a problem of all successful West Coast cities. There are other vexing problems associated with “progressives” who aren't very effective at building things, much more effective at stopping progress. 

We've got, for example, over 2 billion parking spaces in the United States and they’re storing cars. This is land that could be repurposed in ways that would be much more effective. Instead of having 8 to 10 parking spaces per car, we can reclaim some of that for housing opportunities. I'm working with the federal-level Department of Transportation (DoT), working on a pilot project for what we call “orphan highways.” These are state highways that have been superseded by freeways. In many cases, while they’re the functional equivalent of main streets, they’re not designed and operated in a way that maximizes the benefit that captures the redevelopment opportunities. If we can recapture even a modest portion of these parking spaces, we will have many more opportunities for housing in a place that does not engender some of the negative feedback that we see lots of time for housing developments. 

Earl, pivoting back to your congressional career’s successes, share how you built –whether in Portland or nationally– the constituencies needed to support your transportation, bicycling, cannabis, and other livability legislation.

My goal has always been to focus on issues that bring people together rather than divide them, and it's often the divisions that get the attention and capture the energy, but they don't get much done. 

You mentioned cannabis. That’s an area where the federal government was hopelessly out of step. I have been able to build coalitions and have been involved in virtually every state initiative that legalized cannabis. Working at the federal level to advance legalization, the politics are starting to catch up with an outmoded federal policy. When we started, legalization was opposed by a two-to-one majority of the general public. It now is supported by 70%. When you talk about medical cannabis, it's like the Fourth of July– Over 90% support, and also supported by a majority of Republicans working on a bipartisan basis. It makes sense and is cost-effective. 

You find things that might seem impervious to political action, but they're not. Public support is built all along a series of simple steps that bring people together. We can demonstrate the wisdom and the strength of those policies going forward-- it's part of what we've done.

In terms of a streetcar agenda, it’s a proven technology. We had them 70 years ago and they helped make Los Angeles as successful as it was. Scrapping them did not help in terms of economic or community development. We’ve made very little progress in terms of the actual speed at which people move. In many parts of the country, people can move faster on a bicycle than they can in a vehicle, and in some places, vehicle speeds are less than 9 miles per hour. The New York Times’ discussed the failure to build upon the performance metrics that we had 60 years ago. In terms of being able to take the train from Washington to New York, it takes longer than it did 60 years ago. 

We have failed to invest in the infrastructure that you and I have talked about so much, and as a result, Americans are being shortchanged in terms of their quality of life, the environment, and the time that is chewed up-- and you know all about that in Southern California. More freeways have not necessarily improved the quality of life or accelerated the travel time.

You traveled the nation while building these coalitions, and before Congress you engaged Portland’s communities, ie, 1000 Friends of Oregon. The coalitions you have fostered are unlike most other electeds. Elaborate on the challenges you faced along the way in engaging in a bipartisan, collaborative way with an array of stakeholders? 

Well, it’s largely based on my experience as Portland's Commissioner of Public Works related to the work that I've done on our land use and our transportation initiatives. I find that as we deal with the basics, it's easier than it looks to bring people together. People want to solve problems and they’re open to solutions that work. In each of the areas –whether it's light rail or streetcar, bikes, or land use– we built upon bringing people together and showed results. 

For me, building the coalition and watching people come together to solve problems is exciting. I created a transportation class in the City of Portland, where we invited people who were quite confused and in a conflict mode, opposed to many of the initiatives. We set up a class to help people figure out how to solve the greatest transportation problems in their neighborhood. Then over the course of eight, or nine weeks, studying those problems, bringing people together, and talking about it led to our citizen activists designing solutions that work. We funded many of these ideas. There’s power in bringing folks together and collaboratively solving problems. Listening and looking at the bureaucracy as an ally, not an enemy, is simply common sense. It’s Government 101 which we don't practice very often but I find it very rewarding. Every community I visit, they start by telling you what's wrong but when you get people looking at the basics, thinking about the tools that they have available, and what would make a difference, there is much more consensus. Now we see plenty of models for success in terms of housing, dealing with the homelessness crisis, etc. This is the secret sauce of collaboration and cooperation for solutions, and we don't do enough of it.

Earl, elected from a relatively safe seat (politically), you have been privileged to engage in a wide-ranging array of policy issues in addition to active transportation, climate and livability, such as:  flood insurance, cannabis and regenerative agriculture. Will it be simple to pass the torch to your successor? 

Frankly, I’m proud of being named Legislator of the Year by groups you've never heard of. These may not be widely popular or appreciated niches but people care about pollinators, especially in terms of promoting things like nutrition and regenerative agriculture. Such are areas that have tremendous potential, and I'm in the process of writing exit memos of things that we worked on and progressed on, international water and sanitation and flood insurance reform are some agendas that need more work. For active transportation, for example, we have carnage on the roadways where we're losing ground on traffic safety, and it's sort of chilling. 

My goal is to be able to share what we did successfully and how we brought people together. I have about 20 memos that I'm working on, and I'm trying to corner people on the floor of the House to share what we've done and why. I think there’s a lot of good work that can be accessed. We need to spend less time looking for policy home runs and get more doubles and singles-- I'd even settle for being hit by a pitch. Let's get someone on base to move items forward, show results, and engage people. Too often, people just don't think it's possible, that these problems are intractable, but they're not. 

Virtually all of them result from deliberate policy failures. We subsidize a diet that makes Americans sick. There's a growing movement of people recognizing that one of the most effective ways to improve human health is to write prescriptions for healthy food and a state like California with a diverse agricultural base is positioned well to help with that transition. These ideas are simple, common sense, and built on proven technologies. When you drill down on them, people feel good about healthy food systems and investing in them. 

We mobilized significant coalitions for my Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which was able to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars through grants to independent restaurants teetering on the verge of going out of business, focusing on that trillion-dollar supply chain. As we find common interests with local agriculture, local producers, and independently-owned restaurants-- these pieces begin to weave together as they provide the fabric of a livable community.

Your ‘hit by a pitch’ comment was a Billy Beane home run, by the way… Drill down on what comes next. You've noted a desire to be more involved in addressing your Portland, Oregon’s local challenges. How? 

Well, we have a serious problem with behavioral health, which is not unknown to some California readers. There are training backlogs and we have hundreds of vacancies within police departments. One of the problems with behavioral health is in the addiction and treatment industry. Unfortunately, there are warehouse workers in emergency rooms while the workers' compensation claims for hospital emergencies are skyrocketing, so we're wasting money on inefficient treatment. 

For Portland, I'm interested in how we can prepare for the future and invite collaborative spaces to recognize that we can't continue to spin our wheels with non-functional delivery mechanisms. The solution needs to be more than locking people up, but that doesn't mean that we can't have some tough love in terms of treatment. It means that we should move forward with greater collaboration with hospitals, law enforcement, local government, and private-public partnerships. I've watched us flounder with this inability to provide treatment services, partially because Progressives find reasons not to do things based on complications, but I think there are paths forward. I'm interested in facilitating collaborations between hospitals, local government, law enforcement, and education to break the gridlock that is not keeping pace with the necessary professionals. We're suffering from burnout and hangovers from the pandemic; it's just returning to basics. 

I'm interested in exploring community-based solutions and learning from what's going on successfully elsewhere, because we're not unique. Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are in similar policy conundrums, and we have an opportunity to learn from one another. Judge Steve Leifman has a fabulous program in Miami-Dade County, in terms of helping troubled populations who are seriously addicted in a non-prosecutorial fashion. There are so many great models we can learn from, and I'm highly interested in being part of that knowledge sharing.

I would imagine that it's not common for new members of Congress to want to be mentored. They've been elected with a career before they’re appointed to Congress, but talk about the mentoring you’ve been involved in with your younger colleagues over the years. When transferring experience and knowledge, what works and what doesn’t?

As one of the few organizations I've been involved with, they do a terrible job of managing people in a very complex political environment. You're dealing with a small enterprise with millions of dollars of reelection and committee staff. 

One of the things I've done for the last dozen years is the delivering of a letter to all the new members of Congress. This letter addresses a series of things that I wish I knew before my experience, and now, it’s around seven pages long. Virtually every week, someone tells me that this was the best advice they’ve received. Well, these are the things we need to do. We're all in this together and the partisan rancor is unparalleled. I've not seen anything like this and I came at the height of the Gingrich revolution. 

It’s about being able to provide simple and common-sense advice about what to do as a person. How do you survive in this climate? One piece of advice I give is to put family first with scheduling but make sure that you don't get cut. I say you should have healthy food available because it’s an environment with unpredictable hours, often being shuttled to places with too much alcohol and unhealthy food. Those meals are not a substitute for proper nourishment. This is not rocket science but I am convinced that simple advice like this makes a difference. Another one is to bring a bike to Washington D.C. as it's cheaper, faster, and healthier than driving. I’m genuinely interested in who these people are, as people. I've had some fascinating comments while delivering this letter personally to each of the offices, sparking conversation. It isn't hard to find out that virtually everybody has shared interests. I believe in bike partisanship as a way to break the ice, and everybody has a bike story. These are things that humanize the process, and I would like to think that I’ve contributed to bringing the temperature down by giving people these tools for their successes on initiatives, both large and small.

Let me close with this. You've often come to VerdeXchange, our annual global green conference related to energy, water, transportation, and finance. I'm hoping you'll come again next May of 2024, and if so, do you have any particular areas of interest?

Well, David, I’ll review your always fascinating agenda and respective attendees, but my agenda isn't changing much. I want to make sure that we're investing in a low-carbon, equitable future. As VerdeXchange pioneered those efforts, the successes you've had serve as testimony to that. 

I continue to feel strongly about the underperformance in our agricultural reform, which is aimed to improve the health of the planet, our communities, and our citizens. These are linkages that people agree with intuitively, and we're just spending too much on the wrong people, places, and systems. Additionally, reforms address better practices and places for agricultural activity. Such are those basic things and I'll look for ways to weave my biases into the exciting agenda that I know you will produce. I can’t wait to meet the fascinating people who are going to be in attendance and look forward to using my energy in a more productive way as we move forward. 

“Increasingly, it's clear that I'm better off working as a civilian on the things I care about, particularly coming off a spectacular couple of years. [For example,] the Inflation Reduction Act and the Chips Act.” - Congressman Blumenauer