May 11, 2018 - From the May, 2018 issue

Congress' Earl Blumenauer On Federal Policy Making Challenges & Opportunities

Oregon Congressmember Earl Blumenauer has long championed crucial infrastructural issues such as transportation funding, climate action, and agriculture. He returns to TPR to explain why those issues are so difficult to tackle under the Trump administration, and shares his most urgent priorities: funding road maintenance through a higher gas tax and, eventually, a road user charge; passing a farm bill that ensures nationwide access to clean water and healthy food; and helping a growing number of states capitalize on the newly legal cannabis industry.

 

Earl Blumenauer

"Investments are happening across the nation—even in Republican-led states—because local leaders are stepping up to make long-overdue increases to the fuel tax and sales tax to fund infrastructure. State and local governments are not waiting." - Rep. Earl Blumenauer

How do you explain to constituents the inability of Congress and the White House to pass a federal infrastructure bill, given the country’s sizeable and significant needs? What needs to happen?

Earl Blumenauer: One of the major problems we continue to have is that Congress is insulated from the issues happening on the ground. Investments are happening across the nation—even in Republican-led states—because local leaders are stepping up to make long-overdue increases to the fuel tax and sales tax to fund infrastructure. More than half of U.S. states have passed some form of investment in infrastructure.

Congress has been governed for the last seven years and four months by Republican leadership that has simply refused to allow the process to work. Indeed, we have had just one five-minute infrastructure witness in the seven years and four months that the Republicans have been in charge of the Ways and Means Committee. In that time, we have watched the majority of states and the majority of the American people tie themselves in knots to patch over the ongoing deficit at the current inadequate of funding. State and local governments are not waiting.

I have been tracking, through the pages of The Planning Report, what has happened in Southern California on infrastructure investment. I have been very impressed with Southern California’s infrastructure ballot measures, which put the region on a successful path for the next 40 years. We saw similar efforts in Seattle, where they raised $47 million in 2016.

Organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are stepping up, too, proposing a 25-cent gas tax increase. The American Trucking Association has supported my legislation. Truckers, who already pay half of the road fees, are willing to do more. Now that the people who are actually paying the bills are supporting increases that will benefit our future, they have upped the ante in Washington.

What is going to be key is for the Republican leadership in the House to allow the process to work—because any revenue measure has to originate in the Ways and Means Committee.

For most of your many years in Congress, infrastructure funding was a bipartisan issue. Today, it clearly is not, and “getting-to-yes” pro-infrastructure members like Representative Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) are retiring in great numbers. What has changed in the leadership of the Republican Party that keeps infrastructure off of the house floor?

When I first joined Congress, I served with Representative Bud Shuster—Bill’s father. Bud, who was also a Republican, and Jim Oberstar (D-Minnesota) were joined at the hip. Shuster wanted to build things, and Oberstar wanted to plan and explain everything. These two formed a basis for leadership that could even buck other leaders; you may remember when they forced President Clinton and Newt Gingrich to provide robust spending for the 1998 infrastructure bill.

What we see from today’s Republican leadership is far more narrowly focused, falling closer to the beliefs of Grover Norquist, the notorious anti-tax zealot. At the same time, there is blame to be shared with the Democrats; the blame is bipartisan. For example, President Obama would not support raising the gas tax. He made a reckless pledge that anyone who made under $250,000 a year would not see any tax increase—and he thought of the gas user tax as a tax increase. Even Ronald Reagan—the Gipper himself—would have disagreed with that position. And as a result of it, we were paralyzed. Although we made some infrastructure investments with the American Recovery Act, sadly we did not nearly enough.

Many political prognosticators expect a change of party leadership after the fall elections. If party change does come to pass, what do you believe will happen for infrastructure funding going forward?

If the election were held today, there would be no question that Democrats would regain control. While it is a long time until November, I think the wind is at our back.

The agenda we have been working on deals with a full range of activities. We need to start by raising and indexing the gas tax, and leveraging that increase through bonding so that we can magnify the impact for immediate needs.

Then we need to replace the gas tax with a road user charge—something on which California continues to make progress. We should make that move within the next decade to make sure that our road funding is sustainable, even as more drivers adopt electric and zero-emission vehicles.

We also plan to move forward on water infrastructure. The Superfund tax is just one example of a program that needs to be reinstated. That tax expired in 1995, and since then, our Superfund program has not been funded.

There are a whole host of activities—like public-private partnerships, private activity bonds, and increasing the harbor maintenance trust fund—that could create new funding. All these actions could provide us with literally $1 trillion to put into family-wage jobs that cannot be outsourced and to improve the quality of life in every community.

At a time when we are going through fundamental changes to the economy—with the collapse of some retail and manufacturing, as well as continued automation and electric vehicle rollout—a road user charge could be the salvation for finding sustainable funding for infrastructure. I think you will see an aggressive program from the Democrats.

Let’s pivot to another matter in which Congress has shown an interest: cannabis. You have long championed cannabis legislation at both the national and state levels. Give our readers a synopsis of where cannabis legislation presently stands at the federal level.

Advertisement

I have been working on this issue longer than anyone else in elected office. I cast my first vote on reform efforts in 1973, when Oregon became the first state to decriminalize marijuana, and I’ve been working on it ever since. I’ve watched a number of efforts building around the country, but frankly, California has been on the forefront.

California kicked off the next phase of marijuana reform in 1996 with its medical marijuana initiative. It was not the most tightly crafted proposal, and there was a lot of medical marijuana that leaked out for recreational purposes. But it was the first step, and a very important one, in opening up the conversation. There has since been a cascade of subsequent efforts in Oregon, Arizona, and dozens of other states.

Today, 29 states have approved ballot measures allowing adult or medical marijuana use. Every state has some version, and we are watching the floodgates open. Just in the last few weeks, we’ve seen former Speaker of the House John Boehner join the advisory board of a major cannabis company. President Trump was beaten up when his Attorney General threatened to pull the rug out from under legal state cannabis businesses by rescinding Obama-era guidance on cannabis policy. Under political pressure, Trump repeated what he had previously said in October 2016: that the states should be in control.

As we conduct this interview—which happens to take place on 4/20, the informal cannabis holiday—Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has come out in favor of full legalization. Oregon Senator Wyden and I introduced such legislation last year, but for someone as typically cautious as Senator Schumer to come on board is evidence that the tide has turned.

Given your interest in advancing a new federal agricultural bill, it’s noteworthy that cannabis is emerging as California’s most valuable crop of the century. But, because cannabis lacks federal approval, banking in the industry is still illegal. This month, California State Senator Bob Hertzbergshepherded a bill through committee that would legalize the equivalent of credit unions for the cannabis industry. What are your thoughts on this approach? Would it make California unique in the U.S.?

There are certain credit unions that are carving out space for the cannabis industry. However, the gyrations that these state-legal businesses need to go through are unfortunate. I have never met a person who thinks there is any benefit to forcing cannabis to be conducted on an all-cash business. It is dangerous and it is insane.

When Senator Hertzberg introduced this bill, it made news because the country pays attention to the California Legislature. I think we are looking at the last year of flailing around in the disconnect between federal policy and local action on the ground. We will soon make sure that cannabis business does not need to be conducted on an all-cash basis. As we try to fix the hellacious tax bill that the Republicans passed, we may be able to get deductions so legitimate business expenses can be accounted for.

 We are looking at the endgame for this broken system. In the next few years, I believe we can transform the cannabis sector into a $20 billion industry that states will be able to regulate like they do alcohol.

In addition to advocating for legalization of cannabis, you are championing a new farm bill in Congress. Indeed, you authored a comic book, The Fight for Food, to explain the importance of the farm bill. Explain how vital the bill is to both urban and rural voters.

People need to pay more attention to the farm bill, because it is the most important environmental bill that this Congress will take up. It addresses water quality, carbon sequestration, and how we value our diet. There is a lot riding on this bill.

We continue to pay too much to the wrong people to grow the wrong food in the wrong ways. We are subsidizing a diet that literally makes Americans sick. Here is an opportunity to reprogram those priorities and principles to make it cheaper to eat healthy food and to protect the interests of small and medium-sized producers.

Everyone drinks water. Everyone has a stake in making sure that we have a farm policy that reflects the priorities of most farmers and ranchers. The current farm bill does not do that, and in fact cheats California in particular. California is the number one producer of agriculture in the nation, and you produce much of the most nutritious crops which need to be supported and properly valued.

The current farm bill expires on September 30, and Congress is in the middle of deliberations on a new version. Recently, an egregious piece of legislation was passed out of committee toward the House floor. We need to stop it.

Where can our urban readers turn to learn about the new federal farm bill?

The report that provided an outline for my proposal—the farm bill for the rest of us—is available on my Congressional website. On my campaign website there is educational material on a better Food and Farm Bill, along with The Fight for Food comic.

Advertisement

© 2018 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.