August 25, 2021 - From the August, 2021 issue

Rep. Earl Blumenauer on Infrastructure & Climate Risk

With the US House of Representatives' passage this week of a $3.5 trillion budget framework, Democrats leading both chambers hope to both fund hard infrastructure projects and also deliver comprehensive federal investments in climate resilience, child care, and family leave. Ahead of the budget reconciliation process and as the California legislature considers measures to bypass local restrictions on climate-risky development,  TPR spoke with US Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who sits on the House Ways & Means Committee, for insights on the also-pending $1 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act. While Blumenauer highlights the plan's significant new investments in water and broadband infrastructure, as extreme heat, wildfires, floods, and other climate impacts pummel cities nationwide, the Congressman laments the Senate's rejection of "truly transformational" infrastructure reforms. Citing continued rebuilding in high-risk flood and fire zones, Blumenauer asserts it's time to reassess how the federal government calculates and conditions disaster relief.


Earl Blumenauer

“This has the potential to be the most consequential session of Congress in American history…We've already moved trillions of dollars… and we are setting the stage for something that could be even more monumental.”—Earl Blumenauer

Congressman, over the last decade,  you’ve shared with TPR readers how unusual it's been not to have a congressional bipartisan consensus on infrastructure or even serious and productive committee hearing. What then is the significance of the Senate passing a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill and handing President Biden a bipartisan win?

It's an important step forward. And to be clear, having over $550 billion dollars of new spending with bipartisan support is a significant advance forward. It was something that Republicans could never bring themselves to support when Donald Trump was talking about a trillion or $2 trillion. It's significant that there was a bipartisan effort to bring it across the finish line in cooperation with the Biden administration. Joe Biden made it clear that he supports infrastructure, and that's the biggest change that we've had since we've been having these conversations.

For years, we haven't had a president who really was committed to a bold infrastructure investment. We couldn't move in the Bush administration. We got some things around the edges with Obama. Trump talked big but couldn't deliver. But now, having a president clarifying that this is what he supports and is able to work on a bipartisan basis, I think is quite significant. And to be sure, it's not what the President wanted; it's not what we had hoped to achieve. But still, $550 billion is a significant investment in things that we care about. I celebrate that.

There are things included that I've been working on for years. We've talked before about trying to get the Superfund tax reestablished. The legislation I've got is in there. There are other little things like private activity bonds that I've had legislation on for a number of sessions that we couldn't quite get across the finish line. 

There's significant money that's going to be invested in roads and bridges and a significant investment in Amtrak passenger rail. Again, it’s not what the President requested, and it's not what we passed in the House, but it is nonetheless a significant investment at a time when it makes a difference.

And instantly, we're going to pivot to the larger question of whether or not we can do something significant for the climate, human infrastructure, for early childhood education, for paid family leave, and for improving healthcare outcomes. A variety of features are part of this $3.5 trillion proposal that we will be working on that would be truly transformational, not traditionally in the range of infrastructure, but nonetheless very, very significant. This has the potential to be the most consequential session of Congress in American history. We've already moved trillions of dollars. We've already taken amazing steps in terms of dealing with the pandemic to cutting child poverty in half this year, and we are setting the stage for something that could be even more monumental. For the next three months, this is where the action is and probably beyond that.

Congressman Blumenauer, give our readers a sense of the role that you and your House colleague in Oregon, Chairman DeFazio, play as we go forward in adopting a congressional infrastructure budget and reaching consensus on reconciliation instructions.

Our opportunities to continue negotiating and enhancing are severely restricted by what the Senate did. There are elements here that cannot be done through reconciliation. There's not going to be a Conference Committee, which we think would have resulted in important reforms. The House bill was truly transformational. The House took on the notion of ‘Fix It First’ in terms of not just reflexively moving to more road construction, but being able to give the low carbon transportation a future and giving communities more control over things that would help deal with congestion and carbon pollution. Sadly, the performance metrics to deliver on carbon reduction are not going to be a part of this package.

But it's not over yet. Chairman DeFazio's committee has something in the order of $60 billion in reconciliation instructions, so there are things that he can use for some of these elements. Again, it's not what we anticipated, it's not what we'd hoped, but it is not insignificant. There are also opportunities working with the administration to refine things within their parameters. And, candidly, I'm now taking a hard look at what we can do within the reconciliation instructions.

The Ways and Means Committee is going to be responsible for a major portion of the $3.5 trillion. Most of that will be concentrated on the climate and human infrastructure, but there may be elements that can further enhance this low carbon transportation future. Sadly, we've missed an opportunity for doing something transformational in terms of the infrastructure space, but we're not done yet.  I anticipate that there's going to be a lot of hard analysis of what we can squeeze into this, either within the reconciliation instructions or by working with the administration.

As you noted, the Senate-passed bill would be, if finally approved, the largest infusion of federal investment in infrastructure projects in more than a decade. It includes power infrastructure, public transit, passenger rail, bridge repair, clean drinking water and wastewater, high speed internet, clean energy, transmission, EV infrastructure, and grid deployment authority to build a clean 21st century electric grid—not to mention investment in airports, ports and waterways. What among those priorities included in this bill are you most proud of championing?

Well, I mentioned the Superfund tax. There's also a number of things in terms of dealing with drinking water pollution and being able to finally tackle the outrage of lead pipes that are poisoning our children when they drink from the fountain at school.  Lead poisoning affects their ability to learn and has behavioral consequences—it's an infrastructure problem that is damaging our children and solving this problem is a major development that’s long overdue.

I’m proud of the investment in high-speed internet and broadband extension to people across the country. We're living in Zoom era and finding that broadband internet access is absolutely essential for doing business, for education, and for health care. This investment is a major initiative that's going to make a big difference for people from coast to coast. Those are two of the things that stand out for me that are long overdue and will have impact quickly.

This interview is being conducting as more than 150 million people across the United States are under some form of heat alert with baking temperatures expected in the Pacific Northwest, parts of the Plains, the South, and much of the Northeast. Indeed, many are without electricity and air conditioning after blustering winds and heavy rains rip through the Great Lakes and a hurricane approaches the Northeast. How does the infrastructure bill address western water infrastructure, climate resilience, and environmental remediation?

It’s long overdue for us to address all that we haven’t done with water infrastructure. As you know, I have been working for years on reform of our flood insurance programs to try and deal with disasters in a way that is no longer a disaster. Our federal programs are really embarrassing when we look to what happened with superstorm Sandy or in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; we spend huge sums of money after the fact, and we don't spend it very strategically. I'm hopeful this is an area where we can make some difficult decisions about what we have to do to deal with the consequences of climate change that are so apparent.

This is something that we have discussed, strategized over, hoped to see change, but the federal government continuously has failed to meet the challenge on the order of magnitude that’s necessary. What's happened this summer, particularly over the course of the last six weeks, puts us in a much stronger position to finally be able to take the steps that are necessary. Why do we allow residential development in the flame zone? You've seen in southern California where the wildfires go through and it's so hard to implement good solid, local and state policies to get people out of those areas.

The fastest growing area of residential development in the United States has been the urban-rural interface, which is outrageous. It increases the costs of fighting wildfires and forest fires, it puts more of our first responders in harm's way, and it delays the opportunity for the regenerative impact of a healthy fire that makes the landscape more resilient. Instead, this effort, because we're trying to protect homes that are where they don't belong, we end up suppressing fires, so fuel load builds up and the next fire is more likely and more serious.

And people who live in the flame zone are responsible for a number of these fires. It's not just PG&E and lightning strikes. People are out there who are creating these problems in the first place. I sincerely hope that we're going to be able to realize that these circumstances are absolutely unparalleled, and it is beyond debate that we have to act and act boldly, What we saw in terms of people drowning in subway systems in China, Japan, London, New York, the tragic village completely destroyed in Germany, and then the analysis in the New York Times two days later that talked about development decisions for a century that made that disaster more likely and made it worse.

As you well know, divergent interests engage in legislation and funding directed at development, resilience, and sustainability.  In California, for example, there has been a three-year, well-funded campaign, for the State to override local jurisdictions to allow housing development by-right in R-1 zones. Does by-right density square with protecting the urban flame zone and the rural-urban interface?

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Well, I think that these areas are not mutually exclusive. One of the things that I will be proposing this fall is for the federal government to change the formula for disaster relief to place more responsibility on individual property owners, developers, and state and local governments for those who are in areas that put them in harm's way, so that the federal government provides less support for them and ultimately provides none.

We're going to have to get to the point where we recognize that there are areas we're going to have to abandon. It’s lunacy that people are talking about the Corps of Engineers building a 20-foot seawall from Miami at a cost of billions and billions of dollars—it shouldn't happen; it's not going to happen. I fully understand the need for more housing development, and we've made some changes in Oregon to make it easier for developers to build housing where it is appropriate, but it's not appropriate in flood zones; it's not appropriate in the flame zone; and it puts us on a fool's errand. It costs money, it costs lives, and it isn't the affordable, sustainable housing that we need in our metropolitan areas.

So, I think it's a false choice. The more that we put responsibility on state and local government and private property owners for development decisions that are—let's just say—ill advised, we change the economics, and the federal government should not be providing subsidy for inappropriate developments. We're reaching a point where we're not going to be able to do that. The costs are accelerating dramatically, and due to what's happening with extreme climate events, the costs are going to increase exponentially.

My community had three consecutive days of record setting temperatures starting at 106  degrees and reaching 116 degrees this summer.  These are literally life and death circumstances. We no longer have the luxury of pretending that we can nibble at this around the edges, that we can put off updating floodplain maps, or that we can continue to allow housing development in places where Mother Nature repeatedly shows that it doesn't belong.

 I think this is the year that these things come to a head despite the delicate dance we're having now on infrastructure. I’m hopeful that there is an opportunity with this administration and its commitment to a low carbon sustainable future and the economics that are being phased around the country that we can finally bite this bullet and make some significant changes.

With the resurgence of COVID, is there any evidence that the Delta variant and the growing number of global and extreme environmental events are impacting the views of legislators and Governors who have objected to the infrastructure agenda you champion? Is there any new movement in the House for consensus around the challenges?

There's not yet movement towards a consensus, but I will tell you that people are having their attention directed to this. The IPCC climate report says in the strongest possible terms that this is unequivocal and what we're seeing is a preview of coming attractions that are going to be worse, but I do think that people are having their attitudes adjusted.

I returned to Portland the end of last summer to the worst air quality in the world. Wildfires that we faced drifted all over the Pacific Northwest. Right now, wildfire smoke from the West is drifting into the Midwest and beyond. What we're seeing with the Colorado River Basin, it’s at its lowest level in a millennium. These are unequivocal signals that we're not going to be able to ignore this. Something is different, and when you see the devastation, the loss of life, the loss the property, and the pain and suffering around the globe, I think there are people whose attitudes are softening.

We have an administration that is committed to action, and with the private sector, we're seeing more and more attention. It's not a breakthrough moment yet, but I think that it really is a series of staggering events. I hear casual conversation in the House of Representatives’ gym or off the House floor that this is really getting people's attention. When hundreds of people in the Pacific Northwest are dying from heat, these are things people recognize are not normal and that it is in fact getting worse, and people can see it get worse.

The Rockefeller Foundation recently published a report on the true cost of food, an issue that you have also championed. Before we continue on the needs for infrastructure funding, comment on the agriculture bills that you've been pressing and the coalitions you’ve cobbled together in support.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s report suggests what you pay at the grocery store is about one-third of the true cost of food. And actually, this is an area where the pandemic has helped focus attention in different ways. We've talked about having healthcare programs be able to pay for healthy food and enabling doctors to write a prescription for healthy food. What happened? I spent a year with legislation to try and rescue the restaurants that were just pounded in the pandemic, and we were able to throw a partial lifeline. We're still trying to help them more, but it illustrated the vulnerability of these supply chains for our restaurants and for local food supplies. The pandemic has put all of that in very sharp relief, and the climate is a significant overlay.

 I have been in conversation with small growers and winemakers here in the Pacific Northwest where their crops are being scorched. You're seeing it in Northern California in terms of wine production and signaling that with climate change, it may never return to where it was fully. This is part and parcel of the climate discussion of health and of being realistic about what capacities nature has to work.

We cannot continue growing subsidized cotton in the desert in Arizona when you have the Colorado River so stressed. So, I see this as being part of our broader conversation of adding more converts and getting more people to understand how fragile the system is, and how important it is to factor in climate change and sustainability along with health. The health consequences of the way we produce food are staggering. The costs in terms of diabetes, obesity—half of our healthcare costs are tied up to a diet that is unhealthy and tied to industrial meat production and monoculture in the Midwest. These things are all tied together. This is an opportunity to try and unpack it in a way that the public will have a better chance of understanding it.

In conclusion, and pivoting back to the infrastructure bills, are local governments and the public works managers of city and regional proprietary departments actually ready for a large infusion of money and robust policies that will flow through the federal pipeline with congressional agreement?

I’m concerned. We're already seeing the consequences of a massive infusion of federal money that the state and local governments were not prepared to effectively manage. We sent hundreds of billions of dollars to state and local governments to deal with the housing crisis and the eviction storm that's brewing…

It is really depressing that there was an inability to get this money out the door to be able to pay the rent that was due to keep people in their homes and not punish landlords, particularly small and medium sized operators.

 So, we're looking now at billions of dollars that are likely to be moving in the infrastructure project pipeline. State and local government and the private sector have been clamoring for this for years. But sometimes it's not so much a matter of shovel-ready projects when we don't have pencil-ready projects. I am hopeful that our friends and colleagues in local government, and frankly in the private sector, enter this challenge in a spirit of good faith and try to be able to expedite things that need to be expedited. I hope there's a minimum of legal wrangling. There's enough of a challenge here that there's a role for all of us to play.

I'm hopeful that it is less of a challenge dealing with infrastructure, and many communities have been doing farsighted planning. There's greater strength in terms of the metropolitan planning organizations and you've done, I think, a great job in Southern California. You've got a vision of what you want to do for the next half century, so hopefully this will get you in a good position. And, you have really some of the best infrastructures in terms of management, vision, and planning for water resources. I continually am impressed with what you've done in Southern California. I think you may have a little bit of a head start, but all of us are going to be challenged to try and do it right.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.