U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio spoke of national infrastructure, tax cuts for big banks and the federal deficit before opening up a town hall meeting to comment Saturday afternoon in Brookings.
He had just attended a transportation infrastructure hearing in Coos Bay where they discussed port dredging and Coast Guard coverage in the unpredictable administration of Donald Trump.
He noted there is a tax on imports, established under President Reagan, to pay for harbor maintenance.
“There’s a $10 billion theoretical trust fund somewhere,” he said, noting his frustration with the constant fight to get harbors dredged on a regular basis. “There is a bill in committee to spend this. Hopefully, Speak (Paul) Ryan won’t pull it out of the bill like he did last year.”
DeFazio said there “aren’t a lot of things” he and the president agree on except funding transportation infrastructure, notably bridges, subways, ports and highways throughout the U.S.
A highway system was being built piecemeal by states until the federal government implemented a fuel tax to pay for the interstate system, he said.
“Trump said, ‘I’ll put a 25-cent gas tax,’ and someone said, ‘No, the Democrats will kill it,’” DeFazio said. “No, I’d support it, stand behind it, stand beside it, whatever. We haven’t had a gas tax increase since 1993.”
He said there will not be an infrastructure bill this year.
Another issue that has him peeved is the tax cuts Trump gave to big banks — a $3.9 billion windfall, DeFazio called it. Wells Fargo was recently fined $1 billion for nefarious banking acts — and will capture $1 billion a quarter in tax cuts.
“And we’re borrowing taxpayer money to give to them,” DeFazio said. “They’ll save $20 billion in taxes, and increase the deficit by $1 trillion a year. It isn’t going to be long before we start to look like Greece.”
Another issue brought up was the likelihood of nuclear war.
“I wish I could give you great reassurance one person doesn’t have that power,” DeFazio said. “But one person does have that authorization.”
He blames a “defective” two-part War Powers Act that either requires a president to get approval from Congress — or merely notify Congress — that the U.S. is going to attack another country.
“One (part of the act) says unless there’s a direct threat, you need Congressional OK,” he said. “The second (requires the president) to notify Congress, and this has taken precedence. And the courts have refused to hear cases about abuse of power by any president.”
DeFazio also supports the idea of eliminating the Electoral College — a system devised when farflung states had little means of communicating with the East Coast — or at least changing it. The winner of federal elections in most states get all the electoral votes, DeFazio said. But others — he cited Maine — divide their votes proportionately to how the citizens voted.
Gerrymandering, the recrafting of Congressional districts that both Democrats and Republicans try to do to their party’s advantage, is of more concern. Recently a court in Pennsylvania threw out a Republican-drafted plan that clearly made Republican districts carry more weight in elections. Other states are following suit.
He also reassured people that, as long as the federal government keeps its promises, the Social Security Trust Fund will only be used for Social Security benefits and will be solvent for at least the next 24 years and at a 75 percent after that.
To keep it solvent beyond that — particularly since Baby Boomers are just entering the system — will require “increased taxes? No. Increase the age? No. Increase the income cap,” DeFazio said.
Currently, those making more than $120,000 a year don’t pay Social Security taxes.
Back to Curry
Many of the 80 or so citizens in the audience were curious what DeFazio could do about recovery from the Chetco Bar Fire, notably replanting the backcountry, addressing future silt issues in the river and Port of Brookings Harbor and preventing another megafire.
There is no funding for disaster relief for Curry County, as it didn’t qualify under the presidential declaration.
“And there’s a $5 billion backlog in this region, let alone a set-aside fund for anticipated problems,” DeFazio said. “I fight on an annual basis for that.”
One citizen asked if legislation could be enacted to make corporations first “do no harm” when it comes to anything related to the environment — particularly in light of climate change.
While DeFazio said that is why the U.S. has the Clean Water and Air acts, the citizen noted that issues tend to be addressed individually and all the while corporations that abuse the environment get stronger.
“They’re overriding the public good,” he said. “The problems get externalized for the rest of the public to pay for.”
“Unfortunately, those laws are under attack,” DeFazio said, citing Citizens United, which allows corporations to contribute to political action committees as if they are people. “The Supreme Court overturned a 100-year precedent. Now, we’ve got the best government money can buy, and it’s not too good.”
He said the only way to combat such problems is to vote.
DeFazio said, too, that despite worry along the West Coast, there will be no oil drilling offshore from Oregon, as there are no good reserves.
“California is vulnerable,” he said. “But it’s all political grandstanding on their part. With this administration, there’s not much you can do about it.”
He also discussed veteran’s issues, particularly related to the firing of Roseburg VA hospital Director Doug Paxton.
“He totally mismanaged that veteran’s hospital,” DeFazio said. “What wasn’t seen, he was letting some very incompetent staff run wild and drive away very competent people.”
Some citizens thanked DeFazio for work he’s recently done, including getting a 10-year mineral withdrawal on land in the headwaters of the Smith and Illinois rivers.
That battle is far from over, however.
A five-year mineral withdrawal on the Chetco River expires next summer, and DeFazio said it will be hard to keep withdrawals intact under this administration. The project proposed on the Chetco River was for a condominium and gold-mining resort.
“Why we give away our precious resources for such a low cost …” he said. “First it was the Homestead Act, then the Mining Act. And the USA has no royalties. We let foreign countries come in here and take and make money on non-renewable assets and they don’t pay a penny in royalties.”
And Red Flat Nickel, an offshore company based in England that wanted to mine for nickel in Curry County, recently met with officials in Washington, D.C., he said.
DeFazio then met with local Democrats at their headquarters on Chetco Avenue before heading up to Port Orford for another town hall meeting.