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Earmarks are coming back and Oregon is positioned to get them says Rep. Blumenauer

Posted by on February 18th, 2021 at 3:23 pm

Blumenauer at this morning’s JPACT meeting (lower right).

Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer dropped into a meeting of the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT) Thursday morning to share an overview of what to expect from the Biden Administration.

“If there’s an opportunity to jumpstart some of the regional investments, I think we ought to fully explore and work together to make that successful.”

JPACT is an influential body convened by Metro that has several mayors and other high-profile elected officials and transportation leaders from around the region on its roster list. The regional manager of ODOT is a member. So is new PBOT Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.

“I was disappointed with the regional response to the ballot measure,” Blumenauer said at the outset of his remarks. “But it’s a process for us to step back, reflect and learn.”

Blumenauer set the table for his address by listing the myriad crises facing America and said Congress is at its most divisive state “since the Civil War”. The good news now is that we finally have a “grown-up” in the White House, who is “dedicated to governance” he said, in reference to President Joe Biden.

As for the prospects of a transportation infrastructure bill on Capitol Hill in the near future, Blumenauer sounded very positive. While votes in the House and Senate might be tight on most issues these days, Blumenauer said he’s hopeful transportation will be different. “I hope that the broad recognition that investing, rebuilding and renewing America is something that doesn’t have to be partisan.”

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Whatever happens, Blumenauer made it clear Oregon is poised to have an influence and reap benefits. Blumenauer’s long-time colleague and fellow Oregonian, Representative Peter DeFazio is chair of the all-important House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. And Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is now chair of the Senate Finance Committee. This means Oregonians are in key transportation policy and purse-string positions.

“We’re in a great position, having two key people on two key committees, moving this forward,” Blumenauer said.

Blumenauer also shared insights on how Congress will likely pay for new transportation investments. He said the chances of the federal government supporting a gas tax increase or tolling is very unlikely. Blumenauer referred to a gas tax increase as a “dead end for us” and that he doesn’t want to spend time fighting for something that has no chance of passing. The one revenue method he prefers is something Oregon happens to have been a pioneer on: A road user charge.

Blumenauer feels a road user charge can be more precisely targeted to avoid inequities and can “manage transportation behavior in a more granular fashion.” He spoke of a potential “grand bargain” where road user fees would be “concentrated on those who are creating the problem and the expensive solutions” and rural and small town residents would get a break.

At the end of his remarks, Blumenauer told the assembled leaders that Congressional earmarks are on their way back. The idea of earmarks — where members of Congress get funding for pet projects back in their district — ended several years ago after the failure of high-profile bridge project in Alaska made them politically toxic. Blumenauer said this morning they’ll return under a new name: “congressionally directed spending.”

Blumenauer said the new program will have much higher standards of transparency to “make sure there is no question of abuse or misappropriation”.

Bringing it back to Metro’s regional investment measure voters rejected in November, Blumenauer said, “If there’s an opportunity to jumpstart some of the regional investments, I think we ought to fully explore and work together to make that successful.”

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Steve Scarich
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Steve Scarich

Blumenauer bragging about the return of earmarks, one of the least transparent and democratic aspects of the legislative system. The swamp deepens.

SolarEclipse
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SolarEclipse

Oh wow, here comes the pork. Whenever that happens it enriches the few and helps the fewest citizens.
Can’t say I’m excited for this.

Nadia Maxim
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Nadia Maxim

Bringing back pork. 🙁 I’m disappointed in the Democrats. Despite what Blumenauer says, I have serious doubts they will be on the “up and up” in this unfortunate reincarnation.

Brendan
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Brendan

Id rather have pork than nothing, one of the roles of a member of congress is to bring home the bacon to their district. Talk swamp, but former president was backroom taking donations for deals that eventually benefited him and his children and nothing was built for the people. Former president was supposed to be the best at the art of the deal and was gonna give us a big ole infrastructure package. He had all 3 bodies of the govt to make it happen but didn’t.

Mike Quigley
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Mike Quigley

Now that the shoe is on the other foot, pork is suddenly a bad thing. You may want out of Portland, but are you SURE you want to move to Texas?

Jon
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Jon

Keep in mind a “road user charge” is alternative to the gas tax that just taxes everyone that drives a car a flat fee per mile driven (1.8 cents per mile driven in OR). This incentivizes larger vehicles since instead of paying more gas taxes when you drive a giant SUV that gets 10 miles per gallon, you pay the same amount as someone that drives a Prius that gets 50+ miles per gallon. Those giant SUVs are the vehicles that are killing bicycles and pedestrians at an ever increasing rate and spewing out more C02 and pollutants. Any “road user charge” needs to be adjusted so that if you drive some monster vehicle that is more likely to kill a vulnerable road user that you pay more. How about every SUV and truck paying 5 cents per mile and smaller efficient vehicles pay the 1.8 cents per mile?

Nadia Maxim
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Nadia Maxim

I think it’s time for a 3rd party. Need to unite fiscally responsible Democrats and socially progressive Republicans. Ending “pork” and getting rid of “dark money” and big contributors to election campaigns would be part of their platform.

Hello, Kitty
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Hello, Kitty

I’m torn. Without earmarks, there was little to be loyal to but party, which helped keep Republicans in lockstep. That amplified partisanship, and proved a destructive force overall. We badly need to tone down our political tribalism.

On the other hand, I think most people regard earmarks as corruption-adjacent, and to have restoration of the practice be one of the first things Democrats did once they took power doesn’t look good.

former congressional staffer
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former congressional staffer

Earmarks have gotten a bad name due to some unscrupulous committee chairman who have abused them but they are not inherently a bad thing. It’s a way for Cities/ metro areas, etc to advocate for specific high priorities that may not be the priority of the state DOT where typical transportation money funnels through. When I worked on capitol hill and handled earmark request applications, there was an application process with scoring criteria measuring many things (climate impacts, ability to leverage other local or private dollars, the number of partnering organizations or agencies, etc). The most competitive applications were ones where was broad support among many organizations/agencies. Requests were submitted with letters of support. In fact, TREC – the transportation research center at PSU started as a congressional earmark.
In theory, Metro, the various Cities and getting together coalition could submit the east portland corridor projects from the metro bond measure for an earmark. It would be tough to cobble together that size of earmark from the Oregon legislature, since lawmakers outside of the Portland region don’t want to fund that. But something like that could make an attractive project if there is strong regional support. Anyway- this sort of thing is more fair than the way federal transportation dollars are currently distributed by formula funds that advantage states with a ton of existing highway miles (reasons rural states end up getting way more money back per dollar sent to DC).