For Depacio, who underwent back surgery in October, a return to the minority will come at a time of rising partisan and personal grief at home. Even as chairman he has often consulted publicly with Republican Committee member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) On climate priorities of the “Green New Agreement” and countless other issues. (The two say they get along well personally.)
Depacio County is large and ideologically diverse, going to Clinton by just 0.1 percentage points in 2016 and to Bayden by just 4 points in 2020. Depacio himself recently faced his toughest race in years, winning by just five points.
Depacio’s departure leaves a hole in the head of the committee, where he has led the Democrats since 2015. He is an undisputed leader in transportation and infrastructure, and it will be difficult to replace his meticulous and detailed knowledge with dumb and technically complicated issues. His departure is also bad news for the Greens and progressives, who will have a hard time finding an enthusiastic heir from the bluntness of climate change or in good shape to do something about it.
Depacio acknowledged his mixed feelings about leaving “in a challenging time for our republic with the pillars of our democracy in jeopardy,” but said he believes his colleagues and “young Americans who are civically involved and working for change” will carry the flag.
House Ways and Means chairman Richard Neil (D-Mass.), Who, like DeFazio, has served since the 1980s, said DeFazio’s retirement was a “huge loss to institutional knowledge.”
“He was one of those who wisely decided to control the details of his transportation and his instruction over and over again was essential in these big transportation issues,” Neil said. “The fact that we passed a huge transportation law in favor of the state can be credited to the enormous amount of work that Peter Depacio did.”
Before taking the reins of the full committee, DeFazio served as the senior Democrat on four of the committee’s six subcommittees: Aviation, Coast Guard and Marine Transportation, Highways and Passages and Water and Environment Resources. He has served in the T&I since arriving in Congress in 1987 and intervened talentedly as the Democratic leader on the committee following the removal of his two predecessors on the committee, Representative Nick Rahel from West Virginia, who chaired the committee for only two years. And another encyclopedic transportation man, the late Representative James Oberstar of Minnesota.
Based solely on seniority, next in line for the top Democratic seat, whether as chairman or as a rating member, is Dr. Eleanor Holmes Norton (DD.C.), chair of the Subcommittee on Roads and Public Transportation. She will be the first woman, the first representative and the first black congresswoman to chair the committee. However, she will soon turn 85 and has not yet announced her intentions for next year.
Another leading contender will be Representative Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) Who chairs the Aviation Subcommittee, a subcommittee already at the top tier whose profile has risen particularly in recent years. With DeFazio, Larsen led the blame for holding Boeing and the FAA accountable after multiple mishaps that led to the deaths of 346 people in two 737 MAX accidents in 2018 and 2019.
Together, Larsen and Depacio conducted multiple oversight hearings, conducted their own massive investigation into the crash and led a bill to go beyond renovating the way aircraft are approved in the United States.
If Larsen gets the top job, it will well establish Washington State as a hub for transportation, especially aviation, as the Democratic Maria Cantwell in Washington heads the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over aviation, railroads, automotive technology, vehicle safety and the TSA.
For the remaining 13 months in office, DeFazio says it will focus its efforts on passing the Build Back Better Act, which includes key transportation provisions it has compiled that will make up for where it felt the infrastructure law failed.
Alex Doherty contributed to this report.