Think Out Loud

US Rep. Kurt Schrader shares why he pushed to separate two federal spending bills

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Aug. 26, 2021 5:45 p.m. Updated: Aug. 27, 2021 8:56 p.m.
Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-OR.

U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, an Oregon Democrat, pushed to separate two congressional spending bills, saying he wants to prioritize infrastructure.

John Rosman / OPB


This week Oregon’s 5th district Congressman Kurt Schrader, a Democrat, flexed his political muscle, along with eight of his moderate colleagues.

With the Democratic majority in the U.S. House so thin, party leadership needs to woo all its members to pass controversial legislation.

Schrader and other moderates won concessions from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, separating the bipartisan infrastructure bill that has already passed the Senate, from a $3.5 trillion dollar spending package.

Schrader told “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller that he’d like to support both spending bills, but right now the focus must be on infrastructure.

“We’re out of money. We’re spending money we do not have, we increased the national debt deficit 20% here in just the last year and a half. Trillions—$5 trillion. That’s a lot of money.”

Schrader said he’s got his eye on the budget, but he’s committed to meeting core needs of Oregonians.

“Certainly the forest fires and drought. We included some of that in the resiliency and the infrastructure bill. … We called out the water issues in particular.”

Schrader said that climate change-fueled natural disasters across the country, including wildfires, flooding and hurricanes, need to be addressed differently:

“Our whole disaster fund system is based on the way the disasters used to occur—less frequently, less severe back during Reagan’s administration. We need to update that whole policy.”

Schrader and the other eight moderate Democrats successfully lobbied Speaker Nancy Pelosi to not pass a spending bill in the house that would not also pass the senate. Moderates also got a commitment that the infrastructure bill would be voted on by Sept. 27.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to Congress, which is working on some enormous legislation. Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of senators passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Then Democratic senators moved forward on a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint that’s been described as the most significant expansion of the social safety net since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Earlier this week, House democrats came together to move that bill forward, but a lot of details on that budget bill still need to be filled in, and some huge votes are still to come.

Kurt Schrader, the democrat who represents Oregon’s fifth congressional district, is going to be in the middle of many of those. He’s joined a group of about 10 moderate democrats in saying that the infrastructure bill should be the paramount concern right now. He joins me on the line. Congressman, welcome back.

Kurt Schrader: Hey, thanks for having me, Dave. I appreciate it.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. I want to start with the basics, because there’s a really good chance people have been distracted by Covid and Afghanistan and a million other things, which, if they weren’t happening, I think we’d be paying a lot more attention to some historically large bills right now in Congress. From your perspective, can you lay out what’s happened in Congress over just the last couple weeks?

Schrader: Well, trying to focus on getting America back on track, and probably the best way we can do that is with this significant, actually, once in a century investment, in our nation’s infrastructure: transportation, water and sewer, climate change issues, energy reliability, and frankly, most importantly, as we saw during the pandemic, broadband. Broadband for everybody. So we had a nice bipartisan bill that my problem solvers caucus in the house put together.

It was timely; just as the talks between the president and the republicans in the Senate were falling apart, we came in with ours, and senators picked it up on both sides of the aisle. The president got behind it. It passed the Senate overwhelmingly with a great bipartisan vote, and we just assured its passage two days ago, in the House of Representatives right coming up here in September, so, good news for America. We need some good news right now. As you pointed out, with the Covid surge and Afghanistan going on, Americans need to know that, at least in our own backyard, good things are happening.

Miller: You and your moderate colleagues were able to get Speaker Pelosi to schedule a vote on the infrastructure bill by September 27th. What have you heard about the timeline for the other huge piece of these negotiations? The larger budget bill.

Schrader: The larger budget bill, as you pointed out in your intro, is pretty amorphous, yet undetermined. We don’t know what it’s going to be like. We don’t actually know what’s going to be in it. Therefore, that will take, I would say, a couple of months at the earliest to put together. I know that committees of jurisdiction are working hard, trying to get some of the preliminary work done by the middle or end of next month. We obviously have to put them together with the Senate. Matter of fact, the deal we worked out with the speaker was that we would not vote on anything in the House that didn’t have a chance of passing in the Senate. As you know, several senators there hold some cards, and are worried, much like I am, about the exorbitant spending that we’ve been doing over the last two years, much of it necessary.

I’m very proud of the work that congress did, bipartisan, bicameral, coming together to save our country during Covid. We supported a lot of businesses, a lot of jobs, a lot of families. It’s the reason I think America is going to come out of this Covid epidemic in a much better spot than many other countries around the world. But you get concerned about that going forward. The infrastructure deal, I think, will really position us really, really well to come out of this ready to compete on the world stage and hopefully set things up our kids, our grandkids, over the next several decades.


Miller: Progressives have really been focusing on what strikes me as a relatively new-ish phrase, at least politically, at least to the extent that it’s been used recently, ‘human infrastructure’, to talk about a ton of issues about education, health care, housing, immigration, climate change, all of which are represented, in one way or another, in this reconciliation budget blueprint. Their argument is that human infrastructure is just as important as physical infrastructure. Do you agree?

Schrader: Well, I think the infrastructure term is misleading and frankly, a lot of people think it’s suspect when you try and call something infrastructure, when it really isn’t. These are well intentioned social programs, a lot of which we currently do, all of which we currently do, many of which got a lot of money during the Covid epidemic, particularly in the childcare arena, housing, trying to support education, making sure that our schools could at least stay open in one form or another. We’ve been really working very hard to make sure that happens.

These programs, I’m sure, have value; in my opinion, they should be very targeted to low income folks. Many of them are not at this point in time, and that’s why we’re going to have, I think, a robust discussion over the next several months about what should or should not be ended. The big thing, I think, that all the listeners have to realize is, we don’t have any money. We’re out of money. We’re spending money we do not have. We increased the national debt deficit 20% here in just the last year and a half. $5 trillion. That’s a lot of money.

And we’re not cutting back on the routine expenditures. A lot of these programs are addressed in our routine appropriations processes that are also ongoing. We passed a bunch of appropriations bills on the House side before August, and we need to follow up. The Senate needs to get, with all due respect, their act together and get their work done so we can match those up. That would support a lot of these programs. But the real world is, we just don’t have the money to spend above and beyond what we already did for Covid, and what we’re doing on our routine budget processes.

So let’s focus on that infrastructure package where it’s largely paid for. We can actually get that done. That would really be helpful. A lot of climate change stuff in there, both of the transportation sector, a number of other areas, actually addressing communities of interest that have been separated by some of the transportation links that are out there. I know that’s a big issue in the Portland area in particular. There’s some really good things that we could get behind, and let’s focus on that as our big concern right now.

Miller: You noted that there are still a lot of huge question marks about what the budget blueprint would mean, but there are also some guidelines in terms of what this gigantic pot of money would need to be used for. For education, the blueprint calls for universal pre-k for three and four year olds, child care for working families, tuition-free community college, funding for historically black colleges and universities, and an expansion of the Pell Grant for higher education. Do you support those policies?

Schrader: I support a lot of them, and have over the years. We again address a lot of those. The historic black college issue we addressed in the Covid thing, we addressed it with disadvantaged farmers, frankly in that arena. We’ve been pretty proactive already, in those areas. The budget blueprint, that’s just … with all due respect, every president comes in with an idea of how they’d like to have their agenda proceed. And the Congress is deferential. We take up many of their priorities. But I remind everybody, it is Congress that decides how the money is spent. It is Congress representing all the constituents. I represent my constituents here in Oregon, and in particular the Willamette Valley in the central Coast. I do what they want their money spent on.

That doesn’t always match up exactly with what a president the United States comes up with, no matter how well-intentioned, So, the blueprint is fine. But Congress will make the decisions at the end of the day where the taxpayer money is actually spent.

Miller: One of the parts of this blueprint that has a lot of bearing specifically on the American west and on Oregon is the $135 billion for the committee on agriculture, nutrition, and forestry with instructions to address forest fires, reduce carbon emissions, and address drought concerns. What about using that amount of money for those provisions?

Schrader: Well, we have to find out where that money is. As I pointed out, that money does not exist at this point in time.

Miller: I should say the idea behind where that money would be for all of this would be an increase in taxes on high earning individuals and on corporations. That’s what I’ve seen in terms of the idea for where this money would come from.

Schrader: And I’ve heard that, too. I would like to see a little more specifics on that. Certainly not against having corporations, multinational corporations, pay their fair share, and wealthier people should pay more. That’s the heart of our progressive tax code in this country and in Oregon. So I’m in favor of that, too. But we’ve got to see the details. As a legislator, I’ve got to be pretty careful, got to balance the budget at the same time, addressing the key needs that folks have out there. Certainly, the forest fires and drought. We included some of that in the resiliency and the infrastructure bill, as you probably saw. We called out the water issues, in particular for the American west, and the energy resiliency piece will be a lot, with the power line issues, and how the National Forest Service and BLM integrate their land management policies.

I was on a call last night with our forest service folks, talking about wildfire, and some of the proactive stuff they’re trying to do, working very closely with NOAA and weather folks to get ahead of these fires that are just tearing our country apart at this point time, and the flooding in Tennessee, and the hurricanes on the east coast. It is pretty horrific. A lot of the stuff in the infrastructure package will also help with that, and certainly we’re going to put more money in overtime. Our whole disaster fund system is based on the way the disasters used to occur, less frequently, less severe, back during Reagan’s administration. We need to update that whole policy.

Miller: As you noted, Nancy Pelosi has said that she’s only going to go forward with this massive budget bill if it could clear the Senate, meaning getting the support of moderate democrats there, like Pennsylvania’s Joe Manchin or Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema. Will your group of moderate democrats in the House be in conversations with those moderate democrats in the Senate in the coming weeks, to work together on, in a sense, whittling down this budget?

Schrader: Well, I think that’s a separate subject. The group of nine of us have different opinions about the whole reconciliation process, and what is, or could be, in it at the end of the day. I don’t think that will be a group effort. I certainly won’t stay in touch just to make sure that everyone abides by what they said they were going to abide by in the agreement we struck with the speaker. The speaker has always been a woman of her word, but it’s the old trust, but verify. So we’ll just keep in touch and make sure that the processes are working in parallel, but as far as engaging in active discussions on what is or is not in that, I don’t think our group will have any direct influence at all.

Miller: How much leverage do you feel that you and your group have right now? You were able to get a date certain for the vote on the infrastructure package. Going forward, how much power do you feel like you have?

Schrader: Well, I don’t know if I’d look at it as power, Dave. I think it’s more about trying to represent our folks back home and districts we represent.

Miller: But can’t you only do that if you have power? Isn’t Washington, in the end, all about power?

Schrader: Well, it’s mostly about representing your district, and if there are a number of folks that agree with you, then you exercise that as a group and that gives you power, I guess. That gives you leverage, to a certain degree. But I would hope this is not something that we’d be organizing around all the time. This group came together organically. It wasn’t a group that was there before. It went around the issue. So if there’s another issue that comes up, maybe on points of what is or is not reconciliation, or how big it is, I think you’ll see a different makeup of members, to be very honest.

Miller: Representative Schrader, thanks very much for giving us some of your time today. I really appreciate it.

Schrader: Hey, you bet. Dave, thank you.

Miller: That is Kurt Schrader, Democratic congressman who represents Oregon’s fifth district.

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