Inch by Inch, Row by Row
The most frequently asked questions I get from students on campuses, businesses, groups at home and as I travel the country are — isn’t it crazy in Washington? Isn’t Congress ideologically driven and dysfunctional? How do you, a liberal from Portlandia, stand it?
The answer is simple: be engaged, productive, and take advantage of opportunities, even small ones, to make progress.
Throughout my career, I’ve focused on finding ways to get things done. As an Oregon legislator, I authored legislation creating Oregon’s Department of Transportation and mandating a comprehensive, statewide, multimodal state transportation plan 20 years before it became federal policy.
I’ve been proud of innovations I led in local government for planning and transportation, helping to get Portland’s first light rail line and then playing a lead role in transforming it into a light rail system.
In Congress, I’ve led efforts on flood insurance reform and the environment, advancements in transportation and energy policies, and reforming the tax code. While these have all been immensely satisfying, in an era of dysfunction and clashes of opposing philosophies, increasingly efforts to advance these issues result in a stalemate.
Recently, I’ve changed tactics, focusing on smaller issues that can have profound consequences and often bipartisan support. I’ve worked for a decade on improving drinking water and sanitation both at home and abroad with my Water for the Poor legislation and led efforts to assist Afghan interpreters who helped American soldiers to escape to safety, instead of being killed by the Taliban. I’ve been a vocal opponent of the War on Drugs, fighting to reform outdated and out of touch marijuana laws. I’ve also been an advocate for strengthening end of life care planning.
While some of these may seem like relatively small items, they all have profound ripple effects throughout our society.
For example, marijuana reform has been a priority of mine for over four decades now, and we have been making incremental progress. Last month, we had a significant and historic victory for our veterans and the movement. After efforts in three Congresses, the House overwhelmingly approved my amendment to allow VA doctors, in states where medical marijuana is legal, to consult with veterans about whether it is a good treatment option. This comes at a critical time when veterans have a suicide rate 50 percent higher than civilians and overdose with opiates at nearly double the national average. For some veterans, medical marijuana may be a safer, more effective alternative to other drugs. They should at least be able to consult with their VA doctor about it.
The House successfully took a step toward smarter defense spending, passing my amendment to increase transparency in nuclear weapons spending. This will help ensure that Congress has the information it needs to make fiscally responsible decisions on this issue.
We’re seeing movement in righting the wrongs done to the Columbia River Treaty Tribes by encouraging the construction of new tribal housing to replace villages and traditional fishing sites flooded following the construction of the Columbia River dams.
We were able to dial back animal testing, as proposed by Senator Booker and the Humane Society, and a whole array of animal welfare advocates in and out of Congress.
None of these items in and of themselves are earthshaking, nor are they solely my achievement. That is actually the point.
I’ve been able to be part of a variety of well-intended coalitions that are working on a bipartisan basis to make change — not waiting to hit a grand slam homerun, but settling up for a double, a single, maybe a sacrifice bunt. We’re moving the process along, showing that progress can be made and that each and every one of these developments has widespread consequences.
We’re planting the seeds for a better Congress and for the new administration to be able to get past the shouting heads and discord, the coarseness of the current politics, to be able to do what we should be doing — solving problems for the American people. Not everyone will agree with every one of the examples I cite as particularly noteworthy, but they understand that progress is being made. This can lead to more cooperation in the future.
That is what keeps me going.
Like the little children’s song sung by Pete Seeger, “Inch by Inch, Row by Row,” that is the foundation. That is the plan. Next, it’s increasing clean water access in Gaza, agriculture reform, partnerships for better care for late-stage kidney patients. It’s rebuilding and renewing America and ending the disastrous War on Drugs.
Every day spent advancing such an agenda and approach is one that is exceptionally rewarding, fulfilling, and fun.
Member of Congress