The Livability Caucus

Can Congress Walk the Walk?

When freshman Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Portland, Oregon, began his term in the House of Representatives three years ago, he wore bow-ties to stand out among the other congressional newbies. Now he’s known more for having one of the greenest reputations in Congress. Chief among his legislative achievements is the launching of a task force on livable communities, a sure sign that the anti-sprawl agenda has arrived on the national political stage.

The task force sees its mission as getting rid of tax-and-spend policies that promote sprawl, while emphasizing a partnership between government, local communities, and civic and business organizations in shaping public policy. With its first salvos, the task force has taken aim at real estate management. One bill would require the Postal Service to comply with local zoning and building codes and seek community comment before relocating offices. It’s an effort to curb the movement of post offices from historic buildings downtown to strip malls.

Another entity legally exempt from building codes is the Architect of the Capitol, the development arm of the federal government responsible for sites like the much-maligned Rayburn federal building, which allocates 42 percent of its space for parking. Besides asking the Capitol architect to play by the rules, the task force wants it to adopt a sustainable design that emphasizes less fossil fuel and more solar power, places sites close to mass transit and uses recyclable construction materials.
The task force also seeks better links between federal buildings and Washington’s envied mass transit system. “The region, in spite of having invested $10 billion in a really superb rail system, has not done a good job of focusing growth and development around that system,” Blumenauer says. By reviewing the management and location of federal buildings with input from district officials, he adds, government can improve air quality and help stabilize neighborhoods as well as increase subway ridership.

The congressman is making sure that he walks the walk. An avid cyclist, he rides his bicycle to work, beating Washington’s legendary traffic. His dedication to car-free commuting inspires like-minded legislators, some of whom are now members of a bipartisan bike caucus. Blumenauer also successfully reversed a House prohibition on funding employee commutes via public transit, a galling contradiction considering congressional staff get free parking valued at around $150 a month. A pragmatic Blumenauer predicts, however, that Congress is still at least three years away from passing significant livability legislation.

But, says Kathryn Hohmann, director of environmental quality at the Sierra Club, “These congressional task forces can be valuable, and this one is already floating legislation. Obviously, this is an acknowledgment that the sprawl issue is reaching a critical point.”