Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer is known for causes that are as unique and quirky as Portland, the city he represents. It’s hard to find a profile of him that doesn’t touch on at least some of these themes: his love of bicycles, bow ties, streetcars, fighting suburban sprawl and championing legal marijuana.

One of his less-noted passions is access to clean water, particularly in the world’s poorest countries. And he chalked up a big win on that front in the closing days of the lame-duck Congress, which passed the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act.

The name of the legislation — not to mention its details — may sound sleep-inducing, but it’s another part of the long efforts by Blumenauer and his allies to push clean water as a top U.S. foreign policy goal. It makes sense that a guy from Portland, where pure water is sort of a birthright, would latch on to this issue.

“This is something that is sort of the common denominator; it touches everybody,” Blumenauer said in a 2012 interview with One, the international aid group established by the rock star Bono. “It is something that actually does not require much investment compared to the other challenges we face. It is an opportunity to have multiple benefits.”

At a rally this year, Blumenauer said 1,400 children a day die of water-related diseases and that women and girls spend much of their time fetching water for their families.

“There are more people on this planet with a cellphone than a toilet,” Blumenauer added.

The latest legislation is a follow-up to a 2005 law also named for Simon — the late Illinois senator who attended the University of Oregon and also had a love of bow ties — and established clean water as a priority for U.S. action.

Blumenauer and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors said the latest legislation was needed to prod the government to ensure that U.S. foreign aid on water is focused on the poorest countries and that water issues are examined in coordination with other development projects.  

Because the legislation is aimed at spending U.S. aid more efficiently, it didn’t carry a big price tag that could doom it in Congress. Instead, after repeated tries, Blumenauer and his allies were able to push it through the House last week and the Senate on Monday night.

In a statement, Blumenauer hailed his legislation as a small sign of progress in a politically dismal year in Congress:

As we come to the very final day of the least productive Congress in the history of our country, Americans are searching for something, anything, to show that their leaders on Capitol Hill can find ways to put aside politics and do the right thing when needed.

— Jeff Mapes

Read More