An Interview With Ron Wyden, the Senate's Powerful Policy Wonk
Having served in Congress for more than three decades — and in the upper chamber since 1996 — Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden has established a reputation as one of the Senate’s more serious and diligent members. Over the years on Capitol Hill, he has watched the Republican Party veer constantly further rightward, and yet he continues to believe against all evidence that bipartisan legislative cooperation is possible — even likely. His habitual reaching across the partisan chasm has generated much controversy, notably when he floated a Medicare reform plan with House Budget chair Paul Ryan.
Meanwhile, Wyden has also accumulated considerable seniority, despite his youthful demeanor (and a new baby at home). With the announced retirement of Democratic Senator of Montana Max Baucus, Wyden is set to replace him as chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee in the next Congress (assuming that Democrats retain control of the Senate). Recently he spoke with The National Memo about the budget, tax reform, health care and other matters of concern to the Finance committee.
Among Wyden’s enduring charms is his political optimism. Dismal as Washington’s budget debate may be, he perceives an opportunity in the sequester. “At a time when people are talking about hammering (programs like) Meals on Wheels, this critically important program for the most vulnerable seniors as a part of this sequestration process, I think this highlights how important it is to start looking at our real priorities … Before you cut Meals on Wheels, you ought to be looking at rolling back some of these really offensive, outlandish, special interest tax perks.
“What I and others are hoping is that we can shift the debate away from … sequestration and talk about what are really core values and particularly core progressive values. … This is the time when we ought to put values front and center in terms of making sure people understand what our real priorities are, and whether it’s tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas or kind of special interest goodies tucked into the tax code. I think that’s something you’re going to finally see emerge as the heart of this budget debate.”
Wyden now says he would like to take the budget fight to the House, whose Republican leaders long complained that the Senate hadn’t passed a budget. “The House has passed a budget, the Senate has passed a budget,” he noted. “We think our values are much more in line with the American people than what the House is talking about. And the House, after having insisted for literally years on what’s called regular order, and passing bills, and having conference committees, now they don’t want to do it. … It’s time to have an actual budget conference where people can see in broad daylight some of the differences that are so important to the country.”
Asked how he maintains his faith in bipartisanship, Wyden mentions more than once his Republican colleague from Alaska, Senator Lisa Murkowski, with whom he seeks common ground on issues ranging from clean energy to campaign finance. “She and I produced the first bipartisan campaign finance reform bill in the Senate in a decade. … What it’s about is making sure that before an election, in real time, the American voter knows where money is being raised, and where it is going to; and particularly we blow the whistle on the so-called social welfare organizations, which are really kind of political operations masquerading as social welfare organizations that get tax breaks — and make it clear that that kind of approach is not going to get in, effect, subsidized by the tax code.” But he acknowledges that he and Murkowski cannot currently persuade enough Republicans to vote for a bill to bring transparency and honesty to outfits like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads.
Wyden has studied and proposed tax reform for years — and if Baucus fails to pass a reform bill before retiring, he will face that daunting objective as Finance chair. He says that his model is the 1986 Reagan tax reform bill. “We’re spending more than a trillion dollars on these special interest tax breaks, these tax expenditures, and what you ought to do is get rid of them in order to broaden the tax base, and keep progressivity. … You know, we Democrats really look at these special interest tax breaks, hotwired by these very powerful lobbies. We want to get rid of them. Republicans say, ‘Look, we want to have a tax code that is more efficient, we want to encourage growth.’ That kind of approach was advanced in 1986 by a big group of liberals and a conservative Republican president.
In the 1986 bill, Wyden says, “there should have been a provision to make it tougher for lobbyists to try to unravel (the reforms) after they got enacted. And frankly this time … once we really do have tax reform that helps to grow the economy and create more opportunities for the middle class, let’s make sure that we do what wasn’t done in 1986, and that’s make it tougher for the lobbyists to unravel it.” He promises to protect the “middle-class deductions” for mortgage payments, health insurance, savings and charitable contributions — and he says that rather than being “revenue neutral,” as Republicans insist, progressive tax reform will inevitably raise revenues.
Wyden’s version of tax reform will grow the economy “because it puts more money into the hands of middle-class people.” Among other benefits for average taxpayers, he would triple the standard deduction.
Of his abortive Medicare initiative with Ryan, he says that it “provided a way to protect the Medicare guarantee” while holding costs down. But the right wing in the House scuttled that plan, and Wyden dropped his brief partnership with Wisconsin’s famed Ayn Rand disciple. Now he intends to focus on chronic care for the elderly, which consumes roughly 70 percent of the Medicare budget and drives higher costs even though treatment is often ineffective.
“So many seniors have these multiple health care conditions, and what we’re doing now is so fragmented, and so poorly focused, that we ought to really step back and try to think through what’s the best way to efficiently get good quality care to those who need it most. Right now those are the individuals who are the sickest, they are the most expensive to care for, and they arguably get some of the worst care, and that’s going to be the reform area that I focus on next.”
What he vows, despite constant threats from his Republican colleagues, is to defend Obamacare, despite their concerns about its implementation. “But the bottom line here is, and this needs to be said loud and clear to the far right that wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act and allow the insurance companies to go out and clobber the people with pre-existing conditions … I don’t want to turn back the clock and go back to the days when the health care system in America was just for the healthy and the wealthy.”
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