DeFazio: He’s working to meet veterans, forestry, infrastructure needs

Scott Swanson

Congressman Peter DeFazio said last week that he’s expecting improvements to veterans’ medical care and he’s working hard on forestry management and infrastructure improvement bills, which he said would create jobs for Oregonians.

DeFazio stopped at The New Era Aug. 20 halfway through a 19-stop tour of his Fourth Congressional District, which stretches from Southern Oregon to Linn County. He appeared at town halls in Lebanon, Albany and Corvallis later in the day.

His stop in Albany, at the American Legion Post 10, was particularly intended to focus on veterans issues, he said.

Overall, DeFazio said, congressional activity has been at a low ebb for the past two years.

“This has been one of the least productive Congresses in history and definitely the least productive I’ve ever worked in,” he said. It took a “tragedy,” for instance, to get solutions to problems within the Veterans Administration, one of “two major things done in Congress” over the past two years.

Veterans Affairs

DeFazio said he has two full-time staff members working on Veterans Administration and active military issues.

“I’ve kind of accepted the fact that the VA is difficult and inefficient, particularly in determining disability and getting people into the system, but once they get in the health care has been good. Once people get in, they feel pretty good about the service they get.”

He said the government needs to deal with waiting times, access and other issues that came to light in the recent Phoenix, Ariz. VA scandal.

“A good thing came out of a tragedy,” he said. “Phoenix was a tragedy. That created a huge uproar.”

A bill that had languished in the Senate, aimed at dealing with some of the “long-term” problems of veterans healthcare, suddenly gained new life following the scandal and was rapidly approved, “two weeks ago,” he said. It included a new “tool” giving the Veterans Administration head to clean house and fire “bureaucrats in the system (who are) creating problems further and further down.”

The bill also provides for veterans who live farther than 40 miles from a VA medical facility to go to a private doctors, who would be reimbursed at Medicare rates by the VA. The same criteria would apply to veterans who had waited longer than 30 days for medical care.

Since the bill has just been signed into law, specific rules have yet to be written – “hopefully by September,” he said.

Further, the bill includes more funds for VA outpatient centers such as the one in Eugene for which ground was broken earlier this month. It is on schedule to open in 2015, DeFazio said.

“It’s going to be essentially a medical center with a very wide range of outpatient services,” he said. “People in this area will still have to travel to Eugene, but it’s better than traveling to Roseburg or Portland.”

One other thing provided by the bill is “tools” to recruit medical doctors.

DeFazio said he’s had conversation with students at the COMP-NW Medical School in Lebanon who, he said, will graduate with “at least $250,000 in debt.”

When such students have a choice between a job paying $260,000 to $300,000 a year at Legacy Emanuel in Portland, or $140,000 a year in the VA, “you can’t do that if you have $400,000 in debt,” he said.

The new law will give the VA funding to offer to pay off 20 percent of students’ debt every year.

“That will be a big recruitment tool to help them deal with their shortage. We figure after five years, they might stay with the VA. It’s not a bad salary when you don’t have that debt hanging over your head.”

Forest Fires

Another major accomplishment by the current Congress, DeFazio said, is fixing funding for fighting forest fires.

Currently, “and this happens every year,” he said, the U.S. Forest Service and other federal forestry agencies run out of money fighting fires “because Congress gives them an inadequate budget, and when they run out of money, they start stripping the money back out of the programs to thin forests, to create healthier forests, more fire-resistant forests – that kind of prevention work, they just strip that all out.

“Well, this is putting us in this endless, stupid cycle where, OK, we’re just going to fight fires.”

A bi-partisan bill, with near-unanimous support from both Congress and President Obama, has been introduced to give the Forest Service and BLM an “adequate budget” to fight all but the biggest fires.

“I don’t know any other proposal in Washington that is supported by Democrats and Republicans, House, Senate and the president,” he said.

It also includes “more robust budgets to do future prevention – forest thinning.

Take 1 percent of the fires, which he said are consuming 30 percent of the budget this year, and pay for those through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We would treat them like a hurricane, earthquake or tornado. That’s an emergency. That shouldn’t come out of the Forest Service budget.”

The measure appears to have one hurdle, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chair of the House Budget Committee, who has opposed it, DeFazio said. Even Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources and in whose district the largest fires in the Northwest are burning, has been unable to hold a hearing and move the bill due to Ryan’s “stubbornness,” DeFazio said.

“He’s just telling us it should just come out of the budget and we’re trying to tell him what the problems are.”

Supporters of the bill are trying a rare tactic: petitioning a bill, that’s been blocked by leadership, out of committee. As of last week, DeFazio said, the petition has 189 of a needed 218 signatures needed to force a vote on the bill.

“That’s what we’re hoping to be able do,” he said, noting that Congress is on recess. “There’s a bunch of Republicans who haven’t signed the petition because they’re worried about their leadership. But now a bunch of them have fires burning in their districts, so I’m thinking maybe a bunch of them will sign the petition when they come back.”

O&C Timber Bill

DeFazio said he didn’t support the 1994 Clinton Forest Plan because he doubted that it would achieve desired results for old growth timber and “it was written in such a way that I didn’t think it was going to provide a predictable but lesser supply of timber.

“Neither of those things has happened and I was right.”

Science, though, he said, “has moved along in the last 20 years,” particularly through the work of Norm Johnson of Oregon State University and Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington, who have developed timber harvesting techniques that mimic nature, “that’s not classic clear-cutting.”

Consequently, he said, he and fellow Oregon Congressmen Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader earlier this year introduced the bipartisan O&C Trust, Conservation, and Jobs Act, which is based on that science and is “up to date.”

The bipartisan bill would manage 55 percent of 2.8 million acres of forestland in Western Oregon for conservation purposes. This acreage would include the last remaining mature and old growth forests, scenic streams and rivers, riparian zones to protect water quality, wilderness, parks, monuments and other developed recreation areas.

The bill has been passed by the House and had been referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources, then chaired by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who recently moved to the Finance Committee. He said Wyden was reworking the bill and has re-introduced it with “a different approach, but he shares the same objectives. The governor, the senator and I have talked numerous times about this.

“We have given him suggestions of changes we think need to made in this bill because the bottom line is we need a bill that’s going to provide some certainty, we need an adequate level of timber harvest on the O&C lands, which we think is a minimum of 400 million board feet, and we support dividing the baby here and saying, ‘OK, we’ll put the old growth off limits but we’re going to harvest in these younger stand with new scientifically based forest management.”

He said Wyden will likely try to move the bill in conjunction with other legislation and he hopes to see results by September.

“I did my job, I got a bill out of the House. We got discussion going in the Senate. We just need to see them move something,” DeFazio said.

Jobs

DeFazio said one big impetus behind his O&C bill is jobs. He said he recently visited the Rough and Ready mill in Cave Junction, the last lumber mill in Josephine County, which actually closed because of the lack of timber supply before reopening.

“They need to be able to look into the future and see timber,” he said.

His other main focus for jobs “is, and has been and will continue to be investment in America’s infrastructure,” he said. “Roads, bridges, highways, transit systems.

“Some people have forgotten but I opposed the so-called Recovery Act, because the first version out of the House would have invested tens of billions of dollars more in rebuilding our national infrastructure, building schools, etc. Putting people to work, not just in construction, but engineering, other trades, small business, manufacturing, etc.

“And in the end the president cut a deal with Republican senators and they eliminated a lot of that and instead they substituted tax cuts. Well, tax cuts didn’t put anybody back to work.”

DeFazio said federal investment will produce jobs, citing fuel reductions in the forests and electric generating plants that run on slash as examples.

He also believes government needs to invest in infrastructure, which is “falling apart.”

Since he believes the public would not accept new individual taxation, such as a gas tax increase, he has proposed taxing oil by the barrel which, he said, would not necessarily impact consumers as directly as a gas tax would.

“We could have enough money to put another 400,000 to 500,000 people back to work,” he said, noting that 140,000 bridges need repair or replacement in the federal system, as does 40 percent of the pavement of the federal system.

DeFazio said he singlehandedly got dredging restarted in the small harbors along the Oregon coast.

“That’s great for the coastal communities. Obviously, it’s not a big impact here, but that’s the kind of stuff I work on, day in and day out.”

Government can also help provide services such as improved Internet access and other necessities that help small businesses, he said, citing Cave Junction as a community with that kind of need.

“The most basic function of government is to help the movement of goods and people, invest in that system,” he said. “Government doesn’t get directly involved in small businesses, but it provides backbone that gives them access.”

Post Office

DeFazio didn’t speak to the Cascadia post office situation, but he noted that he has introduced a bill, which has attracted 180-some co-sponsors, that would ensure the continuation of the current level of services provided by the Postal Service.

“Five-day delivery will put the Postal Service in a death spiral,” he said. “If you mail a letter from Brookings to Gold Beach, it’ll be trucked to Portland, then back to Gold Beach and this is somehow going to save money?

“The basic underpinnings of our private sector are government services – improving, not degrading them.”

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