Oregon Congressional delegates weigh in on fixes they’d like to see for U.S.

Sean C. Morgan

In addition to listening to and talking with Sweet Home officials about local issues during the delegation’s trip to Washington D.C. at the beginning of December, Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio told The New Era about some of their efforts in the capital, which includes fixing problems in healthcare and fixing the national infrastructure.

DeFazio, who represents the Fourth Congressional District, which includes Sweet Home, said he has been in Washington for 32 years, and for the first time will be chairman of the Tranportation and Infrastructure Committee.

A longtime and vocal advocate for improving the nation’s fundamental facilities and systems, he said it’s time to get to work rebuilding the infrastructure, putting people back to work and making the country more competitive internationally.

Americans wasted $3.1 billion in fuel last year, with cars and trucks just sitting and waiting, he said. Noting that while 30 states have increased their gas taxes, which the United States has not done since 1993, he proposes indexing the federal gas tax and increasing it annually at a maximum of 1.5 cents per gallon to repair the U.S. infrastructure and add capacity.

That would provide $17 billion annually and allow the country to bond $500 billion immediately for projects.

DeFazio is part of the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, which means his party is setting the agenda, and he is chairman of a committee for the first time.

Coming up, he also wants to lower the prices of prescription drugs, he said, and introduce a major infrastructure reinvestment bill.

Oregon has a clean and efficient elections system, DeFazio said. He would like to replicate that system across the country. Wyden said that, with its vote-by-mail elections, Oregon doesn’t suffer from the same abuses of voting machines other states see.

“I think what the people voted for was change,” Wyden said, noting the 40-seat difference in the House. He thinks that was driven by “the same health concerns they talk about at the kitchen table in Sweet Home.”

He wants to hold down the costs of health insurance and zero in on jobs. He supports an infrastructure bill and funding it by eliminating “ridiculous tax breaks” for multi-national corporations, which get tax breaks for doing business overseas, in last year’s tax cuts.

“Voters sent a big message,” Wyden said. “One of the messages was fix the tax bill.”

A law he wrote will take effect next year, and the Forest Service has agreed to speed up the process by reducing hazardous fuels in the forests, Wyden said. “The Forest Service has agreed to do this as a result of my making a proposal. We’re going to get back into fire prevention.”

Now, the agency can get into the backlog of dead and dying material in the forests, he said.

The government spends more than $1 trillion on Medicaid and Medicare annually, and nationwide, Americans spend some $3.5 trillion, said Wyden, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Finance. His efforts are about stopping backward movement and continuing forward.

The president is trying to take away protections for those who have pre-existing conditions, he said. “I’m opposing it.”

He also wants to reduce the cost of pharmaceuticals, he said. “No costs are going up like pharmaceuticals.”

Wyden said he has legislation to go after the middle men, third-party pharmaceutical benefit managers.

A couple of decades ago, when PBMs came into being, they said, “We’ll negotiate with the drug companies for you. (But) we don’t know what they put in their pockets and what they put in the pockets of Sweet Home (people),” Wyden said.

He wants to rein in PBMs so that any savings that come from their negotiations with drug companies on behalf of Medicaid and Medicare goes to the consumers rather than the PBMs.

For people in the healthcare insurance exchanges, those who do not have coverage through work or government programs, rates have been rising since the Affordable Care Act took effect. This year, rates for some remained about the same or even fell slightly. Wyden is concerned about how those rates have been increasing, most acutely for those who work for small businesses that do not provide health insurance benefits, and he believes he has a solution.

“I want you to be part of a bigger pool,” he said. That makes it work more like employer-funded insurance in larger companies, spreading costs across more people. Allowing states to operate reinsurance pools would help reduce premiums for those who work for small businesses that do not offer insurance. He would like to streamline healthcare savings accounts and provide catastrophic coverage.

The increasing federal deficit is caused by the tax cuts and increasing healthcare costs, Wyden said, adding that he was one of seven senators to vote against an increasing defense budget of $700 billion.

The federal government has borrowed $1.7 trillion to cover tax cuts, increasing the federal budget deficit. Calling the cuts a “deficit-pumping tax bill,” he said it should be rolled back.

Trump supporters claimed it would pay for itself by generating jobs, Wyden said. “It’s a difference of opinion about what drives the economy.”

Some 70 percent of the economy is driven by middle-class people, who buy food, cars, school clothing and homes, Wyden said. The big flaw in the tax bill was that most of it went to the top and not to the middle.

He quoted Henry Ford: “For me to do well, my people have to have enough money to buy my cars.”

That’s Wyden’s philosophy, he said.

DeFazio said he agrees with the president on international trade.

“I never voted for free trade (agreements).”

He did not support giving China Most Favored Nation status, he said, but he doesn’t think the president’s tariffs are the best solution.

The United States has a mechanism it can use to fight China’s trade abuses, DeFazio said. While he didn’t vote to join the World Trade Organization, other countries have taken the United States there. Neither President Obama nor President Trump have taken China there, which would prevent retaliatory tariffs.

Instead, China and the United States have been trading tit for tat, he said, and it’s escalating.

President Trump claimed this week that a deal with China is possible soon.

At the end of November, Wyden, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., introduced legislation requiring a public report on the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian exile living in the United States, at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul, Turkey. Their bill followed President Trump’s announcement his administration would not respond to the killing.

“Bowing to the Saudi government over the murder of a Washington Post columnist is unacceptable for any American president,” Wyden said in a press release. “Donald Trump claims that ‘we may never know’ who is responsible for ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. I disagree.”

“Our friends, the Saudis, they are not our friends,” DeFazio said. “They’ve been willing to sell us oil at manipulated prices, and they have been exporting radical terrorism for decades.”

While exporting Wahhabism to eastern Europe, Pakistan and the Balkans, its leaders hypocritically shed their robes and are the biggest “party people in Europe,” DeFazio said, noting that crown prince Mohammad bin Salman is “buddies” with Trump’s son. “I’ve never considered them friendly, and this MBS guy is the worst of the worst.”

“What I’m trying to do with my legislation is require the intelligence committee to issue a public declassified report on what happened to Mr. Khashoggi,” Wyden said.

He doesn’t think giving the Saudis money to fight in Yemen makes Americans safer, he said, and he would rather spend money on rural broadband and healthcare.

Wyden has been an ongoing opponent of the federal government using surveillance on American citizens.

“We won on the big metadata collection,” he said, so now the government doesn’t collect “loads of phone records” from Americans.

Two big battles are ahead, he said. One is about encryption. The government wants to build back doors into personal devices, and next year, he intends to build the same limits he helped get into the Patriot Act into the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The act is up for reauthorization next year, he said. “I have said again and again, I think we have got to target foreign terrorists (threatening) the safety of the American people. The government isn’t willing to take on the abuse that is coming from having an innocent law-abiding American swept up in the search for the target.”

The reason is that telecommunications don’t stop at the border, Wyden said. When targeting threats overseas, Americans can still be swept up in the surveillance.

“What I’ve said is if there is an emergency, the government can cull out that data, come back later on and settle up the warrant process,” Wyden said. That’s what he wrote into the Patriot Act, and he wants to put the same provision into the FISA.