U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden met virtually with Clackamas County constituents Monday, March 29, and spoke on a wide range of topics important to Oregonians.
In the hour-long public forum hosted by nonprofit The People's Town Hall, Wyden touched on his work as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, the impact of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act and current efforts to provide opportunities for bipartisan lawmaking in a time when partisan divide seems to be increasing.
Residents from communities across Clackamas County also had the opportunity to get some of their burning questions answered directly from Wyden himself, who prides himself on hosting at least one town hall in each of Oregon's 36 counties each year since he was first elected to the Senate in 1996.
"What this is all about is shortening the distance between home and D.C.," Wyden said.
After a few brief opening remarks including praising Pamplin Media Group for providing the Milwaukie-area venue, Wyden dove head first into questions from constituents.
Christine from Lake Oswego asked the senator to comment on three topics which he believes Republicans and Democrats can work together on in an effort to move forward collaboratively.
Wyden said that he's seeing solid, bipartisan work on regulating prescription drug costs and price gouging for certain life-saving medicines. Specifically he pointed to a bill he's working on with Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa that aims to bring affordability and fairness to prescription-drug pricing.
"If pharmaceutical companies gouge on prices on drugs like insulin, they would have to give up their subsidies," Wyden said. "Drug prices have gone up twelvefold in recent years, but the drug is not 12-times better."
Wildfires are another important topic to Wyden on which he believes there is vast opportunity to work across the aisle, particularly in the arena of funding more prescribed burns in western forests which have support of Republicans, Democrats and scientists, alike.
Lastly, Wyden said he sees infrastructure — which has a major bill set to come before the Senate in the coming weeks — as another opportunity for bipartisanship and a chance to put many unemployed Americans back to work and help reinvigorate the economy further. He mentioned I-205 widening as a potential project where the state of Oregon and federal government could continue to collaborate.
Cassie from Boring asked Wyden what work he's currently engaged in to fight climate change and to treat it as the emergency it is, particularly in reference to communities of color and disabled folks who are disproportionately affected by its impact.
Wyden said that in the coming months he's prepared to take one of the "boldest positions that has ever been taken in respect to taxes and energy."
"Right now there are 44 separate tax breaks, and most of them are a monument to yesteryear, oil companies and all sorts of powerful people," Wyden said. "I'm going to propose throwing all 44 of them in the garbage can. Then we would have one for clean energy, one for clean transportation fuel and one for energy efficiency."
Wyden said he hopes that effort might appease Republicans who "dream" of free markets, stating that his proposal would produce competition around who can produce zero emissions on carbon.
Cassie pressed Wyden on the second part of her question in regard to disabled Americans who are affected most by the effects of climate change, to which Wyden replied saying that he promises to bring an equity lens to every conversation in regards to climate with specific deference to those with disabilities.
Dylan from Oregon City asked whether or not Wyden plans to continue being a champion for the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, as well as whether he supports eliminating the filibuster.
Wyden said he is proud to be a sponsor of the PRO Act and labor law reform in order to ensure workers have power during disputes and preventing retaliation.
On the filibuster, Wyden said he supports a "talking filibuster" which requires Congress members to remain on the floor and continue to speak or else a vote may be called.
"If Mitch McConnell is interested in obstructing for obstructing sake, then you have to act," Wyden said.
Jean from the Willamette View retirement community in Oak Grove questioned whether Republicans would come to the table on voting rights. Wyden said he's concerned to see many of his Republican colleagues going along with restrictive new measures being adopted in places like Georgia.
"In Georgia, they're talking about people not being able to get a bottle of water when they're standing in line. You can't make this stuff up," he said. "We'll see how they reconcile their position with the values of this country. They want to turn back the clock if they want to go along with what's happening in Georgia, and we're not going to let them do it."
Angela from the Warm Springs — which shares a significant amount of border with Clackamas County to the east — said she continues to follow congressional work surrounding western tribal water infrastructure. Angela said she's been disheartened to hear that bills seeking to rectify dismal response to ongoing drought conditions on reservations across much of the western United States, Warm Springs especially, rarely even make it to the point of receiving a vote.
"What are we doing differently this time around so that we're actually getting bills pushed forward?" she asked.
Wyden said he was happy to report that the Western Tribal Water Infrastructure Act introduced by himself and fellow Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley was recently passed out of committee and will head to the Senate floor where he hopes to fast track the bill to get it before is House colleagues as soon as possible. The bill would permanently increase the Indian Reservation Drinking Water program's funding from $20 million to $50 million, annually. The effort has stalled since it was first introduced back in 2018, but Wyden offered a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
"It is one of my priorities," he said. "People drinking horrible water; that shouldn't happen in America."
Wyden also took a handful of written questions from constituents who weren't able to join the live stream including one asking whether there will be extended federal funding for fighting wildfires as Oregon's summers continue to become longer, hotter and dryer.
Wyden said that he's working on three things he hopes will bring relief to Oregonians and those affected in Clackamas County. First, Wyden said Congress is trying to put an end to "fire borrowing" by fully funding wildfire prevention to do the work in forests that will hopefully mitigate some of the worst conditions that lead to major fires on Oregon's wild landscape. Second, he's working with Republicans on support for a robust program to engage in prescribed burns in the cooler months that also help mitigate fire danger in the summer months. Thirdly, Wyden said he's proud to work with Colorado Sen. Joe Neguse and President Joe Biden in reestablishing the 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps that would help invest workforce training in rural areas for wild and rangeland conservation programs including forest stewardship, fuel reduction projects and the planting of billions of new trees.
"Those are three things that are gonna help, and none of them, in and of itself, means you're not gonna have another hot, dry summer," Wyden said. "We all know climate change is taking a real toll, but all three of those steps are significant steps moving us in the right direction."
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