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As Congress reconvenes in September, several issues of concern to Oregonians deserve priority action from Congress

PMG FILE PHOTO - A wide array of important issues face Congress now that it is back in session, including policies to protect public and private forest land in the West. Other issues include supporting international trade and reducing illegal gun violence. Oregon lawmakers also ought to push other states to adopt vote-by-mail and automatic voter registration.

Members of Oregon's congressional delegation swarmed the state during their August reprieve from Washington, D.C., which means Oregonians got an earful about federal issues. Whether it is the cost of prescription drugs or the potential for smoky air caused by wildfires, Oregon residents' pocketbooks and livability are more affected by federal policies than they realize.

During the August congressional recess, we heard directly from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, who visited with the Pamplin Media Group editorial board to discuss these and other topics. As Congress reconvenes in September, several issues of concern to Oregonians deserve priority action from Congress:

Prescription drug prices This issue affects seniors in particular. So it's encouraging to see Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, team up with Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of that committee, on a bill to establish a $3,100-per-year limit on out-of-pocket costs for Medicare's Part D prescription drug program. Seniors also would benefit from a provision in the bill limiting prescription price increases to the rate of inflation.

Not all Republicans are on board with the proposal, which faces opposition from the pharmaceutical industry. But President Trump has talked in general terms about reining in the cost of medicine. If any legislation stands a chance of building filibuster-proof bipartisan support this year, the Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act of 2019 seems like an obvious choice.

Gun violence The rate of mass shootings in the past few weeks has been shocking.

What's often overlooked is the amount of bipartisan support — among the public, not politicians — for taking action. A Washington Post-ABC News poll, conducted Sept 2 to 5, finds 86% of Americans support implementing "red flag" provisions, which allow guns to be taken from people judged to be a danger to themselves or others, according to the Post. Also, 89% support expanding federal background checks to cover private sales and gun-show transactions. Both measures are supported by at least 8 in 10 Republicans, white evangelical Christians, members of gun-owning households and other traditionally conservative groups, the Post reported. Six in 10 Americans support a federal ban on gun magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Also, 56% support a new federal ban on the sales of military-style assault weapons; and nearly all who support such a ban also back a mandatory federal buy-back program for such weapons.

Two House bills (one mandating background checks on all gun purchases, and another extending the time the FBI has to complete background checks) passed the House in May and have languished in the Senate.

This issue often gets buried in an illogical debate over whether gun laws need to be reformed, or whether more mental health services need to be in place. Those two things are not mutually exclusive: why not do both? The Senate should act, and Wyden and his fellow Sen. Jeff Merkley should push hard on this issue.

Trade and tariffs Wyden agrees with Trump that China's trade practices must be challenged, but he disagrees with the president's tactics, which have pitted the U.S. against China in a head-to-head standoff.

Instead, Wyden would recruit other allies in the trade fight, but he also cites real concerns: China's theft of trade secrets, China's onerous requirements on foreign companies that want to do business there and China's subsidies to some of its own businesses.

Regardless of the reasons behind the trade war, the potential harm to Oregon is quite real. One-fifth of the jobs in this state are linked to foreign trade. The on-again, off-again Trump tariffs are creating economic uncertainty.

Once again, there is a bipartisan path for Congress to intervene. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) have introduced a bill that requires congressional approval for tariffs levied because of national security. That would address at least some tariffs that have been threatened, and also re-establish the right of Congress to monitor tariffs imposed by this or future administrations.

Forest health In this most pleasant of nearly smoke-free summers, it's still painful to recall the choking haze that hovered in the metro air shed just a year ago. With a changing climate and too much fuel in the forest, Oregon's quality of life could suffer immensely if the federal government doesn't improve its management of forest lands.

Wyden deserves credit for sponsoring, with Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which passed Congress in 2018. That law halted the budget practice called "fire borrowing," which for years forced the Forest Service to raid fire prevention and other forest-health accounts to get money to fight increasingly large and expensive fires.

Using the prevention money for actual prevention will help reduce fires into the future, but more can be done to decrease the fuel in national forests. Another bill, sponsored by Wyden, Merkley and three Republican senators, would allow the use of biomass waste from certain federal lands in the making of renewable fuels. This legislation is the type of incremental step that must be taken to get excess material out of the forest and excess smoke out of our lungs.

Voting and election security This wasn't a specific topic for Wyden, but as other states struggle to make their election processes secure, an obvious question arises: why don't they just adopt the Oregon way?

Oregon's vote-by-mail system is the cheapest, most logical answer for states worried about election manipulation by hackers or foreign agents. And Oregon's automatic voter registration leads the way in encouraging people to vote.

In reaction to widespread hacking attacks in 2016 and 2018, states have spent billions and need billions more to create paper trails and auditing capability in their elections. Guess what: Oregon has both.

Moreover, a study conducted in 2017 for The Nation showed that Oregon is beating all other states in voter participation, thanks to automatic "motor voter" registration.

Wyden has pushed national vote-by-mail legislation since 2010 and in January, along with Rep. Earl Blumenauer, again introduced a bill to expand the practice to all states.

We think Oregon's Congressional delegation should stop hiding the state's light under a bushel. States are (rightly) freaking out over the potential for foreign interference in elections, and many people are worried about low voter participation.

Start waving the flag harder than before. When it comes to voting, Oregon has the answers.

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