Oregon Democrat has held 861 meetings across Oregon in 22 years; others in Congress do not follow because 'they cannot defend in broad daylight a lot of these policies'

As he won national recognition for his town hall meetings — a record 80 this year across Oregon — U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden says he knows why many of his colleagues do not follow suit.

Wyden says Senate passage of a Republican-sponsored overhaul of the federal tax code, which he led the losing fight against last week, is the latest example of what he called "a betrayal of the middle class."

"They cannot defend in broad daylight a lot of these policies," Wyden said Sunday, Dec. 3, to a cheering audience of hundreds at Cleveland High School. "If they put them in sunlight, they would shrivel up."

House and Senate plans were unveiled barely a month ago, and the Senate passed its version early Saturday with support from 51 of the 52 Republicans and no one else.

Wyden has said the bill will have no benefit for households earning less than $75,000, which happens to be the median household income — half above and half below that mark — in the Portland metro area.

As the top Democrat on the tax-writing Finance Committee, Wyden is assured of a spot among House and Senate negotiators who will have to reconcile differing versions of the bill (HR 1).

"But in a modern-day conference, people at the table who are in the majority (party) have discretion to do a lot of stuff that is light-years removed from what happened" in the two chambers, he said at a town hall at Molalla High School just hours after the Senate vote.

President Donald Trump wants Republicans to deliver a final bill to him by the end of this month, so that provisions can take effect for 2018.

Nearly a third of Congress — among them 42 senators — have had no face-to-face meetings with the general public this year, according to the Town Hall Project.

Wyden pledged upon his election to the Senate in January 1996 to hold at least one such meeting annually in each of Oregon's 36 counties. Since then he has convened 861 meetings, and 18 of the 80 this year have been in the three Portland-area counties.

"We believe our democracy is stronger when Americans and their lawmakers have regular face-to-face conversations about the issues," said Nathan Williams, a founder and director of the nonpartisan group, which awarded a trophy to Wyden.

"It is refreshing for me today to recognize someone who is absolutely exemplary in this area."

Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley also schedules meetings in all counties, and Oregon's five representatives hold them, though some more regularly than others.

The project has standards for meetings: Members must be present and take questions, and the meetings must be free to the public, publicized in advance and held in accessible venues.

Tax debate

To audiences in Portland and Molalla, Wyden said he will work to temper some of the worst features of the tax bill as differences are reconciled.

Among the features: Removing deductibility of state income taxes from federal returns — both versions cap the property-tax deduction at $10,000 — and eliminating deductibility of interest on college loans and high medical expenses in the House version. (The Senate plan retains those deductions.)

The Senate version, but not the House plan, would do away with the tax penalty on people who fail to obtain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, known as the individual mandate.

Wyden said it is "a dagger in the heart" of the 2010 law signed by Democratic President Barack Obama, and that withstood repeated attempts to repeal it in the Senate earlier this year.

"This is a horrible bill for the people of Oregon. It is an incredibly bad fit. It's like wearing a tuxedo to the beach," Wyden said.

"This is all about pushing back on the things important to the middle class."

Both bills cut the maximum tax rate for corporations from 35 percent to 20 percent, and almost double the standard deduction for households.

The House plan eliminates the alternative minimum tax paid by corporations and high-income households and phases out the estate tax. The Senate plan retains the minimum tax for corporations but trims it for households — and it raises the ceilings on the estate tax, which now applies only to individual estates of more than $5.5 million and couples of $11 million.

Both versions also allow more businesses to qualify for pass-through rates, which are used by owners of small businesses to pay at individual rates.

"The tax breaks for the multinational corporations are permanent," Wyden said. "The tax breaks for the middle class are temporary (through 2025). They are trying to write into law a double economic standard for our country."

According to Congress' own Joint Committee on Taxation, the tax cuts will increase the national debt — already topping $20 trillion — by another $1 trillion over 10 years, and that taxes produced by economic growth will not fully offset losses in tax collections.

"We will run up the red ink," Wyden said. "All those (Republican) deficit hawks flew the coop as far as they possibly could."

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Extends comments by Nathan Williams of the Town Hall Project.

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