Wyden: Revamp tax breaks as part of 'Green New Deal'
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden says he wants to give substance to the new effort led largely by Democrats to move the United States away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy by 2030.
Wyden told a town hall audience Friday night there was "a lot of crazy talk" after sponsors, including himself, unveiled on Feb. 7 a resolution that calls for a "Green New Deal."
"If you listen to some of this talk, it's like the cows will never moo again, and there will never be vanilla ice cream or high school football," he said to laughter from the audience of about 200 at the Sylvania campus of Portland Community College. "It's getting pretty outlandish."
Wyden said the resolution itself sets a framework but lacks specific policies to reach the goal. It is less specific than other previous proposals, including one offered in 2017 by four senators — including Oregon's Jeff Merkley, also a resolution cosponsor — to move the nation to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.
Among the other resolution cosponsors are Oregon Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici and Peter DeFazio.
Wyden has previously offered his own specifics of doing away with more than 40 federal tax breaks that largely favor coal, gas and oil and substituting just three breaks for energy efficiency, renewable energy sources and alternative fuels for transportation.
Wyden is the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which originates tax legislation.
"One of the things I should be doing is to get Congress to kick the carbon habit," he said.
"I am going to go to my Republican colleagues and say: You have been talking about fewer subsidies for years. Why don't we work together and see if we can get more green for less green? Now that's easier said than done."
Republicans added two seats to their majority in the Senate even as Democrats won a majority in the House for the first time in eight years.
But Wyden said he hopes some Republicans can be swayed by the argument against continued federal subsidies for established industries — and for new incentives that will generate high-skill, high-paying jobs.
According to the Energy Information Administration, the 2017 U.S. mix was just under 13 percent from renewable sources and 78 percent from coal, natural gas and oil. Nuclear energy accounted for the rest.
On a related issue, Wyden said President Donald Trump was wrong to initiate a U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 global agreement, known as the Paris climate accord, that set voluntary targets for all nations to reduce greenhouse gases. The U.S. withdrawal does not take full effect until December 2020, one month after the next presidential election.
"We should elect a new president who will put us back in the agreement," he said.
"They kept saying there were all these mandates, requirements and restrictions. They just pulled out this parade of horribles. Not true. There isn't a single mandate in this climate-charge effort."
Health care debate
Although Wyden's audience was predominantly friendly, it wasn't all cheers for him Friday night.
Several advocates for a system under which the federal government pays all health care bills continued to criticize Wyden for not endorsing a Medicare-for-all proposal. They have made their voices heard, most recently Nov. 30 at Rex Putnam High School in Milwaukie, and some heckled him at Friday's meeting.
They argue that more gradual measures are inadequate, such as allowing people between ages 55 and 65 to buy into Medicare or choosing a public option for health insurance coverage.
Merkley signed on in 2017 as a cosponsor of a single-payer approach, which went nowhere in the last Congress. It has yet to be reintroduced in the current Congress.
But Wyden said that as the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which has authority over health care financing, he wants to see a debate about the full range of alternatives.
"We don't want repeated what the far right did with their promises," he said.
"For seven years, they called for repealing and replacing Obamacare. When their dog caught the car — when they had the White House, Senate and House — they didn't know how to do it, because they hadn't spent the time doing the nuts-and-bolts work to get it right. I am not going to let that happen."
Wyden offered his own version of universal coverage in 2007 and 2009 in the Healthy Americans Act, parts of which were incorporated into the Affordable Care Act — particularly guarantees of coverage despite pre-existing medical conditions.
Wyden also said that despite several failed attempts by Republicans in 2017 to repeal the law — which President Barack Obama signed in 2010 — Trump is still engaged in efforts to weaken it.
The Trump administration sided with Republican attorneys general who sued in federal court, and won an initial round Dec. 14 from a Texas judge who overturned the entire law. That case is on appeal and likely will reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
The administration also has moved to allow the sale of barebones policies that have cheaper premiums but skimpier coverage than the requirements under the 2010 law.
Wyden also said that 165 million Americans — about half the population — still receive employer-based coverage, compared with 76 million Americans under Medicaid for low-income people, and 44 million Americans under Medicare. (Under the 2010 law, Oregon was among 37 states to expand Medicaid to cover 12 million more people. Some state expansions are pending.)
"There are a lot of questions here," he said. "The stakes are really high."