The Newsmaker Memo: An Interview with Ron Wyden, the Senate's Powerful Policy Wonk
Having served in Congress for more than three decades—and in the upper chamber since 1996—Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden has established a reputation as one of the Senate's more serious and diligent members. Over the years on Capitol Hill, he has watched the Republican Party veer constantly further rightward, and yet he continues to believe against all evidence that bipartisan legislative cooperation is possible—even likely. His habitual reaching across the partisan chasm has generated much controversy, notably when he floated a Medicare reform plan with House Budget Chair Paul Ryan.
Meanwhile, Wyden has also accumulated considerable seniority, despite his youthful demeanor (and a new baby at home). With the announced retirement of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana), Wyden is set to replace him as chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee in the next Congress (assuming that Democrats retain control of the Senate). Recently he spoke with The National Memo about the budget, tax reform, health care and other matters of concern to the finance committee.
Among Wyden's enduring charms is his political optimism. Dismal as Washington's budget debate may be, he perceives an opportunity in the sequester. “Before you cut Meals on Wheels, you ought to be looking at rolling back some of these really offensive, outlandish, special-interest tax perks,” he said.
Wyden said he hopes that the debate can shift away from sequestration to core values, particularly core progressive values. “This is the time when we ought to put values front and center in terms of making sure people understand what our real priorities are, and whether it's tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas or kind of special-interest goodies tucked into the tax code,” Wyden said.
Wyden's version of tax reform will grow the economy "because it puts more money into the hands of middle-class people." Among other benefits for average taxpayers, he would triple the standard deduction.
Asked how he maintains his faith in bipartisanship, Wyden mentions more than once his Republican colleague from Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, with whom he seeks common ground on issues such as clean energy. The two produced the first bipartisan campaign finance reform bill in the Senate in a decade. “What it's about is making sure that before an election, in real time, the American voter knows where money is being raised, and where it is going to, and particularly we blow the whistle on the so-called social welfare organizations, which are really kind of political operations masquerading as social welfare organizations that get tax breaks—and make it clear that that kind of approach is not going to get, in effect, subsidized by the tax code," he explained. But he acknowledges that he and Murkowski cannot currently persuade enough Republicans to vote for a bill to bring transparency and honesty to outfits like Karl Rove's American Crossroads.
Health Care for Seniors a Priority
Of his abortive Medicare initiative with Ryan, he says that it "provided a way to protect the Medicare guarantee" while holding costs down. But the right wing in the House scuttled that plan, and Wyden dropped his brief partnership with Wisconsin's famed Ayn Rand disciple. Now he intends to focus on chronic care for the elderly, which consumes roughly 70% of the Medicare budget and drives higher costs even though treatment is often ineffective.
"So many seniors have these multiple health care conditions, and what we're doing now is so fragmented, and so poorly focused that we ought to really step back and try to think through what's the best way to efficiently get good quality care to those who need it most,” Wyden said. “Right now those are the individuals who are the sickest, they are the most expensive to care for and they arguably get some of the worst care, and that's going to be the reform area that I focus on next.”
What he vows, despite constant threats from his Republican colleagues, is to defend Obamacare, despite their concerns about its implementation. "I don't want to turn back the clock and go back to the days when the health care system in America was just for the healthy and the wealthy," he said.
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