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The Newsmaker Memo: An Interview With Ron Wyden, The Senate’s Powerful Policy Wonk

Memo Pad Politics

The Newsmaker Memo: An Interview With Ron Wyden, The Senate’s Powerful Policy Wonk


Having served in Congress for over 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 Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), 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. “At a time when people are talking about hammering [programs like] Meals on Wheels, this critically important program for the most vulnerable seniors as a part of this sequestration process, I think this highlights how important it is to start looking at our real priorities…Before you cut Meals on Wheels, you ought to be looking at rolling back some of these really offensive, outlandish, special interest tax perks.

“What I and others are hoping is that we can shift the debate away from…sequestration, and talk about what are really core values, and 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.  I think that’s something you’re going to finally see emerge as the heart of this budget debate.”

Wyden now says he would like to take the budget fight to the House, whose Republican leaders long complained that the Senate hadn’t passed a budget. “The House has passed a budget, the Senate has passed a budget,” he noted. “We think our values are much more in line with the American people than what the House is talking about. And the House, after having insisted for literally years on what’s called regular order, and passing bills, and having conference committees, now they don’t want to do it…It’s time to have an actual budget conference where people can see in broad daylight some of the differences that are so important to the country.”

Asked how he maintains his faith in bipartisanship, Wyden mentions more than once his Republican colleague from Alaska, Senator Lisa Murkowski, with whom he seeks common ground on issues ranging from clean energy to campaign finance. “She and I 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.”  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.

Wyden has studied and proposed tax reform for years – and if Baucus fails to pass a reform bill before retiring, he will face that daunting objective as Finance chair. He says that his model is the 1986 Reagan tax reform bill. “We’re spending more than a trillion dollars on these special interest tax breaks, these tax expenditures, and what you ought to do is get rid of them in order to broaden the tax base, and keep progressivity….You know, we Democrats really look at these special interest tax breaks, hotwired by these very powerful lobbies.  We want to get rid of them.  Republicans say, ‘Look, we want to have a tax code that is more efficient, we want to encourage growth’. That kind of approach was advanced in 1986 by a big group of liberals and a conservative Republican president.

Joe Conason

A highly experienced journalist, author and editor, Joe Conason is the editor-in-chief of The National Memo, founded in July 2011. He was formerly the executive editor of the New York Observer, where he wrote a popular political column for many years. His columns are distributed by Creators Syndicate and his reporting and writing have appeared in many publications around the world, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and Harpers.

Since November 2006, he has served as editor of The Investigative Fund, a nonprofit journalism center, where he has assigned and edited dozens of award-winning articles and broadcasts. He is also the author of two New York Times bestselling books, The Hunting of the President (St. Martins Press, 2000) and Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (St. Martins Press, 2003).

Currently he is working on a new book about former President Bill Clinton's life and work since leaving the White House in 2001. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, including MSNBC's Morning Joe, and lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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  1. Dominick Vila May 13, 2013

    Unfortunately, what appeals to part of our electorate is not people who focus on facts and doing what is best for our country, but people whose deeds and plans are influenced by hatred, intolerange, and a heavy dose of ignorance.

    1. Fern Woodfork May 13, 2013

      You Nailed It My Friend!!! Good Morning To You!! 🙂

      1. Dominick Vila May 13, 2013

        Hi Fern. Glad to hear from you.

        1. CPAinNewYork May 15, 2013

          Oh yeah, glad to hear from you Fern, you foul mouthed piece of crap.

    2. CPAinNewYork May 15, 2013


      And your approach is, by definition, well intentioned, tolerant and enlightened?

      Sorry, but I don’t see it that way and I think that a lot of other people reject your pseudo moralistic approach.

      The illegals are a bunch of low sleazebags who will grab anything of ours that isn’t nailed down. They are largely untrustworthy slobs.

      If you think that they’re so great, why don’t you try living with them?

      For me the solutiion is exactly like the one a sensible person would adopt to be rid of any type of vermin: exterminate them.

      1. rustacus21 May 19, 2013

        Wow… I had planned to comment, but as U don’t mean this as a serious contribution to the discussion, I w/draw xcept to say that Dominick V. IS 1000% correct. It may take U a while to get there (where he is), but I have every confidence, as a Liberal/Progressive, that someday, U will…

        1. CPAinNewYork May 20, 2013

          How do you know what I “mean”? You’re a “liberal/progressive”? What the hell is that?

          Does it mean that you want to let all of that third world crap into America so that they can turn this country into the filthy hell hole from which they came?

    3. Gary Graves May 19, 2013

      CPA in new York, Why do you think Dominick gets the most ratings, could be he is a lot smarter than you? and most Americans agree with Dominick not Russ Bimbo and tea party.

  2. Robert P. Robertson May 13, 2013

    I’m surprised Republicunts/neo-Confederate Tea Bags haven’t tie Wyden into their Benghazi web.

    1. Dominick Vila May 13, 2013

      Give Rep.Issa, the GOP crusader with Middle Eastern roots, time. The champion of conspiracies, Sharia Law, and the Inquisition will zero in on whomever he believes will seek the Democratic nomination. Hillary is likely to be the first of many.

    2. Allan Richardson May 13, 2013

      Just wait. You just gave them the idea.

      1. Madelaine Ayers Henne May 13, 2013

        Oh no, Getting Hillary has been their priority ever since they have seen how popular she is! That’s why they scared Ashley Judd to death with their lies! Anyone that is popular with the masses is going to be drug through the mud!!

      2. Robert P. Robertson May 13, 2013


  3. charleo1 May 13, 2013

    Revenue neutral. This is what Grover Norquist wants. And, no surprise,
    it’s what John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and all the lockstep lemmings,
    in the Republican Party insist on. The National Debt is what now?
    Seventeen trillion? But, the amount of taxes collected, as a percentage of
    the Country’s GNP, has not been lower in more than 50 years. Yet, the
    ideologically, and politically moribund, GOP, vow to oppose any reform that
    on it’s own, results in the collection of more tax dollars. So, the only changes
    they will entertain to balance the books, is lowering a rate. They claim this
    will increase economic activity, and bring in more revenue. And that will pay
    down the debt? Well, not so fast. Republicans claim when, or if, this happens,
    it is a bad thing. And must be remedied by either, lowering the rate more, or
    increasing a subsidy here, or there, or sticking it up Grover’s kazoo. Anything,
    as long as it’s revenue neutral. But, if Republicans refuse to use the extra taxes
    collected to balance the budget, how, one might wonder, does that get done?
    Basically by butchering, and hacking into bloody, shreds any program that
    helps, the young, the poor, or the Middle Class. Also getting the ax, are roads,
    bridges, hardening the Country’s electric grid from terrorist attack. Or, things
    like research. All kinds of research. Cancer research, stem cell research,
    Alzheimer’s research, renewable energy research. And of course, Gov’t
    oversight, and regulations. Environmental, to be sure. But also the FDA, CDC,
    the SEC. And, when it comes to healthcare, any healthcare for the poor.
    Medicaid, The Affordable Care Act, and even veteran’s are not spared, in this
    dog eat dog, corporate run, utopia they envision. So, who balances this budget? The one they yammer on about incessantly, day after day, to a repetitive nausea? Why you are! Mr. and Mrs.-struggling, how will we ever save enough to send our
    kids to college, and also prepare our own retirement, Middle Class.
    So It’s definitely, you, they and Grover, strongly feel, should shoulder the burden
    of the budget. Oh, yes! I almost forgot. They also wanted me to tell you,
    to stop being so greedy, you’re spending the Country into oblivion!

  4. neonnautilus May 18, 2013

    Wyden: “What I and others are hoping is that we can shift the debate away
    from…sequestration, and talk about what are really core values, and
    particularly core progressive values.”

    A man with a plan. But why don’t you “and others” just do it Sen. Wyden? Just go ahead on, you and the others. Start talking about progressive core values. Who’s stopping you? Elizabeth Warren did it and got elected.

    P.S. Paul Ryan’s voucher plan is not a progressive core value no matter how much lipstick you put on it.


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