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.