This February, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., took over as chair of the Senate Finance Committee — one of the most powerful positions in Congress. But the position could be short-lived if Republicans take control of the Senate in November, so Wyden may have to act quickly and strategically to get anything done.
He’s outlined his priorities, which include encouraging individuals to save more, overhauling the tax code, and expanding the government safety net. He’s also proposed a $2 billion program to create a savings account for every American child. But Wyden experienced an early defeat in his chairmanship when Republicans blocked his plan for reforming Medicare physician reimbursement rates.
Wyden stepped down as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to take up the chairmanship of the Finance Committee. He remains the ranking Democrat on that committee, where he has taken on the politically fraught issue of how to manage federal forests in Oregon, and what to do about leaking waste tanks at Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
In his position on the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, Wyden remains one of the most outspoken critics of what he sees as unconstitutional overreach by U.S. intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency.
He joined Think Out Loud Monday for a wide-ranging conversation. Below is an edited Q&A highlighting some of the issues discussed.
DAVE MILLER: You’ve used the polite word regarding the intelligence community as exhibiting a “culture of misinformation.” After dealing with that in the recent past, how much faith do you have that we as a people aren’t being lied to all over again, in terms of what the intelligence community says they are now going to be doing differently? Why should we believe them?
SEN. RON WYDEN: That’s a hugely important question, and one that I’ve given a lot of thought to. Let me give an example: The previous director of the NSA, Keith Alexander, said, “We don’t hold data on U.S. citizens.” I consider that statement to be one of the most false statements ever made about U.S. surveillance. That’s how I would categorize it.
The new man, Adm. Michael Rogers, understands that things have to be very different. He understands that they have to engage in a major rebuilding effort. I think the Congress is going to do a lot more to watchdog these statements of intelligence officials. We’re supposed to be doing vigorous oversight. I think now a lot of members of Congress know we’ve got to do more to fulfill that mission.
DM: But it seems to me that the only reason you and I can talk about this is because of Edward Snowden. Setting aside the illegality of that, or not, the only reason they weren’t able to get away with those lies was because individuals released information they weren’t allowed to release.
RW: In our country, when people ask the hard questions – and that’s what I’ve been trying to do for well over a decade — the history of our country is the truth always comes out. In fact, a couple years ago before all of this, I gave a speech on the floor of the Senate where I said, “I want to deliver a warning. When the American people find out how different the secret interpretation is from the plain text of what they’re reading at a coffee shop in Medford, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of anger.” I went through example after example in our country where the truth did come out.
It’s the job of people like myself who sat on the Intelligence Committee to ask hard, uncomfortable questions. The history of our country is that the truth always comes out.
DM: You’ve said recently that the current tax code is a “rotting carcass that smells worse every year.” What is the worst part of that carcass?
RW: The worst part of it is the incentives are really not for long-term economic growth. The incentives go to people who can figure out how to game the system, who have the best tax lawyers. Frankly, that’s a big part of our economic system today.
For example there’s tremendous concern about flash trading. It’s part of a financial system where more and more money is devoted to, in effect, who can figure out how to exploit the best short-term advantage, rather than what we need for sustained longer-term economic growth.
DM: Let’s assume that after the midterm elections the same parties that controlled the two branches of the Legislature, maintain control. Do you expect a major shift in the politics of tax reform? What gives you hope that it could happen next year?
RW: I think people are going to see that this is one of the best opportunities for long-term economic growth that’s out there. In effect, it’s not just Democrats and Republicans going at it once more. It’s both parties being willing, taking on the special interests. That’s going to be the challenge.
In 1986, in the two years after that tax reform bill when Democrats and Republicans got together, the country created 6.2 million jobs. I can’t tell you that every one of those jobs was due to tax reform — it sure helped.
DM: What is the chance that Congress will soon put a price on carbon?
RW: … Certainly on the Finance Committee, I’m going to look at the pricing of carbon. That’s something you have to do in a global context, can’t just do it locally, it involves China and India. The reality is only Congress has the tools and I’m certainly going to look at it.
DM: How do you find a bipartisan way on an issue like climate change if one of the parties, in this case many in people the Republican Party, either don’t believe that humans are causing climate change or say, “Even if that might be true, the ways to change that would be too disruptive to the U.S. economy?”
RW: What I noticed when I chaired the Energy Committee, if I walked into that room and I talked about climate change, certainly you’d have strong differences of opinion. There would be a number of conservatives who said that wasn’t the case.
If you walk in though and say, “Let’s all work together for a lower carbon future.” Then you can get for example, rural conservatives from the West, not just on hydro-power but on geothermal, wind and solar. I was able to do that. Part of this is just about how you go about building a collation.
DM: On Feb. 28, you sent a letter to the federal energy secretary saying that you basically wanted a new outline for a clean up plan within in 45 days. I did the math; today is exactly 45 days from when you sent that letter. Have you gotten a response?
RW: We still are not with a comprehensive plan, after years and years. I do believe that Secretary [Ernest] Moniz has been a valuable member of this administration and done some good work at the Department of Energy. But the reality is, at a time when the government is faced with such extraordinary demands and scarce resources, just pouring billions and billions of dollars into policies that aren’t working isn’t acceptable. I have tasked this secretary with getting us a comprehensive plan. Until we get it, we’ll keep pushing and making it clear that business as usual is unacceptable.
DM: A few weeks ago, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com said Republicans are a slight favorite for the race of Senate control. Given his track record of the last few presidential cycles, does that give you any pause, make you worry?
RW: Look at 2010, the predictions were lights out for most of my colleagues, particularly on the West Coast. You saw them retain their seats. For a long time, people were predicting Sen. Patty Murray couldn’t get re-elected. Of course, she won and has done a tremendous job.
The reality is that our candidates up this time are people with good track records in the Senate. Their folks at home know about it, and they are not going to be out campaigned.