Oregon is still hoping to cash in on a federal package approved by Congress to grow the nation’s semiconductor industry. The debt limit crisis is continuing in Washington and financial implications abound. And the future of the Portland Trail Blazers is less clear than ever.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden cares deeply about all three of those topics, and he joined OPB Weekend Edition host Lillian Karabaic to discuss them this week. Here are the highlights of their conversation. You can also listen to it using the audio player at the top of this story.
Ron Wyden: Thanks for having me, Lillian.
Lillian Karabaic: Thank you for joining me. All right. So you’ve been involved in trying to woo more semiconductor investment in Oregon, and you paid a key role in passing the $52.7 billion CHIPS Act. Has this legislation accomplished what you hoped?
Wyden: It’s certainly going in the right direction, and I was thrilled that my friend Gina Raimondo, the secretary of Commerce, came, and I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the comments since she’s been here, but she was in Indiana and she was positively gushing particularly about our workforce efforts. And I am chairman of the Finance Committee. We work on legislation and I authored the provision of the CHIPS Act that provided $24 billion for investment tax credits.
But something happened a couple days ago that puts the human face on what this means for Oregon. I went to the labor organization that’s involved in training, particularly women, for the jobs of the future. And when I was there, I saw women getting trained to be electricians and carpenters and steam fitters. And it wasn’t just a job, it was a career.
I remember one family, three generations were there, the young person who wanted the job, the mom who was there, and the dad. So this is a tremendous opportunity for Oregon. I’m all in. We’ve historically been known for our work in research and development. We also got some, some additional grants here recently. We’ve also got to make things, and that’s what investment tax credit are all about as manufacturing.
Karabaic: Do you think that we’ve actually cashed in on that CHIPS Act legislation? Gov. Tina Kotek pushed through an $190 million package earlier this year to make that happen. Do you really feel like this is enough at this point in the game to make a difference?
Wyden: We’re winning every day. I went to school on a basketball scholarship. I was dreaming of playing in the NBA and I didn’t get to do that. But I sure came to play every day. I mean, just recently Oregon’s got some CHIPS act funding. University of Oregon, Oregon State, Portland State won regional innovation grants.
I think that we’re putting points on the board every single day. And that’s why I particularly mentioned those young women workers is the jobs of the future. They’re going to be high-skill, high-wage jobs, and they’re going to be dependent on making sure that Oregon steps up and does the training. And I saw it this week.
Karabaic: So what is most of that, the CHIPS funding that has gone towards these universities, what kind of investments is that for?
Wyden: Well, it continues our research focus. I mean, that’s what Intel was all about. As you recall, everybody was down the dumps because Ohio got some money. We knew Ohio was gonna get some money, because chips are also relevant for automobiles. But the work that’s done at Intel, for example, in Washington County, that’s research that the whole country, you know, depends on. Now, we’re moving forward with additional steps and particularly I’m getting out and seeing facilities that are interested in manufacturing. Like at Oregon State.
Karabaic: You mentioned basketball, so I have to ask you: In nonpolitical news, you are a noted basketball fan. The Blazers have the third pick in the NBA draft next month. What do you wanna do with the team pick?
Wyden: Length! We need some more big guys. And we’re also gonna keep pushing till we get a WNBA team.
Karabaic: All right. Back to finance, the Senate Finance Committee, which you chair, recently asked for a complete disclosure of billionaire Harlan Crow’s gifts to the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. What do you believe is the appropriate course of action to address these disclosures for Supreme Court justices?
Wyden: Well, first of all, let’s start with the proposition that nobody is above the law. I’m chairman of the Finance Committee. We have significant responsibilities with respect to oversight and particularly in areas related to gift taxes.
We have seen, week after week now, for several months, significant disclosures of substantial gifts given to a judge. And I have been looking for some time, we said this in our recent letter to the judge’s attorney. We have been looking at potential abuses and gift tax laws. And that’s what it’s the issue here.
Karabaic: Do you think that there’s a possibility that what ProPublica found in their reporting exceeds the Uniform Gift exclusion?
Wyden: The statute stipulates that there are some reporting requirements if you give an individual more than $17,000 in a year.
Karabaic: So it sounds like you think that at least we need more information.
Wyden: The committee, and I’ve been the chair, we’ve been looking at a billionaires tax, you know, all your listeners who are firefighters and teachers and nurses, they pay taxes with every paycheck. Billionaires to a great extent can bring in their accountant and say, ‘I don’t feel like paying income taxes this year.’
And they can, to a great extent, pay what they want when they want to. And there are substantial questions with respect to abuses of the gift tax by very affluent people. There are requirements, as I mentioned when it’s over a certain level that the donor pay taxes. And we’re gonna look at these issues.
Karabaic: What are your predictions for what will happen if we do hit that debt ceiling?
Ron Wyden: The bottom line is, the country has got to pay its bills. I was the senior man on the Senate Finance Committee during the Trump administration, and they were faced with debt ceiling issues. And I said then, ‘No matter who is president, the country has to pay its bills.’ By the way, these bills were incurred by both a Democratic president and a Republican president. And what we need to do is we need to pay our bills. After we’re done paying the bills, then I think it is very appropriate to go on to a significant additional debate about future spending.
In other words, the debt is about paying the bills that you’ve incurred. Almost like you went to a restaurant, you went out to dinner, you pay the bills when you leave, and then you can think in the future about what you want to spend on meals and the like. And the Republicans have interests in holding down spending. I certainly do. I was the author of the legislation to lift the restrictions so that Medicare could bargain to hold down costs. And I got plenty of other ideas like that.
Karabaic: I think a lot of people don’t really grasp what is at stake.
Wyden: I had town meetings this week ... and what always comes up is ‘What is the difference between the debt ceiling and, say, the the future spending?’
Here’s what’s gonna happen if we don’t take care of this. Starting at the beginning of June, seniors and veterans, their benefits are at risk. And small businesses. We’re a small business state. And those folks could really face interest rate hikes. And we’ve already seen the Fed express concern.
Karabaic: These debt ceiling discussions didn’t happen before 2011 until the Republicans learned that this was an effective tool for them. But most other countries don’t handle their debt this way. Most other countries would, you know, set it as a percentage rather than a hard limit — a percentage of GDP. Would you be open to supporting a budget limit rather than a debt ceiling limit?
Wyden: I’m open, Lillian, to plenty of ideas for the future. You know, we’re having this big debate, for example, about the 14th Amendment and the question of the debt. And, my heart beats for the idea of ending this process that you’ve cited and has such political lengths.
My head is a little bit more skeptical because it would go to the Supreme Court. and I’m not so confident. A lot of people, my friends, said, ‘Oh, we’re never gonna see Roe vs. Wade struck down.’ And you had a court who did it. And I’m not so confident about what the court would do about, about the debt issue.