Fields questions from students, local students
At least once a year, fair weather or foul, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden pays a visit to Madras. It's a promise he made to Oregonians back in 1996, when he was first elected to the U.S. Senate, and said he would visit each of Oregon's 36 counties every year.
"It's a chance for you to educate me," Wyden told a packed house at the Jan. 12 town hall meeting at the Jefferson County Fire District fire hall. "This is what the founding fathers though we would do, in terms of democracy."
Wyden opened the meeting by presenting long-delayed medals to World War II veteran Harry Olson, 84. Olson, who served in the U.S. Navy Air Division from 1940 to 1946, received seven medals, including the World War II Victory Medal, the Asiatic Pacific, the American Defense, the Presidential Citation, the European African Middle East, the Good Conduct, and the American Area medals. He still awaits the Philippines Liberation medal.
"You know he's a hero, but you'll never be able to get him to admit it," said Wyden.
"My God it was great," Olson said of the presentation.
Olson won't admit to being a hero. "All the guys who died in World War II are the heroes," he said.
Although Olson was never very concerned about getting his medals, recently, he reconsidered. "I thought I should leave something for the family."
Two of his three sons, Don and Bob, both from the Portland area, were on hand to see their father receive the medals he earned over 60 years ago.
"My kids thought it was kind of nice," he said afterward.
After the presentation, Wyden fielded questions on topics ranging from Social Security to Medicare, from illegal immigration to giving teachers control in classrooms.
In response to Madras High School senior Molly Morris' question about the future of Social Security, Wyden said that health care is a more immediate concern, but problems with Social Security need to be addressed.
The first issue involves "a lot more people retiring and a lot fewer people working" to support them with their payments.
He suggested that the government "start by not letting the Social Security surplus be used for programs other than Social Security."
Wyden continued, "Payroll tax is the big killer tax in America today. It gets used for a bunch of other stuff. If that went on in the private sector, people would get put in jail for it; it would be embezzlement."
Another issue that concerns Wyden is the fact that wealthy people receive Social Security payments. "Why are we sending Ross Perot or Lee Iacocca Social Security checks?" he asked. "Keep it as a safety net to make sure people aren't going to be wiped out in retirement."
The president's advocacy of moving toward private retirement accounts -- in place of Social Security -- worries Wyden.
The private accounts would be invested in the stock market, and be expected to pay back greater dividends. "It's a great theory, but what if it doesn't work so good?"
If it was a good plan, Social Security trustees could invest current funds in the stock market and receive substantial returns. "The reason they don't is because the stock market's not so secure," he said. "I don't see how privatization adds up."
Wyden was the author of a law to protect seniors from Medicare insurance scams.
Even more concerning to Wyden is the issue of spending huge sums of money on heroic efforts to extend life. "A big chunk of health care dollars is spent on end-of-life care," he said.
When medical officials say that there is nothing they can do to prolong a person's life, "Are we prepared to say, as a nation, that we want those people to be comfortable -- in a hospice or a home -- not on end-of-life intervention," Wyden said, adding that such care can cost millions. "It's not going to be an easy discussion to have."
When Oregon's assisted-suicide law was challenged by federal legislation on more than one occasion, Wyden successfully used filibusters to keep the law from being overturned.
If so-called "nuclear option," which would prevent filibusters, had been exercised against Oregon's Death With Dignity law, "it would have been in the trash can," he said.
Rather than using filibusters or the "nuclear option," Wyden would like to see Democrats and Republics cooperating on judicial nominees, as he and Sen. Gordon Smith do.
"Gordon and I get all our judges confirmed because we work together," he said, and don't apply a "litmus test" to nominees. "It would be very unfair if the `nuclear option' was exercised."
"The key is to draw a sharp, clear line," he explained. "Legal conduct is what we expect of people."
As it stands, people tolerate illegal conduct. "We all look the other way," he said, in order not to notice all the illegal immigrants people come into contact with everyday. "The people who pick our crops, who make our beds in the motel, who serve us in the restaurants."
Wyden suggested that the country pick a date, perhaps two years from now, after which only legal conduct will be allowed.
For those illegal immigrants who are already here, who have a job history and no evidence of law enforcement problems, "We would give them a chance to earn citizenship," he said. "It would be the last time we would go this route."
Wyden is hopeful that the country could unite on such a plan. "Today's system doesn't work for everybody -- not for farmers, not for illegal workers either," he said. "If anything, it makes a mockery of the rule of law."
Although the question was outside the usual realm of his power and persuasion, Wyden said that the issue stems from family values. "Neither I, nor any other member of Congress can pass a law that says `Thou shalt be a good parent,'" he said.
Nevertheless, Wyden said that he values her opinion and would do everything possible to see that good values are built into the programs with which he deals.
Wyden took the opportunity to commend the students from MHS' advanced-placement government class, who attended the town hall with their teacher Matt Henry.
"The students who came here on their own, it's worth noting that what you're seeing in front of you is camera-ready leadership," Wyden said.
Before winding up the one and one-half hour town hall, Wyden said he supports a national licensing system which uses the driver's license as a model; protection of old growth forests; finding common ground between salmon and dams in salmon recovery efforts; and strengthening the country's borders.
"We've got a long way to go in terms of straightening out homeland security," he said.
Jefferson County was one of nine stops Wyden made during his visit to Oregon. Wyden held town halls in eight other counties: Deschutes, Crook, Gilliam, Wasco, Marion, Lane, Klamath, and Jackson.