U.S. senator invites questions during his yearly 36-county tour of the state

by: JONATHAN HOUSE - Sen. Ron Wyden addressed an audience Jan. 10, marking his Washington County stop in an annual tour to every county in the state.U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) articulated his stance on topics ranging from gun control to Medicare when he fielded questions from students and the general public in the Tualatin High School auditorium Jan. 10.

“No softballs here at all,” Wyden said after answering a question posed by a TuHS student regarding the proper use of the filibuster on the Senate floor.

The afternoon assembly was one of the 36 town hall-style meetings the senator has committed to holding in each of Oregon’s counties every year since he took office in 1996.

Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden commended Wyden for his approachability, describing how Wyden had come to the TuHS campus at least twice during his yearly town hall visits to Washington County. Ogden also recalled Wyden’s visit to the city during the 1996 floods, when Wyden immediately jumped into action by helping residents, whose apartment had been flooded, put their refrigerator upright again.

“He didn’t come in a suit with television cameras and reporters and cameras to make a scene,” Ogden said. “He came to help people.”

Wyden opened the meeting by calling up three local Korean War veterans and reminding the audience that 2013 was officially named the Year of the Korean War Veteran by Senate legislation. He then opened the floor to questions.

“You all are here to educate me about what’s important to you,” Wyden said.

After December’s shootings at the Clackamas Town Center and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., gun control dominated much of the discussion.

“Historically I focus on two things with respect to guns,” Wyden said. “The first is making sure that somebody who commits a crime with a gun would face a tough penalty.”

He added, “I’ve also focused on the mental health system, because my brother was a schizophrenic, and there wasn’t a single day when I or the family didn’t worry that he’d either be out there hurting himself or someone else. The gaps in the mental health system are a big part of this, too.”

Wyden concluded that gun ownership and responsibility has to be balanced.

“Clearly background checks and databases (to prevent the sale of guns to high-risk customers) aren’t working very well. Guns are getting into the hands of those that are mentally disturbed. Both sides of this debate ought to agree that that’s something that needs to be done,” he said, adding that he supporting closing the “gun show loophole” that allows for quicker sales and in some cases, allows gun sellers to bypass background checks completely.

Asked by a student if he would support a filibuster overhaul, Wyden acknowledged that the current system that allowed members of Senate to block legislation needed some reform.

He was in support of Sen. Jeff Merkeley’s (D-Ore.) efforts to keep the filibuster system in check, specifically by requiring senators “to be personally responsible” for the filibusters they attempted by requiring them to be present for the duration of their own filibuster.

“You don’t object to something and then you go off to Palm Springs for two weeks,” Wyden said.

But he emphasized the importance of maintaining the filibuster option, particularly where the rights of smaller states were concerned.

“A number of years ago, the House of Representatives passed a bill to get rid of our Death with Dignity law. This was something (Oregon voters) voted on twice,” Wyden said. “And I announced publicly that I would filibuster to protect Oregon’s law.”

Not only would the filibuster have eliminated Oregon’s law, Wyden argued, it would have put significant barriers in place to treat people for pain.

A focus on youth

Wyden used one student’s concern about the debt his generation would shoulder to address both Medicare and military spending.

“There are going to be 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day for the next 20 years,” Wyden said. “If steps aren’t taken to control Medicare costs, there’s not going to be money for your generation to get a lot of the things that you’re counting on.”

Meanwhile, he said, “We’re going to be spending this year on the military $600 billion. It comes to twice as much, guys, as all of the countries of the world combined.”

He argued for practical cuts in the defense budget, including scaling back on large aircraft carriers in areas of the world where a “faster and more nimble response” was required.

Wyden reminded the audience that ultimately, a bipartisan response to such issues was essential.

by: JONATHAN HOUSE - During his annual town hall meeting in Washington County, Sen. Ron Wyden focused on questions from the audience assembled in the Tualatin High School auditorium. “It’s not going to matter unless we can find common ground,” Wyden said. “In the United States Senate, nobody has enough votes to dictate to the other half. Neither side has enough votes to tell the other side what to do. What I try to do is focus on trying to bring people together, to show that it’s possible to keep your principles, and to be bipartisan.”

In response to one 68-year-old community member’s complaints about what he viewed as a broken Social Security system, Wyden argued that he himself had worked with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, “the Republican point person on all of these matters.” The result of that, he said, was a bipartisan outline of how to tackle budget issues related to Medicare and Social Security.

During the 2012 presidential election, for which Ryan was the Republican vice presidential nominee, Wyden repeatedly clarified that he was not in support of the Medicare plan Ryan had crafted with then-presidential nominee Mitt Romney. In October 2012, Wyden took to his own Facebook page to differentiate between what he called “the Wyden-Ryan white paper,” which he argued “strengthened the safety net” for poor and vulnerable senior citizens, and the “Romney/Ryan plan on Medicare” that he slammed for “shredding” such guarantees.

At the time, Wyden concluded, “The Romney/Ryan plan on Medicare is further proof that Mitt Romney is singularly unfit to end gridlock and bring bipartisan solutions to Washington.”

Wyden also reminded the Tualatin audience that he had sponsored the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, which aims to provide prospective college students more transparency about projected levels of post-graduation debt from individual educational institutions, as well as average post-graduation salaries by college major and institution. He called the legislation “a bipartisan effort” that he co-sponsored with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“Education is all about access,” Wyden said. “I want all of the young people here to start getting information about value.”

This transitioned into a question from Pam Treece, the new executive director of the Westside Economic Alliance, a business advocacy group focused on Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties.

“You have a group of people that are going to be looking for jobs,” Treece said. “Our focus is economic development. Can you give this room your view on job creation and what they can expect in the next five to 10 years?”

Wyden characterized Washington County as “a real magnet for industries of the future” like nanotechnology, but also the agricultural sector. “I think if you look at the big employers just in this community, it’s a pretty good profile of what the jobs of the future are,” he said.

He told the students present that one one-sixth of Oregon jobs depended on export.

“Try to make stuff here, or grow stuff here or add value to it here, and ship it somewhere,” he said.

Wyden respectfully disagreed with a student who felt that “high-end” students were leaving the state after college graduation.

“Oregon has one of the highest rates of migration in any state,” Wyden said, “so clearly we’re doing some things right in terms of being attractive to smart and talented people around the country.”

He encouraged the audience not to be too focused on the pressure of Fortune 500 companies as a metric for success, and to see the value in entrepreneurship and innovation, even on the smaller scale.

“This is more an Urban Airship economy,” Wyden said, referring to a successful Portland-based mobile technology company started by a group of laid-off programmers who took advantage of a self-employment assistance program he had developed, allowing them to collect their unemployment benefits in one lump sum to support their business venture.

“This is not our grandfather’s economy, where you went somewhere at 20, and you stayed put for 30 years ‘til they gave you a gold watch,” Wyden added.

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