U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., met Friday with constituents and students in the auditorium of The Dalles High School at his 810th town hall since taking office in 1996, and his 21st in Wasco County.
“What happens at our town halls is that I make a few comments — like 45 minutes or so —— and everyone thinks it’s really, really fun,” joked Wyden in his greeting.
After welcoming students who had travelled from Dufur to take part in the forum, Wyden had The Dalles City Councilor Darcy Long-Curtiss began drawing tickets for questions from the audience.
“We are going to do this like the founding fathers wanted – no subjects are off limits except (national) intelligence,” said Wyden, who serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The list of issues addressed in the conversation that lasted a little more than one hour was long and most involved criticism of actions taken, or not taken, by President Donald Trump.
Wyden was asked how he approached decision making with a GOP-controlled Congress and White House.
“When an issue comes up, I basically say: ‘How does this compare to the Oregon Way?” he said.
“First and foremost I’m an Oregonian,” he said. “We’re independent, fair and practical.”
On Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election, Wyden said “it seems like every day there is new info” that emerges and needs to be thoroughly investigated.
Democrats have claimed Russian President Vladimir Putin used technology and disinformation to influence the outcome of the election in favor of Republican candidate Donald Trump. Putin has dismissed what he calls “endless and groundless accusations of meddling,” describing them as part of the U.S. domestic political struggle.
“As far as the inquiry, we’ve got to follow the money, follow the dead bodies,” said Wyden in reference to testimony given to Senate Intelligence by Clint Watts, a former FBI agent now with the Foreign Policy Research Institute Program on National Security.
Watts said several Russians tied to the investigation into Kremlin disinformation tactics had been killed.
Wyden said it was important to learn what had happened since “this president takes a different approach to Russia than his predecessors, both Democrat and Republican.”
Trump, throughout the campaign and since he’s been president, has expressed an interest in improving relations with Russia and, at times, has praised Putin. He has been criticized by Democrats for acting in his own best
interests due to his suspected business ties with Russia.
Wyden criticized Trump for not voluntarily releasing his tax returns. “He is the first president in 40 years, since Watergate, who had not released them,” he said. “It has caused Americans to question the legitimacy of their government.”
Early this year, he introduced the Presidential Tax Transparency Act that seeks to have the nominee of each party release their most recent three years of tax returns to the Federal Election Commission.
As a member of Intelligence, and a ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Treasury Department, Wyden vowed not to let either issue “get swept under the rug during my watch.”
He said it was enormously important not to let money for the arts be lost, as proposed by Trump.
Another area that needed funding, said Wyden, was the program to compensate rural counties for logging cutbacks tied to environmental rules.
He said counties with large tracts of land in federal ownership used to receive a share of timber harvest receipts for schools and roads. That funding was intended to offset the loss of tax revenue and developable land.
Because the federal government owns the largest percentage of land in Oregon, Wyden said it was important that the government keeps its commitment to help affected counties. In 2000, Wyden co-authored the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act that provided funding for six years, and then worked with other members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation to get several extensions of the law before it expired. The affected counties in Oregon received almost $4 billion in payments.
“The first thing we’ve got to do in this Congress is get that law renewed,” he said.
Also on his “to do” list, said Wyden, was getting more funding for schools that were struggling with low graduation rates. A provision he included in the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was approved by Congress in 2015, authorized financial assistance for public school having problems in this area.
The provision expands eligibility for federal grants to middle and high schools where 40 percent or more for the student population comes from low-income households.
Oregon has struggled with a high school graduation rate of about 75 percent, below the national average of about 82 percent.
“We need flexibility, not a cookie cutter approach,” said Wyden.
He agreed with an audience member that schools should not be forced to focus more on testing than educating students to meet federal mandates.
“We need to be interested in student progress,” he said.
Local resident Antonia Kabokov received a round of applause when she asked Wyden to fight to reduce the military budget so more money could be poured into domestic programs.
She said the U.S. had 800 military bases in more than 70 countries that it spent more than $150 billion to maintain.
“We are a war nation,” she said. “Please, aren’t we more intelligent than that?”
Wyden reiterated his stance against the war in Iraq, despite being in the Senate minority on that vote.
“I sure wish our side had prevailed in what we lost in blood and treasure,” he said.
It was important, said Wyden, for the U.S. to make sure its returning veterans received the care and resources they needed to reintegrate back into the civilian world. He stated opposition to Trump’s budget proposal to increase defense spending by $54 billion and cut funding for Meals on Wheels and environmental programs, among others.
Although he supported Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian airport following news that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons on his own citizens, Wyden said it was important the president develop a clear strategy for Syria and consult with both the American people and Congress before acting again.
Wyden said he is opposed to putting ground troops in Syria. He joins other senators in calling on Trump to resettle Syrian refugees in the U.S. Trump has stated he wants better vetting processes in place before accepting more refugees to prevent terrorists from infiltrating their ranks.
About rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, Wyden said it appeared that, in terms of foreign policy, the Trump administration appeared to be “reacting to the daily news cycle” and lacking a long-term vision.
“You have to have a tool box, soft power and hard power,” he said. “You have to think it through carefully and come up with thoughtful solutions.”
He said there wasn’t any question that the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, “presents a very significant threat.”
“We need to use strong diplomacy to convince China that they and everyone else will be hurt if we continue (down the path toward N. Korea’s development of nuclear weapons),” said Wyden.
He said technology and manpower could provide adequate security along the Mexican-American border so he did not support Trump’s stated intent, and request for funding, to build a wall.
“I just don’t know what the wall’s going to contribute so I’m not for it,” said Wyden.
He said it was important to find the balance between national defense and protecting the right of Americans to privacy. Wyden said he has consistently opposed giving the federal government powers to surveil citizens without a justifiable reason. By attempting to weaken encryption on cell phones, as an example, he said the door was open for hacking by terrorists, pedophiles and other people with evil plans.
Wyden opposed a recent GOP move that allows internet service providers to sell data collected through a user’s browser, including emails, financial and medical information, without permission.
“Browsing info is as personal as it gets,” he said. “There’s lot of pieces to this puzzle and you’ve got to get them in the right places,” he said.
On the current health care system, Wyden said there “was no question that we need a lot of improvement” but the Republican replacement plan for Obamacare was not the solution because it would bankrupt Medicare to provide a tax cut for the rich.
“I don’t see many people leave here and wanting to move around the world (for better care) but I see a lot of people wanting to leave there and come here,” he said of the benefits available to Americans.
He said the cost of pharmecuticals needed to be held down to reduce overall costs. He said “middle men making deals in secret” was a big contributor to that problem, which needed to be fixed.
Wyden said it was time to reform the electoral college, which was instituted to give smaller states a voice, but was now longer needed with a digital platform to get that voice out.
He said if the entire U.S. followed Oregon’s example with vote by mail, it would greatly reduce or eliminate election fraud.
In closing, Wyden announced that Wayne Kinney, a field representative, was retiring and moving to Maine.“This man has been the gold standard in terms of serving rural Oregon,” he said.