Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., about changes coming to Washington, D.C. Tomorrow he addresses the transition to a Trump administration and his support role:
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., has been chosen to chair the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, where some of the biggest legislative battles associated with a major shift in leadership will start.
His election by Republicans, the majority party, is historic in that no other House member from the Northwest, in either party, has held the position of chairman.
“This is why you come to Washington; to set policy that makes a difference for the people you represent, for all Americans,” said Walden.
The committee is the oldest in the House and vested with the broadest jurisdiction of any congressional body that authorizes programs and seeks to hold agencies accountable.
Today, the commission oversees the nation’s telecommunications, consumer protection, food and drug safety, public health research, environmental quality, energy policy and interstate and foreign commerce.
The committee is responsible for the Departments of Energy, Health and Human Services, Commerce and Transportation, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Communications Commission.
“My job will be to oversee all this and keep things on track,” said Walden, who spent much of his childhood in The Dalles and now resides in Hood River.
He defeated U.S. Reps. John Shimkus, R-Ill., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, in the race for the gavel. He will replace Fred Upton, R-Mich., who is forced by term limits to step down as chair. After two successful terms as head of the House GOP’s campaign arm, Walden garnered strong support from Republicans for his elevation from member to chair of the committee.
Because of its broad area of coverage, he said service on the committee is exclusive and only members with some type of specialty, such as a military background, can serve on other committees.
Walden said the first order of business for the committee, once President-elect Donald Trump takes office Jan. 20, is to repeal and replace “failing” parts of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
President Barack Obama’s signature legislation was adopted in 2010 on a party line vote. Not a single Republican in Congress voted for the proposal because it had not been properly vetted, said Walden.
It is time, he said, to address key flaws that have allowed premiums to skyrocket for many customers, and caused insurers to drop out of public exchanges due to high coverage costs.
Recently, Walden said a couple from Eastern Oregon contacted him to report that their premium had risen to $1,600 per month and their deductible to $7,100.
He said similar reports are coming from people across his Second Congressional District and beyond.
“Our first responsibility will be to find a fix for these problems,” he said.
Walden said Republicans have been working on an alternative health care model, which he declined to reveal until the GOP was ready to roll it out.
“The individual market is broken and I think everyone knows that something had to be done,” he said. “That’s our challenge and we take it seriously.”
Contrary to “scare tactics” used by liberal media outlets and some Democratic leaders, Walden said Republicans are not seeking to toss out Obamacare in its entirety.
The 92 percent of the population that gets health care through an employer, Medicare or Medicaid will see little change, he said.
“Less than 8 percent of anyone currently in the health care system will be affected by what we do,” said Walden.
On other fronts, he said Republicans are also getting ready to deliver on campaign promises to stop government overreach and eliminate “job-killing” regulations. He declined to provide further details but said GOP leaders will be prepared to move quickly to enact policy changes.
“We’ll have a lot of things right out of the gate,” he said.
For the seventh time in 70 years, he said Republicans hold the White House and both chambers of Congress, so making progress on much-needed reforms will be much easier.
“The American people told us what they wanted and now we have this opportunity to give it to them,” he said.
Because of the filibuster rule in the Senate, Walden said it takes 60 votes to pass nearly anything through the 100-member chamber. Republicans hold 52 seats so they must garner support for policy changes from eight Democrats to not trigger a filibuster. That parliamentary procedure is used to extend debate on a proposed piece of legislation as an obstructive tactic.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and others have spent the last several years pushing for the filibuster role to be changed. One of their proposals would have gradually reduced the number of votes to break a filibuster — after a certain amount of time, for example, it would have only taken 55 votes to break one, and then, eventually, a simple majority.
Walden said the filibuster rule was set up to give the minority party a voice by encouraging the majority to find “common ground to get things done.”
“I am hopeful that we can find these areas,” he said. “We’ll be interacting with a lot of folks on these issues.”
In addition to reforming health care, his committee will tackle at least a couple other areas of contention: what the nation’s energy policy should look like and how environmental rules should be changed to accommodate business growth.
“I think the American people want their freedoms back, they want a good economy back,” said Walden.
GOP leaders will also have to decide, he said, what to do about Obama’s “midnight” executive actions to solidify his environmental legacy.
For example, last week Obama designated the bulk of U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean, and certain locations in the Atlantic, as “permanently” off limits to future oil and gas drilling.
The president used a little-known law called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 to enact his executive powers for a ban on offshore drilling.
He has also been considering use of the Monuments and Antiquities Act of 1906 to proclaim a 2.5 million-acre national monument in the Owyhee Canyonlands along the Oregon-Idaho-Nevada border.
Walden and other GOP leaders have strongly opposed having a new monument in western states where more than half of the land base is already in federal ownership.
Reversing Obama’s actions won’t be easy, said Walden.
“While he’s given authority in these acts to take certain actions, the next president isn’t given authority to overturn them,” he said. “And powers are generally granted and not assumed.”
He said, as a check and balance in the system, the Congressional Review Act of 1996 allows the House and Senate to scrutinize new federal regulations and sets up a path to invalidate them by a simple majority vote.
“Congress can go back six months and repeal a regulation that may have been put in place by an outgoing administration,” he said.
If a regulation is repealed, he said the agency responsible for its enactment is prohibited from coming back with any new rules in that area.
However, Walden said that process must be undertaken very carefully, because reversing a policy may lead to an even worse underlying one.
“It’s not as easy as it looks but it’s one tool in the box,” he said.
Other tools are litigation or enacting new laws, said Walden.
His committee can also play a role in dealing with agencies that resist change through the budgeting process.
Also available to Congress is an authorization process for agencies that defines the laws they are to implement and holds them accountable for moving in that direction.
“The Pentagon goes through the authorization process every year but some agencies haven’t had this done since the Nixon administration,” said Walden. “Part of my committee’s mission is to define jurisdiction.”