Sen. Ron Wyden took questions from students and residents for 90 minutes during a town hall meeting at the Prairie City School gym May 1. The Democrat holds town hall meetings in each of Oregon’s 36 counties once a year.
“This is the way the Founding Fathers wanted us to do it,” he said.
Wyden started the meeting by presenting agricultural science and technology teacher Lindy Cruise with an American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol in honor of her work at the school. Last year, the school received a $336,286 career readiness grant from the state, thanks to Cruise’s efforts.
Questions asked at the town hall meeting ranged from divisiveness and extremism to abortion, guns, climate change and infrastructure. Divisiveness is a problem, he said, but media have not been reporting progress that’s being made in Washington.
Wyden emphasized the need for bipartisanship in Congress, and he pointed to legislation he and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah worked together to pass — a 10-year extension to the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Chronic Care Act for Medicare and the Family First Act, which seeks to prevent troubled families from breaking apart through counseling and treatment.
“Extremism feeds on poverty and despair,” he said, adding that he hoped his forestry bills could help improve the economy and end extremism.
Wyden said he didn’t believe extremist voices were anywhere near the majority, and good people across the political spectrum need to stand up and speak out and say, “Extremism is not welcome here.”
Wyden cited three steps he uses when dealing with people he disagrees with: be respectful, propose something and act in a bipartisan way.
When asked by a student about arming teachers to prevent school shootings, Wyden suggested other steps that he believes don’t harm Second Amendment rights. Guns should be kept out of the hands of people with mental health problems, people on terrorist watch lists and people with domestic abuse histories, he said.
“We need a background check for every gun sold in America,” he said, including gun shows and straw purchases.
Wyden also wanted to “beef up” the nation’s mental health system, and he commended the Trump administration’s effort to regulate the sale of “bump stocks,” which can make a semi-automatic rifle fire like a fully automatic.
On abortion, Wyden said he supports the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling. It’s a private choice, he said. Otherwise, the U.S. government would be making choices for women. He said he would like to see family planning and other measures eliminate the need for abortions altogether.
On climate change, Wyden presented two questions: Is there really a problem, and if so can anything be done? He answered yes to both, citing wind and solar projects across Oregon and the proposed biomass plant in John Day as constructive steps to address the problem.
Wyden said his “biggest frustration” in Washington has been getting infrastructure bills through Congress. After working for several years on a tax bill, he said he believed repatriated money from taxes on foreign earnings would be made available for infrastructure projects. Instead, the money went to corporate tax reductions, he said.
“I still hope to get that money back,” he said.
First elected to office in a 1996 special election, Wyden is a ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee and a leading Senate Democrat on the Joint Committee on Taxation. He also sits on the Energy and Natural Resources and Budget committees, as well as the Select Committee on Intelligence.
Wyden joined Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho to write the Secure Rural Schools act, which Congress passed in 2000. Since then, the act has provided more than $3.1 billion to Oregon counties for schools, law enforcement and roads. SRS payments were reauthorized for two more years under the 2018 Omnibus Appropriations Bill signed by President Donald Trump March 23.
Wyden also played a role in establishing a 10-year forest stewardship contract in the Grant County area, which helped keep John Day’s lone lumber mill running, and he has long supported legislation to stop the practice of using fire prevention funds to fight wildfires. The omnibus bill contains provisions that address this practice known as “fire borrowing.”