|//Photos by Carl Kiilsgaard|
BY LINDA BAKER
It’s a Friday afternoon in late February, and Sen. Ron Wyden, a week into his new job as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has just flown into Portland from Washington, poised for a weekend of town halls around the state. “I’m kind of curious about how people will respond to the news,” he says, offering up a hypothetical question from the people. “‘So Ron’s chairman of the Senate Finance Committee; can he get me a 3% home loan?’ A big part of my job now is walking people through how this really works.”
With jurisdiction over taxes, trade and federal entitlement programs like Medicare, the Senate Finance Committee is widely considered one of the most powerful in Congress: a gatekeeper for legislation affecting every American. Known for his wonky enthusiasm on all manner of issues, Wyden, 64, has toiled for years on complex big-picture regulations and reforms that often seemed impossible to implement. Now Oregon’s senior senator has the bully pulpit and the resources to help turn grand ideas into action. “It’s going to be a very activist operation,” Wyden says. “The key is going to be strong bipartisan support.”
In a phone interview with Oregon Business, Wyden offered a glimpse of his plans for the committee. Tax reform is a priority, but with the Republican leadership focused on Obamacare, Wyden says, “we have to make this a two step approach.” Step one is renewing about 50 tax credits that expired in 2013, including deductions for state and local sales taxes, research and development, and renewable energy. “We then have to use the extenders as a springboard to comprehensive reform,” Wyden says.
It’s a project, he likes to say, in which he has invested “a lot of sweat equity.” In 2010, Wyden introduced the Bipartisan Tax Fairness and Simplification Act, a bill co-sponsored by Judd Gregg, the former Republican senator from New Hampshire. (“He and I sat on the sofa almost every week for two years. Both of us felt we were going to walk out 15 times. We stayed put.”) That hard-fought legislation languished, but Wyden’s comprehensive tax-reform package uses the 2010 bill as a model. In broad parameters, the plan would simplify the tax code, reduce individual and corporate tax rates, and narrow the gap on taxation between investment and earned income by boosting capital gains and dividends rates.
Support for the middle class is a recurring theme in Wyden’s rhetoric about taxes — and trade policy. A liberal Democrat known for partnering with GOP colleagues, Oregon’s senior senator has been a consistent supporter of free-trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico (NAFTA). He also has close ties to outdoor-apparel manufacturers — Nike, Columbia Sportswear — and has sponsored bills eliminating tariffs on recreational clothing. But instead of green-lighting the latest plans to speed trade deals — including a fast track plan known as the Trade Promotion Authority, and a 12-nation trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership — Wyden now urges caution.
“We have a lot of issues to work though,” he says, namely, ensuring such deals don’t lead to a loss of manufacturing jobs at home. “Many folks hear the words ‘trade agreement’ and say it means more jobs in the front office, but what does it mean for the middle class that is hurting — the people who take a shower in the office?” asks Wyden. “Trade done right is very significant to the Oregon economy. But we need to expand the winner’s circle on these agreements.”