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Our man in Congress

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Articles - April 2014
Thursday, March 27, 2014

0414 wyden carl-kiilsgaard obm ron-wyden-0159Spreading the wealth in the international commerce arena is one goal. Aligning trade policy with an increasingly tech-driven economy is another. Back in 1996, Wyden observes, he successfully introduced an amendment preventing Internet providers from being held liable for content posted on their sites. “Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act,” he says. “It created the legal foundation for 21st-century social media. Twitter, social media — I wrote the law that made it possible for them to invest.”

Taking credit for the rise of social networking companies may sound a bit like Al Gore taking credit for the Internet. But 18 years post-CDA, Wyden is considered something of a digital-commerce policy expert; when he talks about tech issues, tech leaders listen — and applaud. In 2012 he led the successful crusade to block the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), considered by many a threat to the basic structure of the Internet. Likewise, the Digital Trade Act, a bill he introduced in December with Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) — “I’m very pleased with the bipartisan bill” — is intended to preserve a free flow of data across borders. “We need to bring trade policy in line with the times,” Wyden says.

Trade done right is very significant to the Oregon economy. But we need to expand the winner's circle on these agreements.

Health care is another area where Wyden’s chairmanship will likely have a big impact — with Medicare reform in particular. “Any discussion of budget challenges has to take on Medicare; it has critical implications for the next generation,” says Wyden, whose wife, Nancy Bass, gave birth to their third child last year: Scarlett Willa Wyden. What’s it like parenting a 1-year-old at age 64? “Just the best!” says the exuberant father, who, with Bass, also has  6-year-old twins. 

In January Wyden introduced the Better Care, Lower Cost Act of 2014, a measure cosponsored by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga) and two House members. Resembling Oregon’s pioneering coordinated care model for Medicaid, the proposal would shift senior care from a fee-per-service payment system toward a single payment based on doctors and nurses working to integrate care for people with chronic illness. 

The new structure may also benefit Oregon health care providers, who have long complained about the state’s low Medicare reimbursement rates; under the BCLC, that disadvantage would be mitigated.

 Along with trade legislation, tax extenders and Medicare, Wyden has plenty of other unfinished business on his plate, including a Highway Trust Fund projected to run out of money this year and a controversial plan to boost timber harvests on Oregon’s federal forests, the lands once owned by the former O&C Railroad.

If the state’s history is a predictor of future success, Wyden’s chances of moving the needle on major policy issues may be better than it seems — contentious political environment notwithstanding. The last Oregonian to be Senate Finance Chair was Bob Packwood, the man Wyden replaced when Packwood resigned over sexual harassment and ethics charges. Packwood helped write a sweeping 1986 tax-reform package — the last major overhaul of federal tax law in the United States.

“We’ve been able to show on the big stuff that it’s possible to block things,” says Wyden. “Now the question is can you turn that around and get stuff passed. I’m very optimistic that we can.” And how does it feel to hold one of the  most coveted committee chairmanships in the Senate? Wyden responds in character: “It’s an enormous thrill.”


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