Sen. Ron Wyden (D)
Elected: Jan. 1996, term expires 2010, 2nd full term.
Born: May 3, 1949, Wichita, KS .
Education: Stanford U., B.A. 1971, U. of OR, J.D. 1974.
Family: Married (Nancy Bass); 4 children.
Elected office: U.S. House of Reps., 1980–96.
Professional Career: Co–dir. & co–founder, OR Gray Panthers, 1974–80; Dir., OR Legal Svcs. for the Elderly, 1977–79; Prof. of Gerontology, U. of OR, 1976, Portland St. U., 1979, U. of Portland, 1980.
Ron Wyden, Oregon’s senior senator, was first elected to the House in 1980 and to the Senate in January 1996. He grew up in California, graduated from Stanford University, and came to Oregon to attend the University of Oregon Law School. After graduating in 1974, he founded the Oregon chapter of the Gray Panthers, an advocacy group for the elderly. His first foray into electoral politics was sponsoring a successful referendum reducing the price of dentures. In 1980, at age 31, he boldly launched a primary challenge to Democratic Rep. Robert Duncan in the 3rd Congressional District, which covers most of Portland, and won 60%-40%. He went on to easily capture the seat in the heavily Democratic district. Wyden’s way to the Senate was opened by the Senate Ethics Committee’s decision in September 1995 to expel Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., for ethical misdeeds related to the sexual abuse of former aides and lobbyists. Wyden, who had long been eyeing the seat, decided to run in the special election to replace Packwood—the first election Oregon conducted by mail-in ballot. With his home base in Portland, where the local television broadcasts reach most of the state, Wyden had greater name identification than his competitors. But he had spirited opposition in the Democratic primary from Eugene-based Rep. Peter DeFazio, who carried his own district overwhelmingly, holding Wyden to a 50%-44% win. The Republican nomination went to state Senate President Gordon Smith, a frozen-vegetable tycoon from eastern Oregon who spent $2 million of his own money. Most polls had the race in a dead heat, and negative ads flooded the airwaves. Wyden picked up strength the week before the Jan. 30 mail deadline, and won 48%-47%.
|Ron Wyden (D)||1,128,728||(63%)||($2,817,706)|
|Al King (R)||565,254||(32%)||($32,930)|
|Ron Wyden (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 1998 (61%), 1996 (48%), 1994 House (73%), 1992 House (77%), 1990 House (81%), 1988 House (99%), 1986 House (86%), 1984 House (72%), 1982 House (78%), 1980 House (72%)
Ten months later, Smith won the state’s other Senate seat, marking the first time two senators were elected who had run against each other in the same year. With the departure of Packwood and Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield, Oregon had lost 56 years of Senate seniority and had gained two senators who everyone expected would be bitter enemies. Instead, they became friends and collaborators, holding dozens of joint town meetings across Oregon and having lunch every Thursday with their chiefs of staff. The bipartisan working alliance between the two ended in 2008 when Smith lost his re-election bid to Democrat Jeff Merkley.
In his years in Washington, Wyden has displayed a genius for coming up with sensible-sounding ideas no one else had thought of and a knack for making the counterintuitive political alliances that prove helpful in passing bills. He says, “Look at my record. My record is based on the proposition that if you want to get anything done, it’s got to be bipartisan. But sometimes you have to stand alone.” An illustration was Wyden’s work with Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, of Maine, in early 2009. Wyden and Snowe astutely predicted that high-dollar bonuses and “golden parachutes” for executives of financial companies being bailed out by American taxpayers would be unpopular with the public. They won passage of a provision in that year’s economic stimulus bill to prevent such bonus payments. But the stipulation was left out of the final bill at the insistence of the Obama administration, which said it was worried that employees would sue to keep their bonuses, according to an account by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. In late March 2009, there was an outpouring of public anger over bonuses paid to employees of troubled insurance giant AIG, which ensnared the fledgling Obama administration and which would have been prevented by the Wyden-Snowe legislation.
Wyden’s portfolio of interests is wide, ranging from Senate procedure to new technology. In 1997, he and Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa shook things up in the tradition-bound Senate by calling for disclosure of the names of senators who place ‘‘holds’’ on legislation, which allow individual senators to tie up legislation for months or years. One of Wyden’s bills was the victim of such a hold. Wyden and Grassley were rebuffed in their efforts for years, but made slow progress. In March 2006, the Senate voted 84-13 for a Wyden-Grassley amendment requiring senators to announce their opposition in the Congressional Record within three days of objecting to legislation or a nominee. The provision was included in the Senate version of the lobbying reform bill that passed in January 2007.
Another Wyden cause has been the Internet. He and former California Rep. Christopher Cox, a Republican, sponsored the three-year ban on Internet taxation that passed in 1998. Three years later, they sought to extend the ban permanently, but also set up a procedure to allow states to tax Internet sales if they adopt uniform sales tax rules and provide a means to file and remit sales taxes electronically; the ban was extended until 2005. In 2004, the Senate passed a four-year extension that grandfathered in pre-1998 taxes and permitted states to apply telephone taxes to voice-over-Internet protocol (VOIP) services. The bill was signed in December 2004. Wyden has also worked on Internet privacy issues and on anti-spam legislation, which passed in 2003. As spam purveyors evolved, he moved to restrict spam messages over text-messaging systems and cell phones. In 2006, he backed network neutrality legislation, which would bar Internet service providers from giving preference to websites that pay fees.
Health care has long captured Wyden’s interest too. He was one of 11 Senate Democrats to vote for the Republican-authored Medicare prescription drug law in 2003 in the face of criticism from many fellow Democrats and former allies. “It was clearly the toughest call I’ve ever had to make. It wasn’t a bill I would have written. But I thought it was the right thing to do to get started,” he said. He won amendments creating a national commission on health care and to extend a managed care option for rural Oregon. Later, with Snowe, he sponsored a bill to allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.
In 2006, Wyden and Smith sponsored a bill for pilot projects for health care plans designed to increase reliance on private insurance over employer-based insurance, and to shield individuals from high out-of-pocket costs. In December 2006, Wyden announced a bill for a private health insurance system, including a federal-state system of premium collection and subsidies. Individuals would be required to buy private health insurance, with subsidies for low earners making as much as 400% of the poverty level. Medicaid, the federal health care program for the poor, would be abolished. And the proposal would essentially eliminate the current system of employer-based coverage. In the first two years after enactment, employers would transfer money that they had been spending on health benefits to wages. By 2008, the proposal was cosponsored by seven Democrats and seven Republicans, including chief cosponsor Robert Bennett, a conservative Utah Republican. And Wyden’s bill got a boost from a Congressional Budget Office analysis that concluded the plan would be revenue-neutral in its first year of operation and subsequently would create budget surpluses.
Wyden has also been a staunch defender of the state’s assisted-suicide law, the only one like it in the nation. He has fought various legislative attempts to nullify the law over the years, and also vocally opposed Attorney General John Ashcroft’s decision in 2001 to prosecute doctors who prescribe lethal drugs for terminally ill patients. That decision was challenged in court, and in January 2006, the high court ruled 6-3 against the federal government.
For years, Wyden has been trying to put together a bipartisan approach to taxes and has called for the first major restructuring of the tax code since 1986. In December 2005, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., joined him on a bill they called the Fair Flat Tax, which would create three individual rates and a 35% corporate income-tax rate while eliminating most current deductions and credits. Capital gains would be taxed at the individual rate rather than at 15%, and the popular home mortgage deduction would be retained. The following year, he and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, pushed a similar measure. “It’s very clear that the tax system is a monstrosity and abomination,” Wyden said.
As chairman of an Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee in 2001 and 2002, Wyden was thrust into national controversies. After the huge forest fires in the summer of 2002, he worked with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on a compromise national forest thinning plan, which resulted in passage of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act in 2003. Some environmental groups were unhappy, but the legislation was popular in rural Oregon. In November 2006, noting the recession in the hardwood industry, Wyden called for an investigation of China’s timber subsidies, fraudulent labeling, and illegal logging of hardwood.
In the foreign-policy realm, Wyden voted against the Iraq war resolution and in July 2003 criticized the Bush administration for using “any snippet of information to justify the decision they had made.” He serves on the Intelligence Committee and in December 2004 was criticized for revealing allegedly classified information when he publicly referred to a “major acquisition program.” A day later, The Washington Post said the program was a $9.5 billion spy satellite system. Wyden said his words were authorized by committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
Wyden takes pains not to neglect Oregon’s interests. He supported permanent repeal of the estate tax, pointing out the problems it caused for family businesses that own large stands of timber. In 2003, he worked to block the reauthorization of welfare programs because the bill didn’t extend the 1996 waiver for Oregon’s welfare-to-work program, which counts mental health treatment and drug treatment toward working hours. Using a hold, in June 2006 he got into a fisheries bill a provision for federal disaster relief for Klamath River salmon fishermen after the federal government reduced catch limits and fishing days.
His devotion to state issues, and to keeping his visibility up at home—he continues to hold open meetings in all 36 counties every year, even heavily Republican counties—has paid off at election time. In November 1998, Wyden was elected to a full term, 61%-34%. For his 2004 campaign, he raised $5 million but spent only $2.8 million, donating $500,000 to other Democratic Senate campaigns. His Republican opponent was Klamath County rancher Al King, a former county Republican chairman. While web-surfing at a friend’s house the day before the filing deadline, King noticed that no well-known people had filed to run against Wyden and so mouse-clicked his name in, together with the filing fee. King won the six-candidate primary with 35% of the vote. But Wyden easily prevailed in the general, 63%-32%, carrying 33 of 36 counties; the three counties he lost have 26% of Oregon’s land area but cast only 1% of its votes. In the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Wyden was neutral, but his chief of staff was Oregon co-chairman for New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
With his seat on the Finance Committee and with Congress moving to address some of the issues Wyden has focused on in recent years, he is positioned to be a major policy player in the 111th Congress (2009-10).