U.S. Senator Ron Wyden said he had pledged, when elected in 1996, he would listen to his constituents and make his judgments based on what he heard. On Jan. 5, Marion County residents had a lot to tell him.
More than 200 people gathered in Silverton High School’s Commons for Wyden’s Town Hall meeting, one of several he conducted throughout the state. Audience members were chosen by lot to speak up about their concerns. They represented both conservative and liberal viewpoints, and although they generally maintained polite order, some people in the audience shouted out or booed when a questioner spoke as though his views represented all.
Health care reform seemed to be the area of most concern, but the economy, immigration reform and Oregon education also came up.
A peaceful demonstration opened the public meeting. Students from Silverton and Scotts Mills, dressed in T-shirts reading “End Hunger Now” and carrying umbrellas with lettering spelling out the same message, came to the front of the room and invited Wyden to learn more about the increasing need for food for the needy by visiting Marion Polk Food Share. He accepted the invitation.
The next to speak challenged the philosophy of the derivative market place, which he said led to the current financial crisis. Wyden said “a host of related” economic issues came together to cause the recession and more oversight is needed. He’s not in favor of the federal government taking control of business and banking. “I reject this idea of ‘too big to fail,’” he said, “I voted against the entire bank bailout bill.
Later in the session Wyden said, “At the beginning of 2009 it was generally agreed by both liberals and conservatives that we faced the real prospect of a depression. … The stimulus legislation was passed because it was felt that the government had to step in.” The steps that were taken are working, he added.
But “now we should be debating the exit strategy (to government bailout.)” Wyden said he was moving forward on measures to support private enterprise. He also said tax reform is needed to promote job creation.
The next question came from a man who said he was a retired cardiologist concerned about an expanded need for medical personnel that would develop after health care legislation increases the number of patients seeking medical services. He also questioned illegal immigrants’ ability to receive treatment.
Wyden said it is important for the health care bill to provide funding to train people for medical professions. He said a shortage is already evident in central Oregon.
As for illegal immigrants weighing down medical care services, Wyden was emphatic, saying the proposed bills “do not allow adults who are here illegally to get coverage.” But he felt strongly that no child should be denied care; being in the country illegally was not the child’s choice.
That discussion raised the topic of immigration reform. Wyden said, “the system is broken,” and offered “three elements of successful reform.”
First, get better control of U.S. borders. Then enforce the laws that are on the books, including penalizing employers who knowingly hire illegals.
Rather, he suggested, after a designated period of time, “if those who are here illegally come forward and pay a penalty, and if they have shown they have mastered English, and show they have not broken the law; I think they should have the opportunity to go to the end of the line and apply for citizenship.”
Health care reform issues were addressed again by the next questioner, who asked where in the Constitution does Congress get the power to create a health-care program?
Wyden said he believes Article 1, related to “general welfare,” applies. He said the current situation doesn’t work, and is more expensive – for instance, when people go to emergency rooms for treatment because they don’t have medical insurance to cover office visits, the cost for their care is transferred to others. “The cost to our society is very real.”
He said both parties have concerns about health care. “The Democrats are right about the need for coverage. Republicans have valid points in regard to markets – choice. I wrote a bill to meld those two together. … The point is, I’m supportive of trying to bring Republicans and Democrats together. (Health care) affects one sixth of the American population. It’s hugely important.”
When an audience member challenged, saying Wyden’s proposal isn’t under current consideration, he replied that it is important to get a health care bill passed – changes can be made in the future.
Some shouted that changes would be in the make-up of Congress.
One person asked why modifications couldn’t be made in the bill before it is passed. “This bill is going to wreck, in my opinion, our economy,” the questioner said. “You’re there to get it right. … I’m worried about the $12 billion national debt. Why don’t you go back, say ‘my people aren’t for this,’ go back and get it right.”
He asked why Wyden was taking a party position. Wyden said he does not vote in “lock-step” with the Democrats, and pointed out several times when he had voted contrary to his party. “I try to make judgments by going to these meetings and listening to the people.”
Another asked, “Why would you jeopardize your career by voting for this health care proposal?” and said it shouldn’t be rushed through. He also didn’t like the concept that “the government knows what’s best for you.”
Wyden responded, “I never, in 500-some town meetings, have said I know what’s best for you.” As for changes brought by the proposed health care reform, “millions of Americans who have coverage today will not see any change. … I think the status quo that we have now is not acceptable. We are spending enough – we are not spending in the right places. I want to see more choice in the marketplace.”
He said demanding higher rates for people with pre-existing conditions is “inhumane,” feels a “properly written program for people aged 55-64, would be a godsend” and thinks Oregon has been a leader in sensibly cutting costs by eliminating unnecessary tests.
Wyden wound up the more than 90-minute session by saying: “Even though we have these tremendous challenges – some people call them problems – people from all over the world want to move here, because we are the strongest, free-est, country in the world. We have a lot to be thankful for.”
He said improvement comes from the grass-roots level, and nothing can be done without bringing the people together.