Energy, Social Security, Washington gridlock and the legalization of marijuana were among the many topics addressed by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden on Monday, Feb. 18 during a town hall meeting in Hermiston.
After the 1996 election that sent the Oregon Democrat to the Senate, Wyden promised to hold town hall meetings in every county of the state every year. The Hermiston town hall meeting, held at the Stafford Hansell Government Center, was Wyden’s 658th since taking office.
Among the first questions Wyden was asked was how he would work to protect Social Security benefits from shrinking.
“This is an area I care about the most,” he said, adding that there are ways to cut costs and pass the savings on to seniors who need it the most. The senator suggested wealthy seniors probably don’t need to receive full cost of living increases in their Social Security checks.
“I want to make sure there are no changes for the millions of seniors who depend on Social Security,” Wyden said. “Donald Trump should not be getting a full cost of living (from Social Security).”
Wyden added that Social Security, as well as Medicare, “dominate” the federal budget.
“There are 10,000 Americans who are going to turn 65 every day for the next 20 years,” he said.
Kim Puzey, general manager of the Port of Umatilla, said government works best when there is cooperation between members of both parties. He then asked Wyden who he works with on a bi-partisan level.
Wyden said he believes in the concept of “principled bi-partisanship” in which legislators cooperate with one another without abandoning their core principles.
“You don’t get big things done without it,” he said. He said he routinely works with Republicans on a host of issues including Medicare, taxes and education.
Regarding energy, Wyden said the United States is now in an era in which the energy issue centers around energy independence after decades of the U.S. being energy dependent, thanks, largely, to clean and affordable natural gas. He said energy costs were among the reasons U.S. manufacturing companies moved overseas.
“There are more instances now of American companies coming back because of the affordability of natural gas,” he said.
Wyden said the looming sequestration is a “really bad idea.” If Congress cannot agree on how to cut the deficit by March 1, sequestration takes effect, meaning large across-the-board budget cuts will be made. Wyden said there are savings to be found in health care costs and military spending which could then be used to pay down the debt and invest in transportation infrastructure and education.
When asked his views on the legalization of marijuana, Wyden said he opposed legalizing drugs, but did not believe the federal government should step in to enforce federal drug laws in states like Colorado and Washington which recently legalized the growing, selling and possession of marijuana. Wyden also said the government should re-examine its laws concerning the growing of hemp, part of the Cannabis plant used for rope, wax, cloth and other products. He cited a recent trip to Costco in which a product made with hemp was available for purchase. It is legal in the United States to sell products made from hemp, but illegal to produce the products. The product Wyden saw in Costco came from Canada.
“Oregon farmers can’t grow hemp, but Oregon stores can sell hemp products grown in Canada,” Wyden said. As a result, said Wyden, Oregon farmers are losing out on a potential revenue source that their counterparts in other countries are not.
Wyden also addressed the issue of bureaucratic red tape when Hermiston resident Virginia Garcia explained the difficulty her husband had in getting a driver’s license. Garcia said her husband, despite serving his country during Vietnam and having served 10 years in the Reserves, could not produce the necessary papers he needed in order to get his driver’s license.
“You mean to say the military accepted his papers but not the Department of Motor Vehicles,” Wyden asked. “That’s breathtaking. There’s something wrong with this picture.” The senator promised Garcia that he would immediately look into the matter.
“He shouldn’t have to wait for immigration reform just to get his driver’s license,” Wyden said.