By RAELYNN RICARTE
News staff writer
November 1, 2006
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., fielded questions from Hood River Valley High School students on Friday related to a variety of government and political issues.
The 60-minute discussion included tax reform, health care, the war in Iraq and the role of the Electoral College.
“I want to make sure I’m throwing the doors of government open to your generation,” said Wyden, who has served in Congress for 26 years. In the last presidential election, he said that less than half — 47 percent — of 18 to 24-year-olds had voted nationwide. And even though Oregon had a slightly higher turnout at 49 percent in 2004, Wyden wanted to encourage more interest among teenagers and young adults in current events.
So, he outlined how actions taken by elected officials affected the quality of life for their constituents. Wyden said it was important that all citizens be engaged in the political process to have a voice in the outcome.
For example, he said the funding for student loans had been reduced in the federal budget — which could make it more difficult for some graduates to attend college. He said the amount of health care dollars had also been lowered due, in large part, to the high cost of the war on terror and billions lost to tax cuts.
“Budgets aren’t just about facts and figures,” said Wyden. “Budgets are about your hopes, aspirations and values.”
He informed the teens about his plan to reintroduce the concepts of the Fair Flat Tax Act of 2005 in the 110th United States Congress. He anticipated the federal budget deficit could be reduced by $100 billion over a five year period under the tax reform plan. Plus, he said the flat tax “treated wealth and work equally” to the benefit of middle-class families and small businesses.
Wyden was cautious about predicting a Democratic upset in the Senate and House after Tuesday’s national election. But, he expressed “hope” that a change in leadership would lead to a change in the way the government handled the war on terror. He believed Democrats would do a better job of setting up the Patriot Act to track potential terrorists without stripping away the civil rights of law-abiding citizens.
“Just about everyone that I’ve met in Oregon says that we have to have a fundamental change of course in Iraq” said Wyden.
He contends that sectarian violence between the Sunni, Shiite and Kurd factions in war-torn Iraq might be lessened by partitioning the country into three regions. Wyden also said actions should be taken to eliminate the corruption in the Iraqi oil production and delivery system that denied money to the populace.
In fact, he referred to America’s dependence upon foreign petroleum products as a “terror tax.” Wyden said the money paid at the gas pump was channeled to insurgents by hostile nations. He said it was time to pursue alternative fuels, such as bio-diesel, that would generate revenue for America’s agricultural industry.
“We owe our courageous troops a new energy policy so it’s less likely that we are going to be off in another conflict in 10 years,” said Wyden.
He denied having a “My Space” account when asked, but said that he wanted to protect the financial ability of students to use the Internet at little cost. Wyden said powerful telephone and cable companies wanted to charge for e-mail delivery and other services. And that would deny small businesses and less affluent citizens an equal right of access.
“I feel very strongly about keeping the Internet free from discrimination. The Net belongs to all of us, it was developed with tax dollars as part of a defense research effort, and everyone needs to be treated the same,” he said.
A good-humored question asked by a 17-year-old junior drew applause from Wyden and laughter from his peers.
“I know you’re working across party lines (on a master plan for Mount Hood) so what’s it like working with my dad?” asked Anthony Walden, the son of U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who resides in Hood River.
“We’re always worked well together and we’re trying to work out debate in a number of areas,” said Wyden. “We’ll get it done in a bipartisan way — everybody’s going to try to find some common ground here.”
He told students that Americans needed to focus, in a time of rising health care costs, on more preventative treatments. He said obesity was up across the nation and poor eating habits led to diabetes and other health problems.
“People do have a constitutional right to be foolish. It’s a free country and they can eat 12 hot fudge sundaes a day if they like,” said Wyden. “But people also need to take personal responsibility and we’ve got to look at some ways to make some changes.”
He said the government did not have a right to regulate the choices that people made in their personal lives – including same-sex marriages and abortion.
Wyden cautioned the young audience against advocating for the elimination of the Electoral College. He said when Democratic candidate Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 but George W. Bush captured the presidency for the Republican Party by electoral votes, some irate citizens wanted to change the system.
However, Wyden said smaller states, such as Oregon, Washington and Idaho, would essentially have no voice in a popular vote because major population centers would decide the outcome of a presidential race. And that could cause little attention to be paid to the needs of Pacific Northwest constituents and others.
“I would urge you to be a little careful about saying ‘let’s go to the popular vote’ because small states need to have a place at the table,” said Wyden.