Ron Wyden

Congressional Drug Pricing Strategy Begins to Emerge

Polls indicate high prescription drug prices are a top congressional priority for a majority of Americans. The Senate Finance Committee held a high-profile hearing to pummel pharmaceutical executives for price gouging. Now the House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to advance two bills aimed at anticompetitive actions that block or delay the introduction of lower-cost generic drugs, which will be a prelude to a later, more controversial effort to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices.

Polls indicate high prescription drug prices are a top congressional priority for a majority of Americans. The Senate Finance Committee held a high-profile hearing to pummel pharmaceutical executives for price gouging. Now the House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to advance two bills aimed at anticompetitive actions that block or delay the introduction of lower-cost generic drugs, which will be a prelude to a later, more controversial effort to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices.

The Senate Finance Committee pummeled seven pharmaceutical executives a week ago about price gouging. Next week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee begins considering two bills to lower drug prices that may attract bipartisan and bicameral support.

The House bills are the CREATES Act and “pay for delay” legislation. Both aim to limit anticompetitive actions by pharmaceutical companies to block or delay introduction of lower-cost generic versions of their brand name drugs.

A version of the CREATES (Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples) Act passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last summer on a solid bipartisan vote. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the legislation, if passed into law, could save consumers and private insurers billions of dollars, while also contributing to reduce the federal budget deficit.

“The bipartisan CREATES Act is a free-market solution that respects intellectual property rights and encourages greater competition that will inevitably lower the price of prescription medications for the American patient,” Iowa GOP Senator Charles Grassley said. 

The “pay for delay” legislation also has a Senate counterpart introduced last December by Grassley and Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is a 2020 presidential candidate. The measure seeks to limit pharmaceutical companies from striking deals to prevent or delay biosimilar and interchangeable biologics to generic versions.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has made the issue of high-cost drugs a legislative priority, believes it is smart strategy to get a couple of wins before tackling the more controversial issue of allowing Medicare to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies. Her strategy of starting small is a reflection of the political clout drug companies have on Capitol Hill.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, the Ranking Democrat on Senate Finance, took the lead last week in lambasting pharmaceutical company executives as “morally repugnant” for their inability to explain why prescription drugs are more expensive in the United States than overseas. “You’re willing to sit by and hose the American consumer while giving price breaks to consumers overseas,” Wyden said. 

Independent healthcare analyst Joshua Cohen, writing for Forbes, said drug companies aren’t entirely to blame. He explained that health plans, pharmacy benefit managers and employer health insurance sponsors negotiate sizable rebates on listed drug prices. Insureds don’t always see the benefits of those rebates, Cohen added, because their coinsurance is based on the list price, not the lower rebate price. The result, he said, is a “public outcry aimed at the drug companies for high prices.”

“To be constructive, [Congress] should not only probe the pricing of prescription drugs by pharmaceutical manufacturers, it should also investigate the billing and pricing practices of hospitals, physicians, and insurers. Ultimately the problems related to the relentless rise of overall healthcare costs are not going to be solved by putting blinders on and solely targeting the pharmaceutical industry,” Cohen concluded.

While high drug prices may be the result of a complex set of circumstances, Bloomberg says the underlying truth is that Americans pay more per capita for prescription drugs than anyone else in the world.

While high drug prices may be the result of a complex set of circumstances, Bloomberg says the underlying truth is that Americans pay more per capita for prescription drugs than anyone else in the world.

Bloomberg story last month summarized the issue simply. “Americans spend more on prescription drugs – average costs are about $1,200 per person per year – than anyone else in the world. It’s true that they take a lot of pills. But what really sets the United States apart from most other countries is high prices. Cancer drugs in the United States routinely cost $10,000 a month. Even prices for old drugs have spiked, as companies have bought up medicines that face no competition and boosted charges.” 

Sensing congressional action is at hand, pharmaceutical companies are taking actions or expressing a willingness to do so. Eli Lilly announced it will sell a cheaper generic version of its rapid-action Humalog insulin.

"We don't want anyone to ration or skip doses of insulin due to affordability. And no one should pay the full Humalog retail price," Eli Lilly Chairman and CEO Dave Ricks said. He described the generic drug as "a bridge that addresses gaps in the current system until we have a more sustainable model."

Senate Breaks Century-Old Precedent in Approving Seattle Judge

Seattle attorney Eric Miller was confirmed this week to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals over the objections of Washington’s two Democratic senators, breaking a precedent dating back a century and foreshadowing a continuing attempt by President Trump to place more conservative judges on the federal bench. [Photo Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo]

Seattle attorney Eric Miller was confirmed this week to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals over the objections of Washington’s two Democratic senators, breaking a precedent dating back a century and foreshadowing a continuing attempt by President Trump to place more conservative judges on the federal bench. [Photo Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo]

A Seattle-based Assistant US Attorney was confirmed this week by the Senate to a lifetime appointment on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It was the first time in a century that a federal judge was confirmed without the endorsement of at least one US senator from the nominee’s home state.

Eric Miller, 43, a presidential nominee who formerly clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was confirmed on a party-line vote over the objections of Washington Democratic Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. They declined to return “blue slips” indicating support for Miller because of what they called his “hostility toward tribal rights.” Murray and Cantwell also complained Miller’s confirmation hearing was a sham because it was scheduled during a Senate recess and only two Republican senators attended.

Last summer, the White House withdrew a similar nomination of Assistant US Attorney for Oregon Ryan Bounds over objections by Oregon’s Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. The Bounds’ nomination to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was withdrawn after Republican Senators Tim Scott and Marco Rubio refused to vote for his confirmation. 

Placing conservatives on federal courts, especially the liberal-leaning 23-judge Ninth Circuit, has been a political goal of President Trump’s administration. Trump has often complained about unfriendly, liberal and “Obama” judges that have imposed legal impediments to his policy initiatives such as a Muslim travel ban and family separation on the US-Mexican border.

Ironically, Republican senators used the “blue-slip” prerogative to veto Obama judicial nominees. Under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate rules on judicial appointments were changed to allow simple majorities, instead of the previous 60-vote threshold, to confirm federal judges. Ignoring the absence of “blue slips” is another step down a slippery path of politicizing federal judicial confirmations.

Murray called the confirmation of Miller a “dangerous first.” Cantwell said it set a “damaging precedent.” California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told The Washington Post, “It is regrettable and likely will result in more ideological nominees who don’t reflect the values of their home states. It’s hard to not see this action coming back to bite Republicans when they’re no longer in power in the Senate.”

On the Senate floor, Murray charged, “Abandoning the blue slip process and instead, bending to the will of a president who has demonstrated time and time again his ignorance and disdain for the Constitution and the rule of law is a mistake.” She noted Miller’s confirmation hearing included less than five minutes of questioning – “less questioning for a lifetime appointment than most students face for a book report.” 

According to Roll Call, more nominees are in the wings that lack endorsement by home-state senators in New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island. “I think it’s going to be very hard for folks who allowed the blue slip to evaporate to complain if wonderful New York judges start getting appointed into South Carolina, or Nebraska, or Louisiana or other places, because you’ve disarmed the one thing that gives you the ability to do something about that,” Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told Roll Call.

McConnell praised Miller, who holds undergraduate degree from Harvard and a law degree from the University of Chicago. During his abbreviated confirmation hearing, Miller said as a US solicitor general he has argued a case before the Supreme Court defending tribal lands. Subsequently in private practice, he said he represented a client that opposed tribal interests. He described his previous roles as an advocate “not to advance my own views but to advance my client’s views.”  

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham said the blue slip tradition is more of a courtesy than a veto. Graham did say it was his intention to retain the blue slip process for US District Court judicial appointments.

 

Wyden Comments on Green New Deal, China Trade and Tax Breaks

In an expansive interview with the  Portland Business Journal , Oregon Senator Ron Wyden defended the Green New Deal, questioned the effectiveness of tariffs to influence China trade policy and urged the IRS to waive penalties for federal income taxpayers who failed to withhold enough for their 2018 taxes.

In an expansive interview with the Portland Business Journal, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden defended the Green New Deal, questioned the effectiveness of tariffs to influence China trade policy and urged the IRS to waive penalties for federal income taxpayers who failed to withhold enough for their 2018 taxes.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden defended the Green New Deal, questioned tariffs on China trade and touted legislation to unmask shell company ownership in an expansive interview with the Portland Business Journal published this week.

Oregon’s senior senator also urged the Trump administration to waive IRS penalties on taxpayers who failed to withhold enough money to cover their 2018 income tax and called for a review to determine if opportunity zones are being used as intended to encourage investment in impoverished areas.

Wyden called criticism of the Green New Deal “nonsense.” “It is a resolution. It is aspirational, not a legislative text,” he said. Wyden, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said he is looking at “throwing more than 40 separate tax breaks for energy…, which are basically dirty energy relics that cost billions of dollars a year, into the trashcan and substituting three new ones: one for clear energy, one for clean transportation and one for energy efficiency.”

On trade with China, Wyden said there is agreement “tariffs should be part of the trade toolbox, but we don’t share the view that every time there’s an issue, you drop another tariff. It has not worked particularly well with China.” He said strong measures are necessary to stop China from “ripping off our technology.”

Wyden said bipartisan support is growing for legislation he and Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio have introduced to require shell companies to disclose their beneficial owners. Failing to require ownership disclosure, he explained, would mean “you’re playing catch-up ball.”

Taxpayers who face penalties for their 2018 federal income taxes deserve a break, Wyden said, because the IRS didn’t properly update its withholding tables and forced taxpayers to deal with “complicated online calculator, which had its own problems.” He added that multinational corporations “are not sweating it today [because] they’ve got their tax breaks locked in.”

Wyden agreed a review is needed to see if opportunity zone tax incentives are being mis-applied. PBJ reporter Matthew Kish noted Oregon has used an expansive definition for opportunity zones, which include Portland’s downtown area, prompting Bloomberg  Businessweek to call it “Tax Breaklandia

Wyden said the goal of his Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act is to “promote innovation and focus on small guys.” He also touted his ELEVATE Act that aims to “connect the dots” between training dislocated workers for thousands of available jobs.

In upcoming days, Wyden said the Senate Finance Committee will invite seven CEOs from major pharmaceutical companies at a hearing to “get an agreement to stop some price-gouging.” “What I want to know is whether they're going to get beyond the blame game. Everything they always do with respect to pharmaceutical prices and health care costs generally is blaming the other guy,” he said.

 

Schrader Offers Democratic Plan to Repair Obamacare

Oregon Congressman Kurt Schrader and nine other House Democrats offered what they called “real, concrete solutions” to cracks in Obamacare’s individual market health insurance. The plan won’t go anywhere until it’s clear whether Senate Republicans have enough votes to pass their own Obamacare replacement bill, with a vote expected next week.

Oregon Congressman Kurt Schrader and nine other House Democrats offered what they called “real, concrete solutions” to cracks in Obamacare’s individual market health insurance. The plan won’t go anywhere until it’s clear whether Senate Republicans have enough votes to pass their own Obamacare replacement bill, with a vote expected next week.

Led by Oregon Congressman Kurt Schrader, 10 House Democrats have floated a plan to fix Obamacare as Senate Republicans prepare to vote on a revamped alternative that still slashes Medicaid spending by $700 billion.

Schrader said the House Democratic plan proposes “real, concrete solutions that will stabilize and improve the individual market, making Obamacare work better for everyone and getting us closer to universal coverage for all Americans.”

One of the key elements in the Schrader proposal is a $15 billion annual reinsurance fund to pay health insurers that enroll higher-cost, sicker individuals. Obamacare contained a similar reinsurance fund from 2014-2016. The concept is to ease the cost burden for insurers of expensive care for some patients so average premiums for participants in the individual market can be lowered.

Other features include continuation of payments to insurers that offer discounts to low-income patients, changing the enrollment period from November to May to coincide with when taxpayers receive income tax refunds and expanding tax credits for buying insurance based on age, geography and income. The plan calls for robust marketing of health plans with subsidies and drawing bidding areas that provide more competition for underserved rural areas.

"Although we’ve made progress, Members of Congress have to acknowledge that too many Americans still struggle with costs, especially people in the individual market," Schrader said.

Schrader and his colleagues also would allow people nearing retirement age the option to buy into Medicare coverage and permit younger adults to purchase catastrophic health plans that include primary care coverage with anticipated lower premiums.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden urged a bipartisan approach to stabilize the individual health insurance market. He also encouraged steps to lower prescription drug costs, such as allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

The first inklings of Democratic willingness to work on cracks in Obamacare came after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated that if a GOP alternative fails to pass, the only avenue left is a bipartisan approach. President Trump and political conservatives have said failing to repeal and replace Obamacare would break a longstanding Republican promise. Kentucky GOP Senator Rand Paul has announced he will oppose the GOP health care bill because it doesn’t go far enough toward repealing Obamacare provisions.

Meanwhile, GOP moderates are worried about the impact of large cuts to Medicaid on elderly and disabled Americans, who consume the largest amount of Medicaid funding. In the revised version of the Senate health care bill, more money is set aside to combat the national opioid crisis in a play to win over some wavering Senate moderates, but it still might not be enough.

Maine Senator Susan Collins, one of the moderates unconvinced by the redrafted plan, pointed out there is a $70 billion math error. The Better Care Reconciliation Act includes an amendment by Texas Senator Ted Cruz that would allow bare-bones health plans also provides $70 billion in federal support for health insurers. Except the $70 billion Cruz would use for this purpose is already allocated in the bill. Tim Jost, a health care law expert and professor at Washington and Lee University, told MSNBC that the bill “gives an additional $70 billion to the states and then the Cruz amendment gives it to insurers that offer compliant plans in addition to noncompliant plans.”

Congressional Republicans are using the budget reconciliation process to replace Obamacare because this procedural is not subject to Senate filibuster rules. But the 52-member Senate GOP majority is thin and only can afford to lose two members to pass its health care legislation. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said Democrats would work with Republicans if they dropped the reconciliation process. According to The Hill, some Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham, have entertained informal conversations with Democrats about a bipartisan legislative approach.

The GOP-backed American Health Care Act passed the House earlier this year with a narrow 2-vote margin. The changes under consideration in the Senate, including retaining two taxes imposed by Obamacare, might erode that margin and make a reconsideration vote in the House uncertain. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has not offered to work with Republicans on Obamacare-related legislation. Pelosi did say the Schrader-led proposal offer “promising ideas to put solutions over politics to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and continue to lower costs for seniors and hard-working families.”

WSJ, Wyden Spar over Cybersecurity

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden responded to a Wall Street Journal editorial invitation to exchange views on cyber security, cyber war and individual privacy. The exchange is enlightening.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden responded to a Wall Street Journal editorial invitation to exchange views on cyber security, cyber war and individual privacy. The exchange is enlightening.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and the Wall Street Journal editorial board engaged this week in an enlightening exchange about privacy, cybersecurity and computer hacking by foreign nations.

It began with an editorial titled "The Chinese Have Your Numbers," which was written after Chinese hackers grabbed personnel files from 2.1 million federal employees. The editorial said the hack is "one more confirmation that China is waging an unrelenting if unacknowledged cyber war against the United States."

The editorial openly invited Wyden and Senator Rand Paul, who played lead roles in replacing the Patriot Act with less intrusive metadata collection rules, to offer "suggestions for countering this privacy threat." Wyden responded to the invitation on his own website.

"The way to address this threat…is to ensure federal agencies receive the funding and expertise to develop and implement robust security programs…and the technical and administrative controls they need to combat a wide variety of cybersecurity threats," Wyden said.

"It also is important for the United States to invest in the education of the next leaders in cybersecurity and to recruit and retain a strong federal cybersecurity workforce by ensuring cybersecurity professionals can find opportunities and career paths in government that are as rewarding as those in the private sector."

Wyden added, "Mass surveillance of law-abiding Americans will not prevent data breaches. Weakening encryption technologies or stockpiling users' encryption keys will not prevent data breaches. And making it harder for individuals to sue large corporations inappropriately sharing their data will not prevent data breaches."

Wyden voiced opposition to pending legislation that he said would allow private corporations to share information with the federal government with legal immunity to actions brought by individuals who claim their privacy was violated.

"In the case of both NSA mass surveillance and the Office of Personnel Management data breach, Americans are rightly worried that their personal information is not secure and that it can be accessed without their knowledge or consent," Wyden said.

The WSJ editorial urged the Obama administration to move more forcefully to "punish Chinese institutions that continue to steal American secrets. "That won't end the threat," the editorial said, "but it might give the governments that underwriting these hackers some pause."

"The United States is already in a cyber war," the editorial concluded. "The problem is that the Obama administration doesn't want to admit it."

Wyden countered with: "Cyberattacks represent a serious threat to fundamental American interests, including national security, economic competitiveness and individual privacy. These security breaches can be caused in a variety of ways by a variety of actors, with varying knowledge and resources. The solutions to the problem are just as diverse.

"Responses to aggressive actions by foreign government should include the full range of U.S. power, from multilateral diplomacy to economic sanctions to law enforcement action. It is a mistake to lump the many aspects of this problem into a single cyber threat that can be solved by a single cybersecurity bullet."

 

The Intractable Trade Issue

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes debate over a major free-trade agreement with Asian Pacific partners and the rules by which the Obama administration will need to follow to negotiate the deal. Photo by  SenateEnergy .

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes debate over a major free-trade agreement with Asian Pacific partners and the rules by which the Obama administration will need to follow to negotiate the deal. Photo by SenateEnergy.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden finds himself in the middle of a major trade policy debate that could affect the ultimate fate of a Trans-Pacific trade agreement sought by the Obama administration.

Oregonian political reporter Jeff Mapes says Wyden, despite a history as a free trader, is the cause of a delayed hearing on so-called fast-track authority for the administration to negotiate a trade deal.

According to Mapes, the hang-up is over how many senators it would take to retract fast-track authority. Congressional Republicans want 67 senators, while Wyden wants 60. Wyden's view matters because he is the ranking Democrat on Senate Finance, the committee that would scrutinize any trade deals.

A free trade agreement with Asian Pacific partners is viewed as one of the major legislative opportunities this Congress for Republicans to work with President Obama in his final two years in office.

Wyden isn't retreating from his free-trade position, even though he has been pressured to do so from organized labor leaders, including Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain. Mapes says Wyden is trying to find middle ground.

For example, Wyden has agreed with opponents that trade pact negotiations are too secretive. "Transparency, congressional accountability ... and enforcement is really the key to coming up with a sensible, bipartisan trade agreement," Mapes reports Wyden as saying. Wyden says he wants a "good deal."

Senate Republicans seem less worried about how trade negotiations are conducted. That is somewhat ironic in light of the controversial letter 47 GOP senators sent this week to Iranian officials expressing their strong desire to approve any nuclear arms limitation deal negotiated by President Obama. 

Trade agreements have special importance to the West Coast and Oregon. The Port of Portland is one of the largest export platforms on the West Coast, which Wyden has acknowledged.

"People want to buy our wheat, they want to buy our computers, our wine," Wyden told Mapes. "The Oregon brand is just on fire all over the world and we ought to be able to get our exports, particularly, into Asia. ... If I could get in a sentence for my economic philosophy, it is  grow things in Oregon, make things in Oregon, add value to them in Oregon and then ship 'em somewhere."

However, Wyden, who is up for re-election in 2016, faces electoral pushback. Chamberlain, while crediting Wyden for working hard to reach out to both sides of the debate, said the senator's position for fast-track authority and a Trans-Pacific trade deal could cost him official labor backing next year.

Democracy for America has sent out a large mailing urging Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio to challenge Wyden. DeFazio said he has no interest in running against Wyden. 

Related Link: In free-trade fight, Ron Wyden emerges as key negotiating figure in Congress

NW Delegation Gains Clout

The congressional delegates from the Pacific Northwest, though largely Democrats such as freshly reelected Senator Jeff Merkley, hold key positions in the 114th Congress. 

The congressional delegates from the Pacific Northwest, though largely Democrats such as freshly reelected Senator Jeff Merkley, hold key positions in the 114th Congress. 

Elections bring change and the biggest change after last year's election was the demotion of Senate Democrats to the minority. Here is a quick look at how the Pacific Northwest delegation stacks up in the just convened 114th Congress:

Senator Patty Murray has been given immense responsibility by her Democratic Caucus, including co-chairing the Super Committee, heading the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and chairing the Veterans Committee and the Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee. Murray and GOP Budget Chairman Ryan crafted the budget compromise that avoided deep domestic spending cuts and set a framework for a bipartisan roadmap to address longer-term challenges. In the 114th Congress, Murray takes on possibly her most challenging assignment. She gave up her chairmanship of both the full Budget Committee and Transportation/Housing Appropriations Subcommittee to take over the most powerful domestic discretionary issue, health care. Murray will now be the lead authorizer and appropriator on health care, education and workforce development. She is the Ranking Member of the Labor, Health, Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee and the full Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee.

Senator Ron Wyden will continue as the lead Democrat on the powerful Finance Committee.  Even in the minority, Wyden will wield significant power on the tax writing committee in a year when tax reform may finally percolate to the surface.  The Committee also will have a significant role in financing a transportation reauthorization bill, crafting a Trade Promotion Authority bill, addressing online sales tax and passing a host of tax extenders.

Senator Jeff Merkley, who joined the Appropriations Committee in the last Congress, was recently selected to be the Ranking Member of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. Merkley is the beneficiary of a number of retirements and departing colleagues on the Appropriations Committee and is probably overjoyed to start his second term as the lead Democrat on the subcommittee. Agriculture is huge in Oregon, including the exploding wine industry, and Merkley will be well positioned to promote research and development of key agricultural products. Since coming to Congress, Merkley has been frustrated with the obstructionist tactics of the Republican minority. He led the fight for filibuster reform. It will be interesting to see if Merkley continues to champion the cause now that Democrats are in the minority.

Senator Maria Cantwell will serve as the lead Democrat on the Small Business Committee and remain a member of the Finance and Commerce committees. She will continue to advocate for domestic trade, access to capital for small businesses and renewable energy. Cantwell has shown a keen interest and is well positioned to address the booming oil-by-train shipments that are flowing through Washington State.  Cantwell also will play a key role in the transportation reauthorization bill as she fights to fund freight corridors to facilitate trade and manufacturing. 

Congressman Greg Walden will maintain his position on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee and his subcommittee chairmanship of Communications and Technology where he will lead discussions surrounding the broadband spectrum and innovative communication technologies to drive the economy. Walden also will lead the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which is the political arm of the Republican Party devoted to maintaining and increasing the GOP majority in the House. Walden is widely praised for giving House Republicans the biggest majority since 1931. Speaker John Boehner and Walden are good friends and the Speaker is quick to give the Oregon Republican credit for the 2014 rout.

Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler has shot up like a rocket in terms of congressional influence and committee assignments.  The powerful Appropriations Committee is typically reserved for seasoned members of Congress, but Herrera Beutler fought for and won a coveted spot on the committee as a sophomore member. She wasn't able to lock down a gavel on a Subcommittee this Congress, but she will continue to accrue seniority. Congressional leaders will find ways to elevate the Congresswoman’s public profile as a rising leader in the party. She was featured this week in the GOP's 10 Questions series. You can find the link here.

Congressman Peter DeFazio surrendered his leading role as Ranking Member of the House Resources Committee in favor of taking over as the lead Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. With the likelihood of a transportation reauthorization bill set to move this Congress (the current bill expires in May), DeFazio will have a unique opportunity to shape the massive transportation bill. One surprise the Oregon Democrat didn't expect last week was receiving a vote for Speaker of the House. Rep. Dan Lipinski, a close friend of DeFazio's and a fellow Democratic member of the T&I Committee, shocked everyone when he impulsively shouted out DeFazio's name. DeFazio quickly distanced himself from the situation and said he had no idea Lipinski would do it.  Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi lost the vote of three other Democrats while Boehner lost 25 of his fellow Republicans. If Boehner had lost 29 votes, it would have been a long day.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, will be one to watch as Congress tackles comprehensive tax reform. Blumenauer is expected to drive continued sustainable investment, green energy and look for ways to integrate these concepts into the tax code. As Congress addresses transportation reauthorization, look for Blumenauer to advocate for a gas tax increase and push for piloting a vehicle-miles-travelled program. 

Congressman Kurt Schrader secured an impressive victory on Friday and is now a member of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. Schrader said he wanted to use the new committee position to address health care issues that plagued the Cover Oregon website, focus more attention on renewable energy and reduce overly burdensome government interference in the marketplace.  Because of the A-level assignment, Schrader has to leave his posts on the House Agriculture, Budget and Small Business committees.  It's likely Schrader, a moderate with an independent streak, received the coveted prize because a couple fellow Blue Dog Democrats on the Committee lost their seats.

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, a rising leader in the Democratic Party, will continue to serve on the House Education and Workforce Committee and influence policy decisions through her Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training. Bonamici will keep her position on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, including her Ranking Member position on the Subcommittee on Environment. Here, she will be considering issues related to the EPA, environmental regulations and aspects of the broader climate change debate. 

Congressman Denny Heck will continue to serve on the Financial Services Committee and promote his New Democrat agenda. Heck was just named as chair of the DCCC Recruitment Committee, where he will work with Democratic candidates from around the country to try and rebuild the party. Heck is facing an uphill battle as the Democrats took a beating in 2014. To retake the majority, Democrats need to win a net of 30 seats. It's not impossible. In the 2016 presidential election, 26 House Republicans will occupy districts that President Obama won in 2012. Freshmen Members of Congress typically focus squarely on the needs of their districts and that is what Heck did. Recognizing the significant impact of Joint Base Lewis McCord on his district, Heck made military housing, veterans care and transportation infrastructure his top priorities. Heck is also a consummate legislator. Even as a freshman, he was successful in passing a bill that addresses underwater mortgages by giving additional flexibility to the Federal Housing Administration. Getting a bill passed in this dysfunctional Congress as a freshman in the minority is a testament to Heck's ability to navigate the legislative process.

NW Delegation Continues to Move On Up

Senator Patty Murray is just one of many NW congressional delegates growing in influence on the national political scene.

Senator Patty Murray is just one of many NW congressional delegates growing in influence on the national political scene.

While there may be a lack of close, competitive federal races in the Pacific Northwest, there is something to keep an eye on. 

The increasing seniority of Members of Congress from Oregon and Washington will continue to grow in the next Congress and the region’s influence may be nearing an all-time high. Here is a quick snapshot of the opportunities facing our region’s most influential policymakers.

Senator Patty Murray's rise to power is one of the most underreported stories in politics. Murray has been given immense responsibilities by her Democratic caucus, including co-chairing the Super Committee, heading the DSCC and chairing the Veterans Committee and the Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee. Murray and GOP Budget Chairman Paul Ryan crafted the budget compromise that avoided deep domestic spending cuts and set a framework for a bipartisan roadmap to address longer-term challenges.

Because of Senator Tom Harkin's (D-IA) retirement, Murray could take over as chair or ranking member on the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which is responsible for the largest domestic spending bill by far and funds the Department of Health and Human Services, Education and Labor. Murray would have to give up her top spot on the Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, but the opportunity will likely be too good to pass up.

Senator Ron Wyden will continue to lead the powerful Finance Committee as chair if Democrats stay in power or ranking member if the GOP controls the Senate. Even if he is in the minority, Wyden will continue to wield significant power on the tax writing committee in a year when tax reform may finally percolate to the surface.  The Committee also will have a significant role in financing the transportation reauthorization bill, crafting a Trade Promotion Authority bill, addressing online sales tax and passing a host of tax extenders.

Senator Jeff Merkley, who joined the Appropriations Committee this past Congress, could ascend to become an Appropriations subcommittee chair or ranking member in the next Congress. Because five or six senior Democratic appropriators are either retiring or will lose their races, Merkley could be catapulted to one of the more senior members of the Appropriations Committee. As a member of the Banking Committee, Merkley has championed banking reform measures to ensure financial institutions are held accountable for bad decisions and also tried to separate the banking and investment arms of financial institutions. Merkley has been frustrated with the obstructionist tactics of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and has led the fight for filibuster reform. It will be interesting to see if Merkley continues to champion the cause should Democrats lose control of the Senate. There will be plenty of fellow Democrats who will want to employ the filibuster as often as it was used against them.

Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Small Business Committee and member of the Finance and Commerce committees, will continue to advocate for domestic trade, access to capital for small businesses and renewable energy. Cantwell has shown a keen interest and is well positioned to address the booming oil-by-train shipments that are flowing through the Northwest. Cantwell also will play a key role in the transportation reauthorization bill as she fights to fund freight corridors to facilitate trade and manufacturing.

Congressman Greg Walden will maintain his position on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee and his chairmanship of Communications and Technology Subcommittee where he will continue to lead discussions surrounding the broadband spectrum and innovative communication technologies to drive the economy. Walden also will continue to lead the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which is the political arm of the Republican Party devoted to maintaining and increasing the GOP majority in the House. There has been some speculation that a few fellow GOPers are vying for the position, largely due to the NRCC’s low fundraising numbers. However, Walden has friends in high places, namely Speaker John Boehner, and it’s likely the GOP will pick up nearly a dozen seats this election, cementing his tenure for another two years. Boehner is quoted saying that Walden is working “tirelessly” on behalf of Republican candidates and that he is a “big reason” the GOP has the opportunity to increase its majority.

Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler has shot up like a rocket in terms of congressional influence and committee assignments. The powerful Appropriations Committee is typically reserved for seasoned members of Congress, but Herrera Beutler fought for and received a coveted spot on the committee as a sophomore member of Congress. It’s unlikely she will be able to chair an Appropriations subcommittee, but she will accrue seniority. Congressional leaders will continue to find ways to elevate her public profile as a rising leader in the party.

Congressman Peter DeFazio could face an interesting choice after the election. DeFazio is the ranking member of the House Resources Committee, an important committee for the Congressman’s district that has a wide swath of federal lands. However, it’s likely Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), the lead Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will lose his House seat in the upcoming election. DeFazio would be next in line to take over the top transportation post. With the likelihood of a transportation reauthorization bill set to move in the next Congress (the current bill expires in May), DeFazio would have an opportunity to shape the massive transportation bill if he were to take up the mantle for Democrats on the Transportation Committee. However, under Democratic Caucus rules, you can’t lead two committees, so DeFazio would have to make a choice between Resources and Transportation. Heading the Transportation Committee may be an opportunity the Congressman can’t pass up.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, as a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, will be one to watch as Congress tackles comprehensive tax reform. Blumenauer is expected to drive continued investment in sustainable, green energy and look for ways to integrate these concepts into the tax code. As Congress addresses transportation reauthorization, look for Blumenauer to advocate for a gas tax increase and push for piloting a vehicle-miles-travelled program.

Congressman Kurt Schrader is expected to maintain his posts on the House Agriculture, Budget and Small Business committees. On these committees, Schrader will play a role in the continued debate over the national debt and remain influential over USDA and rural development policy. Schrader’s position on the Agriculture Committee will be critical as he works with fellow delegation members DeFazio and Walden to advocate for a responsible solution to the O&C lands issue.

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, a rising leader in the Democratic Party, will likely continue to serve on the House Education and Workforce Committee and influence policy decisions through her Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training. Bonamici is also safe to keep her position on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, including her ranking member status on the Subcommittee on Environment. Here, she will be considering issues related to the EPA, environmental regulations and aspects of the broader climate change debate.

Congressman Denny Heck is seeking his second term in the House. As freshman, members of Congress typically focus squarely on the needs of their districts and that is what Heck has done. Heck recognizes the significant impact of Joint Base Lewis McCord on his district and has made military housing, veterans care and transportation infrastructure his top priorities. Heck is also a consummate legislator. Even as a freshman, he was successful in passing a bill that addresses underwater mortgages by giving additional flexibility to the Federal Housing Administration. Getting a bill passed in this dysfunctional Congress as a freshman in the minority is a testament to his ability to navigate the legislative process. Heck will likely continue to serve on the Financial Services Committee and promote his New Democrat agenda.

Propping up the Highway Trust Fund

Congress has less than three legislative work weeks until the Highway Trust Fund runs dry and highway and bridge projects across the country grind to a halt, resulting in the loss of thousands of construction jobs, further slowing economic recovery. By law, the Trust Fund cannot shell out more money than it has.

The Highway Trust Fund sends approximately $35 billion annually to states for new construction and road repair. According to the Department of Transportation, the fund began FY 2014 with roughly $1.6 billion in cash. In October 2013, $9.7 billion was transferred from the General Fund to the Highway Account. The latest projection from the Department of Transportation monthly "ticker" showed $8.1 billion available as of June 1, but depleting rapidly by late August.

With the clock ticking and no bipartisan consensus on a long-term solution, members in the House and Senate are scrambling for a short-term fix. Filling that gap to December will require something in the $8-$10 billion range. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden is leading the charge, contained in what he calls the Preserving America's Transit and Highways Act of 2014 (PATH).

The End of an Era of Committee Dominance

Age and the wear-and-tear of polarized politics are taking their toll in Congress. The longest serving member of Congress in history announced this week he will retire.

Congressman John Dingell, Jr., the son of a congressman who also represented what has become a staunchly Democratic district in the suburbs of Detroit, has seen a lot of history and made a lot of history in nearly 60 years on Capitol Hill. Operating as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell left his fingerprints on legislative achievements from creating Medicare, environmental laws and civil rights legislation.

Perhaps nowhere was his powerful grip felt most than when it came to protecting Detroit's Big Three automakers from ambitious Presidents and restless congressional colleagues. It is notable that Congressman Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who unseated Dingell as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee over his foot-dragging on stricter vehicle emission standards and climate change measures, also announced his retirement from Congress earlier this year.

Dingell referred to himself as a Social Democrat, a tradition he inherited and embraced from his father who introduced national health insurance legislation in 1943. Dingell supported the Affordable Care Act, though he said it didn't go far enough. He championed a more aggressive single-payer national health system.

The imposing 6-foot, three-inch Dingell assumed command of the Energy and Commerce Committee in 1981, the year Oregon's Ron Wyden landed in Congress and earned a seat on the powerful panel. Dingell spread his wings to collect broad jurisdictions over health care, the environment, telecommunications and consumer protection. He leveraged that widening jurisdiction like a hammer in oversight hearings, where Dingell grilled Republican and Democratic witnesses with the same fervor.

Seven States Could Decide Senate Control

Control of the U.S. Senate is up for grabs in this year's mid-term general election and insiders say it could come down to races in as few as seven states. Senate races in four more states, including Oregon, also could play a role. 

The political wildcard in the election deck is what happens in Republican primaries, including in Kentucky where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing a Tea Party challenger. In 2012, GOP voters nominated very conservative and controversial candidates that cost them victory in November in at least two states.

Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley won't have a walk-over in his first re-election bid, as credible Republicans, including Rep. Jason Conger of Bend, have jumped into the race. Expect some big money to come to Oregon to bludgeon Merkley. If that works or Merkley slips, Oregon could wind up on the short map of key races to decide control of the Senate.

For now, Washington Post political analysts point to Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina as the battlegrounds to watch with Democratic incumbents trying to stave off GOP challengers. Republicans are given the edge to win seats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, where Democratic incumbents are retiring or, in the case of Montana Senator Max Baucus, heading off to the China as the new U.S. ambassador.

Wyden Talk in a Tweet

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden covered a wide range of topics at his speech today, but none drew closer attention than his remarks about how to secure privacy from government surveillance. With Congress in recess before a tumultuous fall session dealing with the budget, senators and representatives are hitting the hustings to reconnect with their constituents. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden spoke at a luncheon meeting of the Westside Economic Alliance.

His comments and answers to questions covered the federal budget, Medicare, taxation, international trade, energy exports, national security and Obamacare, as well as more local issues. Here is the essence of what he said in a series of tweets:

  • Sen. Wyden promises new bipartisan Medicare plan to preserve its guarantee and financial integrity as 10K people turn 65 daily for 20 yrs.

  • Sen. Wyden says simplified federal tax code can unleash ton of corporate cash sitting on the sidelines for job-creating investment.

  • Wyden predicts congressional revision of Patriot Act's "relevance" standard and a privacy advocate before FISA court.

  • Wyden says choice between safety and privacy is false in the face of continuing terrorist threats. Both are critical and can co-exist.

Student Right to Know Before You Go Act

As many students ponder whether to go and how to pay for college, Congress is considering legislation to give them more comparable data — and maybe continue low interest rates on student loans.Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is capturing national headlines for his push for more sunshine on government snooping. But he also wants more sunshine to help students assess college programs for graduation rates, projected earnings and debt loads before they enroll.

The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act has been introduced with bipartisan sponsors in the U.S. House and Senate. Democrat Wyden is teamed up in the Senate with Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio.

Much as he has on the issue of personal privacy in the face of massive government surveillance, Wyden is pressing for more transparency. "There's no question everyone needs access to higher education," Wyden says, "but it's time to bring value into the equation. This bipartisan legislation would allow people to understand where they can expect their educational choices to take them in the real world."

The Intersection of Clout and Dysfunction

Oregon is gaining seniority and political clout in Congress, but is that power as effective as it once was in a Congress known more for its dysfunction than its accomplishments?Oregon may be on the threshold of reaping the benefits of congressional seniority as members of the state delegation move into higher-profile and more powerful positions. But Oregonian political reporter Jeff Mapes wonders whether seniority in a dysfunctional Congress is as important as it once was.

For years, Oregon power brokers jealously eyed the political clout of Washington's delegation, with Warren Magnuson as chair of Senate Appropriations and his protégé Congressman Norm Dicks as a rising star in House Appropriations. When asked about the value of chairing Senate Appropriations, Magnuson famously said it was all about sharing — if Alabama got a project funded, then one was funded in Washington; if Maine got a project funded, then another one was funded in Washington.

Oregon experienced its own political heyday when Mark Hatfield as chair of Senate Appropriations, Bob Packwood as chair of Senate Finance, Al Ullman as chair of House Ways and Means and Bob Duncan and later Les AuCoin as members of House Appropriations. Hatfield didn't approach his chairmanship with the same swagger as Magnuson, but he still managed to bring home a lot of bacon.

Wyden Could Be a Tax Panel Kingpin

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden could find himself chairing the powerful Senate Finance Committee in the next Congress following if Democrats can hold on to control of the Senate in the 2014 elections.Oregon Senator Ron Wyden may be next in line to become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which overseas taxation, trade and Medicare. The one hitch is that Democrats will have to fight to retain control of the Senate in the 2014 elections.

Wyden's potential ascension is due to the announcement today that current Chair Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, has decided not to seek reelection. Earlier, the ranking Democrat on the committee, West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, said he was retiring.

The bad news for Wyden is that it may be hard for Democrats to retain those two Senate seats and a few others in the 2014 mid-term elections when there isn't a presidential race to activate all Democratic constituencies.

Elected to the U.S. House in 1980, Wyden moved into his first major chairmanship this term by taking the gavel of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It takes that long in seniority-based Congress to move to the front of the line.

For a small state like Oregon, having the chairmanship of one of the most powerful committees in Congress is a big deal. Former Senator Bob Packwood chaired Senate Finance in the early 1980s and engineered a major tax overhaul. At the same time, the late Senator Mark Hatfield chaired Senate Appropriations, which made the two Oregon senators among the hottest phone numbers in DC.

A Confluence on Energy Policy

Two Oregon leaders are stepping into leadership roles on energy policy, which always has played a key role in job creation, regional affordability and quality of life.Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has advanced a 10-year energy policy just as Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has assumed the chairmanship of a Senate committee that will design an updated national energy strategy. The economic and environmental stakes of both are huge for Oregon and the country.

Kitzhaber's 10-year energy plan will go before the 2013 Oregon legislature for review. Wyden will reveal some of his thoughts on national energy policy in a speech this week to the Portland City Club.

The emergence of Oregon leadership on energy issues comes after several decades of relative quiescence. It would be fair to say energy policy hasn't been a top-rung focal point for Oregon elected officials at the state or federal level for quite a while.

In years past, energy policy consisted of talking about the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). While the dams generating relatively inexpensive electricity remain important to the region, the range of energy issues on the table has vastly expanded to include renewable energy, expansive natural gas resources, a drive for national energy independence and calls to combat greenhouse-induced climate change.

Northwest Delegation Gains Clout

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley lands a prize committee assignment, symbolizing the current Northwest congressional delegation's escalating clout in Congress.The Pacific Northwest congressional delegation climbed the ladder of seniority and power in Washington, DC this week, which could translate into more favorable attention to regional concerns.

Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley cashed in on his support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid by landing a seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. He will be the first Oregon congressional member to sit on Appropriations in either the House or Senate since the late Senator Mark Hatfield 15 years ago.

In the arcane, playground rules of Congress, the Appropriations Committee is where individual members go to "work some magic" on a particularly important local project to their district. When you join this committee, you suddenly have lots of friends and forgotten relatives.

Merkley isn't your "bring home the bacon at any cost" kind of guy. But he isn't a fool, either. He faces re-election and needs to buck up support in rural parts of the state. Senate Appropriations is the perfect platform to become everyone's best buddy.

Washington Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell will assume the gavel of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The Oregonian's Jeff Mapes wrote that Cantwell's ascension to the chair of this committee vindicates the efforts by Washington Indian tribes to defeat former Senator Slade Gorton and elect Cantwell. They have gone from someone they despised to a committee chair they trust.

$6 Billion Buys Status Quo

Despite $6 billion spent in federal election campaigns, the political landscape in Washington, D.C. remains virtually unchanged — basically the same cast, plot and fiscal cliff.

President Obama's decisive electoral college victory, a fortified Democratic majority in the Senate and a return GOP majority in the House set the stage for a dramatic few weeks before the January 2 deadline when tax cuts expire and drastic spending cuts go into effect. 

The drama may prove anti-climatic, as some observers predict the lame-duck Congress will punt the ball to itself by approving short-term extensions of tax cuts and current spending levels – the equivalent of driving to the cliff, but at a slower speed.

Meanwhile, the election produced some positive outcomes for the Northwest congressional delegation:

  • Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash, who wasn't even on the ballot, may have scored the biggest victory by keeping Senate Democrats in the majority, a prospect that seemed dim just six months ago. Murray will retain her chairmanship of the Senate Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee and assume the chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee, both formidable perches to influence economic and job-stimulus policy.

  • Senator Ron Wyden, D-OR, is slated to become chairman of Senate Energy and Natural Resources, the first chair since 1987 from a non-oil producing state. He can be expected to cheerlead for domestic energy production and use, while continuing to oppose exporting liquefied natural gas. Wyden also sits on Senate Finance, which will be involved in federal tax reform, something he has championed.