Ron Wyden is wonkish, optimistic, idiosyncratic — and about to be very powerful

April 23, 2013

Sen. Max Baucus's (D-Mont.) announcement that he'll retire in 2014 clears the way for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to become chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. If Baucus annoyed Democrats for being too cautious, Wyden will annoy them by being too ambitious -- and too ceaselessly interested in brokering big, bipartisan deals.

I wrote the following short profile of Wyden, titled "Ron Wyden, Senator From Planet Where Congress Works," for Bloomberg in October 2011. It still stands, I think, as a good introduction to Wyden's uniquely wonkish, uniquely optimistic brand of politics.

Sen. Ron Wyden. (Photo: Dennis Brack/Bloomberg News)
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). (Photo: Dennis Brack/Bloomberg News)

There’s a joke that Sen. Ron Wyden’s staff members pass around the office. When they’re tired and overworked by their Energizer Bunny of a boss, it’s delivered with a sarcastic bite. When they’ve had their full eight hours of sleep, it’s their rallying cry. “You got a problem?” they say to one another. “Ron Wyden has a comprehensive, bipartisan solution to fix it.”

It’s true. The country has problems. And Ron Wyden has comprehensive, bipartisan proposals for fixing them.

Take tax reform. Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan might have galvanized the Republican presidential campaign for a week or two, but it’s an unworkable mess. Members of the Obama administration might say they want to overhaul the tax code, but they haven’t offered specifics, and they don’t have a working relationship with the Republican Party to pass anything in Congress.

But Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, has a plan. Originally, it was co-sponsored by Judd Gregg, a Republican senator from New Hampshire. But he retired in 2010. Now it’s co-sponsored by Dan Coats, a Republican senator from Indiana. The plan wipes out a raft of deductions and exemptions; lowers rates for individuals and corporations; eliminates the alternative minimum tax; makes filing easier and, for many Americans, automatic; and is roughly revenue neutral with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for households with income more than $250,000. It’s not as radical as some other ideas out there, but then, neither is the political system. I would bet that Wyden’s plan ends up pretty close to what we eventually get.

Then there’s health-care reform. Along with Utah Republican Senator Bob Bennett, Wyden spent much of 2008 and 2009 pushing the Healthy Americans Act. The plan, which eventually attracted a half-dozen Republican co-sponsors, was what health-care reform would have looked like if the Senate were run by a bipartisan commission of policy wonks. If a Republican wins in 2012 and decides to take health-care reform forward and rightward rather than merely backward, the bill -- which proposed ending the tax preference for employer-based health care and moving Medicaid beneficiaries into the same private-insurance options that wealthier Americans get -- would be a good place to start.

The list goes on. Infrastructure? You might enjoy Wyden’s proposal for TRIP bonds, which would help states finance public-works projects. The idea has attracted the co-sponsorship of North Dakota Republican John Hoeven. Or perhaps you worry about government agencies tracking you through your mobile phone. Then take a gander at the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, which also secured Illinois Republican Mark Kirk’s support.

It’s not that Wyden’s proposals are perfect. But they’re serious, thoughtful efforts to map out principled, bipartisan compromises. And Wyden is not shy about bringing them up -- in a committee hearing or a television interview or even when he’s jammed into an elevator with a few other senators.

That earnest intensity hasn’t made him the most popular senator. His constant pushing to go further, go faster, go now, has irritated the White House and annoyed his colleagues. But everyone respects his work ethic -- and his staff’s. “There are very few members who have come up with such significant contributions in tax reform and health-care reform operating with just his own individual staff,” marveled Senator Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, during a Budget Committee hearing.

But Wyden isn’t the weird one. It’s his colleagues -- the ones who aren’t releasing a steady stream of proposals -- who are weird.

Imagine you sat down a Martian with a copy of the Constitution and asked him to describe how our government works. Well, he would say, or signal by flashing his antenna lights in a certain pattern, the Congress is mentioned first. It can declare war. It can write and pass legislation. It can overturn the president’s veto. It can even impeach the president.

The president, meanwhile, can’t write legislation. He can veto whatever the Congress sends him, but if two-thirds of the Congress agrees that the president is wrong, they can ignore his protestations. He can make nominations and write treaties, but not without congressional assent.

To the Martian, it would be pretty clear how our system works: Congress drives the action, and the president weighs in.

The reality is the opposite. The president acts, and Congress reacts. There are few exceptions in recent history -- the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reforms are one -- in which members of Congress autonomously began work on a high-profile issue, and the president was eventually forced to sign or veto the resulting law. The vastly more common path is for the president to ask Congress for legislation on health care or education or jobs or infrastructure and then for Congress to begin some sort of (usually unsuccessful) process.

There’s a reason for this, of course. The Founders envisioned competition between the various branches of government, but the political system evolved to emphasize competition between the two major political parties across branches of government. As leader of one of those parties, the president is in close contact with his congressional allies, and they coordinate their efforts, just as the other party coordinates its efforts against the majority.

But Wyden’s office is a small outpost where the natives imagine how Congress would behave in a parallel universe. In Wyden’s office, health-care reform began late in the Bush presidency and wasn’t associated with the leadership of either party. In Wyden’s office, tax reform isn’t a matter left to the presidential candidates, it’s a policy pursued as if, as senators and Congress members have said over and over, it’s something they actually want to achieve.

To Wyden, this parallel universe is real. “Can you imagine telling voters that if you elect me, the first thing I’m going to do in Washington is wait for the president to make some decisions?” he said, laughing.

But outside Wyden’s office, in the halls of the Capitol, that is the first thing new members of Congress do. Outside Wyden’s office, the bipartisan Healthy Americans Act remains a proposal, not a law. Outside Wyden’s office, tax reform is mired in seemingly intractable partisan conflict. Oregon’s wonkish senator might have comprehensive, bipartisan plans to fix America’s problems, but he doesn’t have a way to fix America’s politics.

 

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Brad Plumer · April 23, 2013