U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden faced numerous concerns from constituents at Astoria High School about the U.S. government under Donald Trump’s administration and a Republican-controlled Congress during his 799th town hall Friday. In response, Wyden, D-Oregon, promised to fight for what he called the Oregon way.
The first break for Congress this year has been referred to as the “resistance recess,” with protests greeting many congressional representatives at town halls across the U.S.
Hundreds of students and community members showed up with questions for Wyden Friday, holding signs to agree or disagree with Wyden’s comments. Support was essentially unanimous, the crowd applauding often.
“My approach in Washington D.C. — and this was true before Donald Trump became president — was to practice something that I called the ‘Oregon way,’” Wyden said. “And we just have a different approach, as you know. We’re much more independent than many parts of the country. We like to think creatively, some might say ‘Out of the box.’ We’re compassionate.”
Wyden said he has opposed many of Trump’s policies, such as removing protections for LGBT students and trying to ban immigrants and refugees based on religion, because the policies do not follow the Oregon way.
Asked about protecting the region’s environment, Wyden said, “Clean air and water is practically in Oregon’s gene pool. This is what we treasure. This is a big reason, for example, that a lot of companies want to come here or grow here, because their workers want clean air and water.”
Wyden said people will have to be vigilant about watchdogging the Environmental Protection Agency under Scott Pruitt, playing defense to hold on against proposed rollbacks in protections while finding innovative ways to play offense through new technologies such as renewable energy.
“What’s going to drive the environmental policies of the EPA?” he asked the audience. “Is it going to be adhering to strong environmental standards, or is it going to be the wish list of powerful special interests? That’s the question, and watchdogging that agency is going to take a lot of our time.”
The son of Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Wyden said “We must never forget that we are a nation of immigrants.”
He voted for failed overhauls of national immigration policy in 2007 under President George Bush and in 2013 under President Barack Obama. He said both bills were based on a compromise of strengthening borders and better-enforcing existing immigration laws, while providing the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a path to citizenship if they came forward voluntarily, paid a fine, learned English and had not broken other laws.
“We can either keep playing the blame game in a system that is a broken, dysfunctional mess, or we can decide we’re going to fix it on a bipartisan basis,” he said. “That’s what I voted for in the United States Senate, and that’s what I’m going to keep pushing for until we get it done.”
A member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wyden in 2013 asked then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper whether the agency was collecting data on Americans.
Clapper’s denial helped galvanize former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden to leak millions of documents, starting a national dialogue on mass data collection by the government. Wyden, subsequently a co-founder and chairman of the of the Senate’s whistleblower caucus, said any potential whistleblowers can still come to him.
“That’s what open and transparent government is about,” he said.
He rebuffed Trump’s efforts to discredit and shut out news outlets critical of his administration. “The reason you know about (resigned National Security Adviser) Mike Flynn and his involvement with Russia is because of the free press.”
Wyden said he would push for a public hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Flynn and the Trump administration’s connections to Russia, while digging into controversial right-wing adviser Stephen Bannon’s appointment to the National Security Council.
As for the administration’s claims of widespread voter fraud, Wyden said he hasn’t seen a shred of evidence. He and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, introduced a bill last year calling for a national vote-by-mail system like Oregon’s, which Wyden said Friday would provide a better paper trail and help avoid potential fraud.
Asked by a 15-year-old and a Coast Community Radio staffer alike how people can best get involved, Wyden said those who cannot vote can still volunteer, and that coming to such meetings as the town hall is a good start. He said change very rarely comes from the government down to the people.
“It’s bottoms-up,” he said. “It’s as people get mobilized all over the country and start speaking out about issues that they care about.”
Before ending the town hall and snapping photos with attendees, Wyden made one more promise. “If somebody brings up something that steps on Oregon values and what we’ve heard today … I will be pushing back every single step of the way.”