Wyden to wield new power on health care, taxes with committee gavel

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is poised to be a key player on some of the most hot-button issues over the next two years with Democratic control of both the White House and Congress.

The Oregon Democrat last week took the reins of a committee that has jurisdiction over major components of the next coronavirus relief package, as well as other top priorities for Democrats. The panel oversees policy areas that impact a wide swath of the economy, including taxes, health care and trade.

Some of Wyden’s top agenda items include extending and enhancing unemployment benefits, increasing taxes on the wealthy and addressing rising health care and prescription drug costs.

“We got to fix the broken tax code, lower health care costs starting with prescriptions, move towards a carbon-free future and rebuild our infrastructure, and the Finance Committee is the center of all of these issues,” he said on a recent call with reporters.

Wyden, 71, is a longtime member of Congress and a fixture on the Finance Committee. He was first elected to the Senate in 1996, after more than a decade in the House, and served as Finance Committee chairman in 2014 before spending the six subsequent years as ranking member.

This time around, though, he’s taking control of the committee for at least a two-year period amid a pandemic and an economic downturn.

To address those duel challenges, President Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion relief package, and congressional Democrats are about to start advancing legislation based on his proposal. The Senate Finance Committee is expected to be heavily involved in the effort.

Wyden has recently placed particular emphasis on enhancing and extending federal unemployment programs, and he’s made his position known to the White House as well.

The coronavirus relief package that lawmakers enacted in December provides a $300 per week boost to unemployment benefits through mid-March. Biden has proposed increasing that amount to $400 per week and extending it through September.

Wyden said in a statement Wednesday, after Senate Democrats met with Biden, that he “made clear that a $400 weekly boost to jobless benefits is a floor, not a ceiling.” Wyden ideally would like the weekly supplement to state unemployment benefits to be $600 per week, matching the level that was in place last spring and early summer.

A longer-term goal of Wyden’s is for Congress to link unemployment benefits with economic conditions, rather than having enhanced benefits expire on predetermined dates.

“Unemployment insurance works best when it covers all workers, when it pays an adequate benefit, and when members of the United States Senate can’t politicize it by setting arbitrary dates,” Wyden said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Beyond the coronavirus relief package, Wyden is interested in tackling a number of long-time priorities for Democrats. Two major goals are rolling back components of former President Trump’s 2017 tax-cut law and raising taxes on the rich.

Wyden has expressed interest in changing several aspects of the 2017 law, including the corporate tax rate, the top individual income tax rate and provisions relating to how U.S. companies are taxed on their foreign earnings.

Additionally, Wyden plans to further develop a proposal he released in 2019 that would require wealthy people to pay taxes on their capital gains annually, rather than deferring taxes until the investments are sold, an approach known as a “mark-to-market” system.

“We shouldn’t have a system, a tax system that is optional for people at the top,” Wyden said in an interview that aired at a Bloomberg Tax event last week.

Daniel Hemel, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said Wyden “has been a leading political and intellectual force behind mark-to-market for several years now.”

“His ascension to the Senate Finance chairmanship certainly raises the prospects for mark-to-market becoming a reality,” Hemel said.

But efforts to tax the rich will be a topic of intense debate among Democrats. Biden called for raising capital gains rates for those with income above $1 million during his presidential campaign, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a new member of the Finance Committee, said she plans to introduce legislation to create a wealth tax. 

But it’s unclear whether either of those proposals will gain any traction given the razor-thin Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.

“It’s hard to imagine that the Senate will go for either a wealth tax or an expansive mark-to-market capital gains plan,” said Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

Wyden, who has long been a critic of drug companies, has also vowed to get through Congress meaningful legislation cracking down on soaring prescription drug prices. He sponsored a bill last Congress with former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that would cap out-of-pocket drug costs for seniors and require drug companies to pay back Medicare if they increase prices faster than the rate of inflation.

While the measure got support from some Republicans, it didn’t get enough backing from the GOP for then-Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to call the bill up for a vote during an election year. But now that Democrats have control of the Senate, the House and the White House, Wyden has indicated he will push for tougher reforms, including a bill that would allow the federal government to negotiate with drug companies the prices it pays for drugs.

“I think we’ve got to take bold action on prescription drug prices. People feel like they’re getting mugged at the pharmacy counter,” Wyden said on the January call with reporters.

While Democrats have a narrow majority in the Senate, Wyden didn’t rule out using reconciliation to pass drug pricing legislation, allowing the measure to pass with a simple majority instead of 60 votes. And unlike other areas where there is more division among Democrats that could make finding 51 votes difficult, Democrats have campaigned on Medicare price negotiation and measures intended to bring down costs for years now. Even Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, supports the effort.

“I think we are looking at the best environment we have seen in many, many years for the enactment of meaningful reform to lower drug prices,” said David Mitchell, founder of the advocacy group Patients for Affordable Drugs.

“I think Sen. Wyden has always been a leader on this issue and I expect him to do what he says he’s going to do.”

Wyden has also talked about shoring up the Affordable Care Act by making it more affordable and undoing some of the damage done by the Trump administration to undermine the 2010 health care law.

Infrastructure and combating climate change are other areas of priority for Democrats. Wyden said at the Bloomberg Tax event that he wants his proposal to consolidate and streamline tax incentives for clean energy. He also said he’s going to make it a priority for infrastructure legislation to include expanding access to broadband internet.

Wyden, who is up for reelection in 2022, is viewed more favorably by progressives than his House counterpart, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who the left has often criticized as being too sympathetic to business interests. But Wyden also has a history of working on issues on a bipartisan basis when the opportunity presents itself.

Wyden said in a statement to The Hill on Friday that he’s worked with the new Finance Committee ranking member, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), for years on issues impacting their neighboring states.

“Representing Western states facing similar issues, we’ve been able to find common ground,” Wyden said. “We’ve long worked together on transportation and wildfire issues, for example.”

Wyden also said that he and Neal have worked “hand in glove” on coronavirus relief issues and that he looks forward to working with Neal “on pressing tax, health care, and retirement challenges.”

Tags Chuck Grassley coronavirus relief COVID-19 aid Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Manchin Mike Crapo Mitch McConnell Oregon Pandemic prescription drugs Richard Neal Ron Wyden Senate Finance Committee taxes

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