BACKGROUND When Ron Wyden was elected to the U.S. House in 1980, he arrived in counterpoint to a predecessor - Bob Duncan - who though also a Democrat had a very different take on legislating. He was not, generally, an activist on socially expansive legislation. Wyden, a co-founder of the Oregon Gray Panthers and a lobbyist and organizer on various legislative fronts, had other intentions for his office.
He took office at the launch of the conservative ascendancy, his early years at the height of Ronald Reagan's popularity and with only the House in Democratic hands - and many of those Democrats of what now would be called the blue dog variety. The times for an activist Democrat were far from ideal.
In contrast to many Democrats of the time, though, Wyden's stance didn't come across as defensive. (A supportive district back home probably helped.) In his pre-Congress activist days, he worked on measures not especially ideological but with a specific practical bent - a ballot issue to cut the cost of dentures, for example.
In the House, in the 80s, he dug into federal spending in sometimes obscure areas and pushed measures intended to foster competition in health care and change rules on federal reimbursement; there were specific, sometimes technical, regulatory changes related to business phone billing and computer crime and even baby formula, during the era of deregulation. He worked on federal legal backing for certain community health operations, to cut malpractice insurance rates. He found Republican alliances in measures to expand unemployment insurance (in cases where some of the money would go to business startups) and developed new incentives for investing in low-income housing. The Almanac of American Politics in 1988 said that "he approaches issues with an almost child-like wonder but works out solutions that are politically shrewd and make sense as policy." A fair number of these ideas cleared the House.
In the Senate his pace seemed to accelerate. He worked on Internet anti-censorship measures, restricting gag rules by HMOs and other measures of seemingly technical but actually wide-ranging import. With conservative Idaho Senator Larry Craig, Wyden pushed through federal payments to rural counties, maybe the piece of legislation each senator is best known for in the region. (more…)