Congressman Greg Walden's Oregon Congressional Connection
Dear fellow Oregonians,
You should receive this about the time I'm heading back to Washington, D.C. after a rather hectic trip home on Friday. I got to Portland just in time to watch my son compete in the district swim meet at Mt. Hood Community College, have dinner in Hood River with the family, and then return to the Portland airport to fly down to Medford Friday night. I spent Saturday in the Rogue Valley meeting with members of the state Veterans of Foreign Wars and opened their annual meeting as their keynote speaker, among other activities.
But before diving into the details of the update, I want to say a quick word about my colleague, Congresswoman Darlene Hooley, who represents our state's Fifth District and, as you may have heard, announced that she would retire from Congress after this term. We serve together on the Energy and Commerce Committee. She's certainly been a hard worker over the years I usually see her on the weekly commute to and from Washington. While we don't always agree politically, we've worked together on many Oregon issues. She is dedicated to her constituents and has the kind of warm personality that appeals to people all over the political spectrum. We will miss her in the delegation, and I wish her the very best as she embarks on this next stage of her life.
The President released his proposed Fiscal Year 2009 budget for the federal government on Monday, and it includes several points of interest for Oregonians. Before explaining what's there for the Columbia River channel deepening project, county payments and rural health care, I should point out that the President's budget is merely a starting point for the budget that Congress will put together in the coming year. The President's budget is essentially a suggestion, or a policy statement of how the federal government should spend the taxpayers' hard-earned money. Congress has the constitutional duty of appropriating money for the federal government; ultimately, it is up to Congress to accept or reject the President's budget recommendations.
Columbia River channel deepening in the budget
In August 2004, the President visited the Port of Portland and said, "by deepening the channel of this river from 40 to 43 feet, we will create new export opportunities at Columbia River ports, we'll help our farmers and ranchers, we'll help our manufacturers remain competitive, we'll protect and restore jobs really good paying jobs and we'll help conserve and restore the river ecosystem. This is a vital project."
Since then, with the commitment of the administration and the solid support of the Northwest congressional delegation, the $101 million deepening project was funded at steady levels over the last several fiscal years. In November of last year, I organized a bipartisan group of my colleagues to send a letter to budget director Jim Nussle, urging that he include $29 million in the next budget to finish off the project. I followed up with Jim in personal conversations as well. On Monday, we received the great news that the President included $36 million in his proposed budget to finish the deepening.
The completion of the channel deepening on the Columbia River will maximize the waterway's economic potential for our part of the Pacific Northwest. That means more jobs, more trade, and smarter use of energy. The Columbia River handles more than $16 billion annually of traded goods and is the largest gateway in the world for wheat growers and the third largest for other grain commodities. The President deserves a lot of credit for wanting to see this project to the end. Completing the project in 2009 rather than 2010 will save significant costs and allow the people of the region to reap the channel's economic benefits even sooner. This news is incredibly positive, but there is still much work that remains before this money is actually appropriated for the project. It's up to Congress to do its part.
County payments in the budget but not enough
The President included $200 million in the budget to continue the county payments program over the next three years, averaging out at $67.33 million per year. Considering that the program historically brought $400 million into rural counties every year ($280 million to Oregon), the request in the budget is not adequate. It is, however, a starting point for the Congress as we work through the appropriations process this year. It is also helpful that the administration removed their request that public lands be sold to raise money for county payments. Since day one, that suggestion has been a non-starter on Capitol Hill. Congressman DeFazio and I are continuing our bipartisan efforts to pass legislation that reauthorizes and funds county payments.
Rural health care takes a whack but we'll likely fix that
One part of the President's budget that was really distressing was the cuts proposed to important rural health care problems. Of the 12 rural health programs considered as part of the rural health safety net, seven were zeroed out, two were recommended for funding reductions, and three would receive very modest funding increases. As the co-chair of the Rural Health Care Coalition, I know very well how challenging it is to deliver quality rural health care. These programs are a vital part of our healthy rural communities, and I will work with my colleagues in Congress to see that these proposed cuts do not stand. I'll be sure to keep you updated on this issue as it develops.
The Herseth Sandlin - Walden Renewable Biomass Facilitation Act (H.R. 5236)
It's not the catchiest name, I'll admit. But don't judge a book by its cover. This bill is important to the renewable fuels industry and jobs in our forests. Let me explain how we came to write this bill.
As you may know, the energy bill recently signed into law helps nudge America toward greater energy independence by spurring research and production of alternative fuels. You see, scientists have figured out how to turn woody biomass from forests into fuels for vehicles. Several weeks ago the Department of Energy awarded a $24 million grant to an Oregon company to build one of the first cellulosic fuels refineries in the country.
Given the amount of thinning and brush removal work needed in our forests, it only makes sense to turn that material into a clean-burning fuel.
The energy bill calls for the country to produce 36 billion gallons-a-year of biofuels. This renewable fuels standard (RFS) is aggressive, but also provides incentives to move away from corn-based ethanol and into fuels made from biomass.
But then the new lawas only Congress could write itseverely restricts what type of woody biomass will count toward meeting the new renewable fuels goals. Basically, the law puts off limits biomass from federal forests and even limits what counts off of private lands.
Well, from my point of view, either woody biomass when converted is a biofuel or it is not. Where that wood comes from shouldn't matter, since other forest practices acts govern harvest issues.
That's what the Renewable Biomass Facilitation Act (H.R. 5236), introduced by Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD), myself, and a group of eight bipartisan House colleagues, is all about. It mostly corrects those problems by using language already agreed to by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the United States Senate and many members of the House who wanted to see it included in the energy bill. The Northwest is leading the movement to switch to smart, renewable fuels, and biomass will undeniably play a major part in this effort. In fact, according to the U.S. Forest Service, biomass has surpassed hydropower as the largest source of renewable energy in the country. Ensuring that biomass gathered from federal land counts toward the country's renewable fuels standard is a win for the health of our forests, and a win for America's smarter energy future.
And as we all know, as that biomass collects on our forest floors, the chances for catastrophic fire go up and up. I keep telling my colleagues on the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming: If you want to get a handle on carbon emissions, you need to address the conditions that contribute to the record wildfires we've seen in recent years, which have spewed an incredible amount of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere. And, like the biomass facility I plan to visit next weekend in Josephine County demonstrates, we can prevent wildfire and create clean energy at the same time.
Meanwhile, last week the Energy and Commerce Committee held an oversight hearing on the budget proposal for the Department of Energy. This is the first year in many that the budget has NOT taken a swipe at the Bonneville Power Administration and ratepayers in the region. Perhaps our united, Northwest delegation efforts to block such actions over the last few years have finally won the day.
Lots of Oregonians are beginning to make their annual trips to Washington to lobby on behalf of various causes and efforts, this week I met with folks from Hermiston, Klamath Falls, Lakeview, and Crater Lake.
ON THE OREGON TRAIL
As I mentioned at the top of the newsletter, I traveled to Medford this past weekend, to talk with veterans and provide a congressional update to the Oregon State Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Mid-Winter Conference. We've been doing much in Congress to take care of those who lay everything on the line for our freedom. In the past seven years, funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has increased by over 80 percent, but there is more to be done. The VA's 2008 budget allows them to hire more than 1,000 new employees to help reduce the backlog of claims and appeals. Over the last nine years, my office has helped more than 900 persons with veterans and military related issues in Jackson County alone.
As we all know after the last few weeks of snow and nasty weather, it is often difficult, for our veterans living in places like Burns, Lakeview, or John Day to make the trip to a veterans' hospital. The House recently approved a bill, with my support, directing the VA to establish an advisory committee to improve care for rural veterans. Recently, the VA Medical Center in Walla Walla, Washington announced that they are opening a new Community Based Outreach Clinic in La Grande later this year, and the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City recently opened a small clinic in Lakeview.
We've come a long way since 2004 when a VA Commission considered closing the White City Dom. I remember going directly to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and convincing him to hold a hearing on the issue in Medford, which his commission did. More than 800 people turned out in support of the facility, which provides care and treatment to 13,100 outpatients and over 500 inpatients. In July 2006, the decision to close the facility was reversed and a long-term funding commitment made, keeping the roughly 500 full-time staff jobs in southern Oregon. It remains the leader in comprehensive bio-psycho-social rehabilitation in the VA system.
A little later in the day, I met with the group of retired military officers who comprise my Service Academy Nomination Board and advise me in the process of nominating young men and women from the Second District for acceptance into our country's military service academies. Many thanks are in order to them as they do a wonderful job year after year. I appreciate not only their service to this country during their military careers, but also their dedication to the strength of our military today through their participation on this important committee.
That's all for now. I head back to Washington, D.C. to begin my 329th round trip this morning. Until the next newsletter, you can refer to the Library of Congress website here for more information on what's happening in Congress. You can always reach me through my website or by contacting any of my offices in Oregon or Washington, D.C. If you would like to unsubscribe from this mailing, simply reply and type the word "unsubscribe" in the subject box.
Member of Congress