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Congressman Greg Walden's Oregon Congressional Connection


Location: Washington, DC

Another busy week of meetings in Washington, D.C. last week, including folks concerned about poverty, schools, accounting, public power, the Bureau of Land Management, the Army Corps of Engineers, food safety, and insurance. This followed a week ago Saturday when I joined the Governor in paying last respects to a fallen soldier from Grants Pass, and then participated in a news conference on biomass energy, spoke to the state convention of the Non-Commissioned Officers Association and gave the keynote speech at the Grants Pass Chamber of Commerce.

Before I highlight a few legislative issues, I wanted to let you know that it appears likely that the Energy and Commerce Committee will begin voting on the "cap and trade," carbon tax and energy legislation. The President announced he will meet Tuesday with the Democratic members of the committee, and word is they may have legislation ready for the committee to vote on later in the week. I've read all 648 pages of the "discussion draft" of the legislation, but what really matters in this business is being able to read and understand the actual bill we will consider.

Meanwhile, I joined a bipartisan effort in the House to reform the credit card business and address some of the issues folks have raised with me via phone calls, emails and letters over the last year.

Credit card holders' bill of rights

Credit cards are an important aspect of the American economy, giving consumers access to a convenient and flexible source of financing. We've heard much in the past year about the need of some consumers to use credit cards more responsibly. That's certainly true.

But it's a two-way street, and there are plenty of examples out there of credit card companies abusing their relationship with cardholders. Consumers deserve a fair deal. Cardholders are increasingly confronting problems with card agreements, allowing issuers to increase rates at "any time for any reason" and to arbitrarily raise the cost of loans after they are made. That's wrong. I've heard from some people about how their rates have doubled. Others complain that the payment due date falls on a weekend and the credit card companies won't count an electronic transfer on the weekend, but will begin assessing late fees.

This week, I voted for H.R. 627, the "Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights," a bipartisan bill that will help level the playing field between cardholders and issuers through reasonable reforms, including:

Ending unfair, arbitrary interest rate increases

Allowing consumers to set hard credit limits

Stopping excessive "over-the-limit" fees

Ending unfair penalties for cardholders who pay on time

Requiring fair allocation of consumer payments

Protecting cardholders from due date gimmicks

Preventing companies from using misleading terms and damaging consumers' credit ratings

Protecting vulnerable consumers from high-fee subprime credit cards

Prohibiting card companies from knowingly issuing cards to individuals under 18 who are not emancipated minors.

I voted for similar legislation in the last Congress, too. Hopefully the Senate takes quick action on behalf consumers so this bill gets to the President sooner rather than later.

Taxing, spending, and borrowing, oh my!

This week, Speaker Pelosi rounded up the necessary votes to pass the largest budget (and budget deficits) in the history of the country.

This budget spends too much, taxes too much, and borrows too much, setting record deficits in the years to come. Under this plan, the yearly deficit in the next ten years will never dip below $523 billion — well above the previous record deficit of $459 billion. If you were troubled by the spending levels of the last few years, you've not seen anything yet.

Additionally, over the next ten years, the budget nearly triples the national debt, to $17.3 trillion — that's $17,300,000,000,000 — or more than 82 percent of the country's total economic resources. And whom do you think will get this bill?

Even with all this debt and deficit, the plan still assumes tax increases of $1.5 trillion over the next decade on families, small businesses, and workers.

Last week the President announced he would pull his entire cabinet together to identify $100 million to cut from the federal budget. That represents 0.0029 percent of the federal budget for this year.

To be sure, $100 million is a lot of money, and the President is right to eliminate wasteful spending in the federal government. Goodness knows it's there. But when they're talking in the trillions these days, this is like thinking you've really gotten a steal by knocking a dollar off the cost of a new car. I still believe we need a Constitutional Amendment to require a balanced federal budget so that we can begin to get at the issue of the mounting national debt.

America reached "Debt Day" on April 26. Last year, we didn't reach it until August 5th. By contrast, in every fiscal year post-9/11 Debt Day has fallen at least three months later in the year than April 26.

Debt Day occurs when federal spending exceeds the tax revenue for the year. The earlier in the year Debt Day falls on the calendar, the more deficit spending the government will rack up—adding even more debt to be paid by our children and grandchildren.

Oregon's renewable energy industry under attack

I want to update you on the serious issue I raised in the last e-newsletter — the bipartisan effort I'm leading in Congress to create new renewable woody biomass jobs in Oregon and to stop those we have from being shut down in the global warming, cap and tax legislation we may well vote on this week in the Commerce Committee. As it stands, the way the bill is written, woody biomass would qualify as a renewable energy source, unless it came from woody biomass! OK, I may sound a little cynical, but when the legislation would outright ban woody biomass from any federal lands, and virtually ban it all from private timber lands, it's hard to understand where they think it comes from.

I've drafted amendments and alternatives to the bill that I believe will earn bipartisan support to make sure that biomass energy gets treated fairly and that we can create new jobs in our rural communities clearing and thinning the forests and use the material to generate heat, electricity and renewable fuel. If we can create the right incentives we can develop a market for the material and pay for the 79-year backlog of forest thinning in the Northwest.

I'm also working on bipartisan changes to how hydro-electric power is treated in the proposal. Only some hydropower is counted as "renewable" under this bill. Hydropower installed before 2001? Nope, doesn't count. Hydropower installed after 2001 counts. But new hydro-electric power would only county so long as it doesn't affect the depth of the water around the energy source at any "location or time" according to the measure. How much sense does that make? According to this bill, none of the hydropower on the Columbia River will be considered renewable by the federal government. It might be the cleanest and most reliable energy source we have, but for some special interest groups that influenced this legislation, that's bad.

It's just like excluding biomass from federal land from the bill. There's no scientific reason for it. The Baker City Herald penned a sensible editorial on the issue earlier this week. Here's an excerpt:

There is no sensible reason for Congress or President Obama to discourage the harvest of biomass from federal forests.

Yet the bill they are lauding does just that.

Hauling biomass from the woods achieves a rare double play of sorts: It helps the environment by reducing forest fire fuels and using the material to produce renewable energy, and it helps the economy by putting people to work.

Studies show that wildfires in the United States account for 4 percent to 6 percent of the country's carbon footprint.

Recent technology and markets have created an opportunity for companies to use forest biomass to make chips and wood pellets for heat and electricity, and as a source of fuel.

A 2005 report from the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of Energy estimates that by 2030, biomass on federal land could be made into enough transportation fuel to satisfy more than one-third of America's thirst.

And we're talking about clean-burning ethanol, not smog-making gasoline.

Congress could help to fix the mess we've made of our forests by making biomass, along with the sun, the wind and the waves, a mainstay of America's move toward renewable energy sources.

The Oregonian also said that federal biomass should find a spot in the bill. Here's an excerpt from their editorial:

Congressman Greg Walden, a Hood River Republican who represents much of rural Oregon, has a reasonable question: "What's the science behind this decision to say biomass from federal lands is not a renewable energy source?" Walden said he can't get an answer, not from Democratic leaders, not from former Vice President Al Gore, who testified on the bill last week, and not from the leaders of national environmental groups who helped draft the energy legislation. …

All last week in Portland, biomass experts were talking about how wood waste, including slash, underbrush and small trees thinned from forests, represents a massive source of renewable bioenergy. There was broad agreement that new markets for forest biomass would help pay for thinning projects to reduce catastrophic fires, which throw off massive amounts of carbon dioxide.

It's all here in rural Oregon, the woody biomass, the motivation and the unemployed work force. Congress must not let all that good energy go to waste.

I held a press conference a week ago Saturday at the Biomass One cogen facility in White City. I know they're concerned about what this bill means to the future of their business. You can read more about it from this Mail-Tribune story here.

When the time comes to offer amendments, I'll be there pushing the issue hard. I just need some help from my colleagues across the aisle to make sure that renewable woody biomass and hydropower are part of this country's smart energy future.

H1N1 Flu

Every once in awhile, Congress gets ahead of a problem and is ready with a solution. Such is the case with the partnership several years ago between Congress and the Bush Administration to prepare the federal government to assist in the case of a pandemic flu outbreak. Congress created and funded a program to stockpile the medications to reduce the impact of the flu and worked with the Bush Administration on a plan to rapidly distribute those medications and other essential health care items should the need arise. At the time, the Energy and Commerce Committee held multiple hearings on the potential of a bird flu pandemic and lessons learned from the 1918 flu that killed millions.

Now, the Obama Administration is using that plan as it moves effectively and aggressively to contain the outbreak and help those who are sick. The Obama Administration has done a good job of getting on this issue.

Ironically, one of the items the Senate cut from the giant "stimulus" bill earlier this year was additional money for the flu-fighting effort. The administration is now asking Congress for $1.5 billion in emergency spending.

To keep current on the flu outbreak and resources, here's the best link I've found over at the Center for Disease Control's website.

Meanwhile, remember what they taught us in first grade: cover you mouth when you cough, cover your nose when you sneeze and wash your hands. They really taught us the useful "stuff" in first grade, eh?

Best regards,
Greg Walden

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