Friday, February 10, 2006

Where is Sen Smith on OR Timber County Cuts? Nowhere

For a town that's about 1/9th the size of Portland--less if you consider the markets they penetrate--it should be fiercely embarrassing to The O that the Medford Mail Tribune's website is more informative and easier to use than OregonLive, who I won't dignify with a link. Hands down, The O's website is the worst newspaper page I have ever come across--and I've probably seen the sites of 100 or more local papers of all sizes. It's even worse than some of the other papers it shares that horrible format with! Ecch.

Anyhow, one of the nice features of the MT is a daily feed with the best OR news of the day. On Tuesday there was much buzz on Capitol Hill over the strange budget the President had submitted. One of the things that immediately caught the eyes of Oregonians was the drastic cut in what are called "county payments"--essentially a form of monetary methadone designed to ease rural timber counties off the withdrawal of jobs and economic stability. It's not chump change by any means to the places it reaches; Oregon received almost $150 million last year, by far the most in the country.

I'm personally conflicted on the issue. I have a strong respect for industries like farming and timber; my dad worked both on and off the range with trees most of his life. On the other hand, subsidies that single out one or two industries and just prop them up year after year don't seem like the best use of money. Of course, I'm not a politician, and you can bet that when our state delegation read the fine print they picked up the phone and started talking to press:
"Governing is about priorities, and this proposal to cut funding to rural counties by 50 percent tells rural Oregon that we’re not very high on the administration’s priority list," [Sen Ron]Wyden said. "The administration found billions to fund subsidies for energy company boondoggles, so I have trouble believing they couldn’t find the money in this budget environment to maintain support for rural Oregon counties."


Wyden and other critics said the cutbacks were made even worse by a plan to help pay for the program by selling off some Forest Service land that officials consider unnecessary.

So Wyden's standing tall and taking the lead, not unexpectedly. But DeFazio and Greg Walden--the latter of whom we've given quite a bit of crap to recently--are championing the payments on the House side. Walden's no idiot; he knows where his bread is buttered, and how his roads are built and his schools kept open. Wu, Hooley and Blumenauer don't preside over mostly rural districts, so it's clear why they weren't contacted for comment.

But where is Gordon Smith? Just like Wyden, Smith represents the entire state, and theoretically speaks better for those on the east of the mighty Cascades. Wyden, the "Portland" Senator, speaks out loudest among the delegation and Smith is silent? Surely this is just a bad day for his staff, right? Legislative aide for budget matters caught in an inopportune hangover, perhaps? I felt confident that Smith's people would get the Senator right in line with his colleagues of both chambers and parties, and make clear the senselessness of the 62% cut.

So I rang up the DC office, and chatted amiably with the typically CR phone answering flack. I roughly repeated in brief what I've just said to you: Surely blah blah, confident yada yada right in line question mark?

There was a momentary pause, and the kid said, "The Senator doesn't want to jump to any conclusions..."

I wondered what conclusions were left to jump to, once a calculator had been introduced to the party. $147mil less is, as they say, enough to make it start adding up eventually. So what was there to think about? If Smith was ready to articulate a principled position on the welfare-state nature of paying off dying industries, and how maybe the usefulness of the project had expired, this would have been a good time for the lackey to do it. I got "consider the whole project" talk. I boiled it down: is it possible Senator Smith will vote to uphold these cuts in a budget? Phone man hesitated, and said "yes, it's possible, but not very likely."

OK, not very likely. So I'm supposed to understand that he'd vote no on the cuts, but isn't committed enough to take a stand on it right now? And what calculus leads us to "possible" territory? This is a guy who pledged to protect choice for Oregon women, but didn't think protecting Roe from Alito was necessary. If asked at his last campaign whether he thought he'd support a Justice who would favor overturning Roe, he might well have said, "possible, but not very likely." Gordon, welcome to Not Very Likely, Population: You.

It's true that there seems little likelihood that the cuts will stay in the final version of this bill.* In one sense, pandering to the media about how badly the cuts will hurt regular Oregonians is just so much grandstanding. But this is so clearly an issue where the elected representatives of rural Oregon need to stand up. That's Wyden, Walden and Smith. The first two did their jobs. Smith's reticence to join them still, even by early Friday, is entirely puzzling. And the really crazy thing is that he was a co-sponsor of the original law! Remember how he did you, Eastern Oregonians.

*I have a pet theory that Bush figured any budget proposal would be a nightmare, so he shot the moon knowing it would be totally reworked and he could just yea or nay the changes as they went. By taking a stand and "saving" some programs dear to their constituencies, vulnerable Republicans in Congress could go home and say they were not dutiful puppets.