U.S. Capitol (File photo- National Park Service)
Oregon will get more power to push state needs in Congress and before federal agencies with the addition of a sixth U.S. representative, according to those in the state’s Congressional delegation.
The change also means Oregonians will get more help with their personal matters, from Social Security benefits to veteran health care.
Oregon gets its sixth seat in the House because of the increased population documented by the U.S. Census. That means the lines for the state’s existing five House districts will get redrawn to create the new seat.
Four of Oregon’s five U.S. representatives shared their assessments of what is ahead for the larger delegation. The lone Republican in the delegation, U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz of District 2, declined to discuss the matter.
“The practical benefit is more clout for Oregon and Oregonians,” said U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, Democrat in the District 5, serving central Willamette Valley and the central coast.
“Having one more member of the team gives us more perspective and potentially more strength,” said U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Democrat in District 2 in Portland.
U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, spent 16 years in the House before moving to the Senate. He said the additional House seat will “turbocharge” the delegation.
That power may be most apparent in Congressional committees.
“Committee service is a critical part of the legislative process, allowing members to directly shape new policies and provide oversight of existing programs,” said U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, Democrat in District 1 in northwest Oregon. “Right now, Oregonians are serving in senior roles on committees related to taxes, health care, energy, education and infrastructure.”
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, Democrat in District 4 in southwest Oregon, said the sixth representative would likely be put on committees where there is no Oregonian now, “giving Oregon a greater platform from which to advocate for priorities and impact legislation.”
Blumenauer called the committees and their subcommittees “the basic working units of Congress” and said that “every committee has something of interest to Oregonians.”
Schrader noted that 75% of all House legislation moves through the House Energy and Commerce Committee on which he serves.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is that Oregon has a direct link to decision-makers – the committee chair, ranking members,” Schrader said.
Those on committees can more directly influence what is – and isn’t – in new federal laws, delegation members reported. That translates into safeguarding Oregon interests in particular, they said.
But the committee work also puts those in Congress in more direct touch with federal agencies.
“You have much more intimate relationships with Cabinet members,” Schrader said.
That can pay off during an emergency, Bonamici said.
“The relationships I’ve developed with federal agencies have allowed me to reach out in times of need to help Oregonians get quick assistance and they have created a channel for me to flag local issues that had not yet caught national attention,” she said. “This outreach can be invaluable.”
Such contacts helped last year when Oregon was short of ventilators for hospitals to care for coronavirus patients.
She said a key federal agency “was peppered with calls and demands from several Oregon offices, which leveraged more engagement and movement to help our state,” she said.
Wyden, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, recounted a recent proposal from a federal agency that would require people to send in original documents instead of copies of such records as a driver’s license.
Wyden said the proposed rule for some signing up for Social Security was a “prescription for bedlam.”
He said that three hours after hearing of the idea in a committee hearing, “I asked the head of the agency for a detailed plan within two weeks” on changing the proposal.
“The longer you serve on a committee, the more you can dive deeply into issues that constituents are concerned about,” Wyden said. “Federal agencies respond to members on committees that have oversight.”
Schrader said those in Congress can keep an eye on how federal agencies are implementing programs to be sure they meet the intent. He said he did so recently on telemedicine.
“You can actually influence” how the federal government works, he said.
Delegation members said one immediate impact of a new representative will be sharing the work of caring for Oregonians’ individual needs.
“Half the job is dealing with things people don’t think about,” Blumenauer said.
He said he’s responsible for about 800,000 Oregonians in his district. With the revisions to come, that will drop by about 165,000.
“We get a significant adjustment in the reduction of that day-to-day activity,” Blumenauer said. He said Congressional offices are viewed as a bit of a fix-it shop where Oregonians turn for help regardless of the issue. He said Oregon state government’s troubles with unemployment payments left frustrated people turning to him.
Schrader, in a view shared by the delegation, said the lower number of constituents should mean that “I can give a little bit better attention” to individual needs and perhaps quicker.
“A new member brings another office staffed with caseworkers to help constituents navigate working with government agencies, from filing claims with the Veterans Affairs administration to navigating the Social Security administration,” DeFazio said.
Bonamici said her office handled 1,700 individual cases in 2020.
“Having more staff in a sixth office to help with these cases, which can often be complicated, will benefit Oregonians in their time of need,” Bonamici said.
DeFazio said one other benefit of an expanded delegation is a little more impact on presidential elections as Oregon would end up with eight electoral votes.
Oregon becomes “a little more relevant” in such elections, Schrader agreed.
“This could mean that more presidential candidates will visit Oregon,” Bonamici said.
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