I just wrapped up town halls and other meetings in southern, central, and eastern Oregon, covering 1599 miles in nine counties (it was supposed to be 10, but transportation difficulties prevented me from getting to Lakeview on Friday). Here’s the snow and rain over Mt. Hood as I headed from Bend to Hood River last week (taken from the passenger’s seat…):
While on the road, we got word that the board of Cover Oregon voted to scrap the site and move to the federal insurance exchange. Cover Oregon is the digital equivalent of the 1962 Columbus Day storm. It is the worst financial failure in information technology in state history—and it was completely avoidable. This admission of failure underscores the need to stop the waste and get the truth. How did this happen? Who was in charge? That’s why I’ve sought and secured a federal investigation into Cover Oregon. The Government Accountability Office is already at work to get taxpayers answers and accountability.
Meeting with ranchers in Burns after BLM refuses to follow the law
On Friday, I was in Burns for a meeting with ranchers on Steens Mountain and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) because the agency is clearly ignoring the letter and spirit of a law passed by Congress 14 years ago. Allow me to explain:
In the waning days of the Clinton Administration, the Secretary of the Interior at the time, Bruce Babbitt, made it clear that the President would use his power to designate national monuments to unilaterally lock up thousands of acres of Steens Mountain putting a noose around the neck of local ranchers who had been excellent stewards of this magnificent part of Oregon. Before he could do this, I teamed up with local families and my colleagues in the Oregon delegation to write a law that worked for ranchers and the Clinton Administration. That law prevented Clinton from declaring it a monument and put in place a lasting framework rooted in cooperation and local control. It facilitated land exchanges on the most fragile parts of the mountain and allowed local ranchers to continue grazing their cattle in other areas. The Steens Act was passed unanimously by the House and the Senate and signed into law in October 2000.
The law contained a very clear sentence: “The Secretary [of the Interior] shall be responsible for installing and maintaining any fencing required for resource protection within the designated no livestock grazing area.”
To me—and probably to you—that sentence means that the Interior Department and the BLM are responsible for putting up fencing around the cow-free areas. But the BLM of today is violating the letter and the spirit of the law. The BLM has made it clear they feel that the responsibility for building the fences falls to the ranchers. How could we have written the law any more clearly?!
It’s not the first time I’ve had to educate the BLM on the intent of this law, because—like so many agencies—they continue to try to interpret it their way. Some in the agency think it’s their land, or the government’s land, not the public’s land. Now they have some high-priced lawyers running around, trying to interpret nuances to get to a result that they want. And I’ll be darned if I’m going to let them do that. I refuse to let them and their lawyers flout the clear intent of Congress and the law.
I made this very point to the ranchers and the BLM representatives who came to Burns. And I will continue to do everything I can to make sure the BLM respects the letter and the intent of the law.
You can read more about this issue in The Bulletin here.
Better care for veterans in Grants Pass
Last Thursday, I was in Grants Pass for the dedication of their new Veterans Administration (VA) clinic. For many years, the VA has operated a small clinic that mostly served veterans in rural Josephine County. That left most veterans in the area forced to drive 30 to 70 miles to White City or Roseburg for routine medical treatment.
This new clinic, though, will bring the VA to veterans instead of forcing more veterans to go to the VA. Along with local veterans and other leaders, Senator Wyden and I worked hard for many years to prod the VA to upgrade their clinic. This upgrade will help about 1,000 additional veterans receive high-quality care closer to home. Men and women who served this country and fought for our freedom deserve nothing less.
Time for more accountability at the VA
I also met with veterans in Bend and Ontario last week. A major issue I heard about (and I hear about all too often) is the claims backlog at the VA. Over 725,000 veterans are currently waiting for a claims decision. The latest numbers from the Portland office show that about 62% of veterans’ claims are older than 125 days. That’s unacceptable. It’s time for greater accountability at the VA.
That’s why I support a bill working its way through Congress—the VA Management Accountability Act—to hold senior level VA managers accountable for the agency’s progress. Current law puts layers and layers of red tape in the way before a senior manager at the VA can be held accountable for their actions. This bill would cut away a lot of that red tape to give the Secretary the authority to clean up the agency.
As Speaker John Boehner recently said when talking about the bill, “The VA is failing our veterans and their families. It’s time we hold these people accountable and get people in there who can fix this backlog once and for all.”
This week, the House will vote on funding legislation for the VA that continues our efforts to upgrade their computer systems and provide the personnel needed to solve this problem.
At the meeting in Bend, I had the chance to recognize three recent service academy appointees from Central Oregon, Emily Shunk (left) accepted an appointment to the US Air Force Academy; Tim Gorman (center) and Braden Bell (shaking hand) accepted an appointment to West Point.
Being nominated to one of our nation’s service academies represents years of hard work and discipline. It takes a special commitment to pursue the rigors of an academy education, and these young Americans are continuing a long line of patriotic Oregonians in their endeavor. To learn more about being nominated to a service academy, please click here.
FDA pulls back on regulations that could harm brewers, ranchers, consumers
I’ve told you before about a new proposal from the FDA that could harm Oregon’s brewers, ranchers, and consumers. It is common for brewers to give or sell a byproduct of the brewing process—known as “spent grains”—to local ranchers for use as animal feed. But the FDA has proposed tightly regulating this practice to prevent food-borne illness, even though there’s never been a case we are aware of where spent grains from a brewery fed to cattle caused any kind of food-borne illness. It’s a solution in search of a problem.
I met with brewers and ranchers from Central Oregon last week about this issue. If the rule were to go through, it could have a big impact on both these groups, and even force them to raise costs on beer and beef sold to consumers. No one wants that.
After the meeting, the FDA announced they would rework the rules. That’s encouraging, but I will keep a close eye on the agency’s actions moving forward to make sure the final proposal doesn’t unnecessarily harm these small businesses or consumers.
I was able to achieve a similar success when it came to proposed irrigation regulations the FDA drafted for onions that were also completely unworkable. The FDA listened and pulled back those draft rules, too.
Promoting forest access in John Day
On Friday, it was on to John Day for a meeting on forest access with Grant County citizens. I was joined by John Bastian of the Grant County Snowballers (local snowmobile club), Commissioners Boyd Britton and Chris Labhart, and other members of the community.
We discussed legislation I have introduced to stop the Forest Service’s travel management rule, the Forest Access in Rural Communities Act. This legislation would require the Forest Service to get input and consent from affected counties before any future road closure could take effect. It would help bring local input and needs back into the process and ensure that local citizens have a clear say on the management actions that affect the forests that surround them.
For too long, the input and wishes of local citizens have been pushed to the backseat when it comes to decisions about access to our public lands. This common-sense bill will put local communities back in the driver’s seat in the Forest Service’s travel management planning process.
Teaming up with Facebook to help small businesses grow
Finally, thank you to Facebook for hosting workshops in Medford and Bend to help small businesses learn to use social media to better to reach customers. More than 200 people turned out for each session! It was great to attend these two sessions to meet more Oregon entrepreneurs who are the real engines of job growth in our economy.
Helping Oregon’s small businesses grow and create more jobs is essential if we’re going to lower our unemployment rate and boost the wages of workers.
That’s all for this time. Have a great week.