By Rocky Barker
March 29, 2021
Whether Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho continue their bipartisan successes will determine if President Biden has any chance of getting the two parties to work together.
Many of the most controversial agenda items will have to go through the powerful Finance Committee, which Wyden chairs and where Crapo serves as ranking minority member. Issues like taxation and health care will test the skills of the two senators who have made collaboration a critical value.
Perhaps the first big test will be how they address Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson’s ambitious $33 billion concept for upgrading the electrical grid, replacing the current barge shipping on the Snake River and making the communities of Lewiston and the Tri-Cities in Washington whole while removing the four Lower Snake River dams to keep Idaho’s salmon from going extinct. Simpson seeks to place the proposal on Biden’s “Build Back Better” infrastructure bill, and he will need Wyden and other Pacific Northwest Democrats to carry it forward.
So far Wyden and Crapo have the same approach to Simpson’s concept: Make sure all the stakeholders are at the table and find the collaborative solution that meets everyone’s needs.
“Both of us are very realistic about the challenges of this,” Wyden said in a telephone interview earlier this month.
“Ron and I have already discussed this at a very high level,” Crapo said in a telephone interview. “I think he understands the need for collaboration and involvement of stakeholders.”
Their best-known partnership came when they forged a wildfire funding bill in 2018 after more than a decade of debate. The law allowed more flexible funding for the federal firefighting agencies so they could keep doing thinning and other work to reduce the threat of fires while still spending what was necessary to fight fires.
Simpson was one of the main sponsors of the wildfire bill in the House.
The two Westerners’ other major thrust is continuing funding for rural counties and schools, which had lost timber revenues when harvests on federal lands plummeted after court rulings on endangered species and water quality. They led the effort to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act through this year to provide critical funding for roads, schools and conservation.
Wyden replaced this program in the new $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, which only garnered Democratic votes earlier this month. The new $1 billion-per-year payments program will give rural counties and Indian tribes funding like Secure Rural Schools did.
Crapo supported the program but did not vote for the entire bill. Wyden said he and Crapo will seek a permanent solution before the funding runs out. The problem always has been to figure out where to get the money to pay for the popular program in rural communities.
The same issue will make it hard for the two collaborators to find common ground in Biden’s Build Back Better bill. Even if the two can agree on how to spend the more than $2 trillion expected in the infrastructure and energy bill, it’s doubtful they can find common ground on the taxes to pay for it.
They face a similar political landscape around Simpson’s concept. Very few of the stakeholders in the salmon and dam issue are stepping forward in support of Simpson’s comprehensive proposal beyond a coalition of environmental groups, sporting groups and the region’s Indian tribes.
Others, like the region’s utilities, are analyzing the potential to replace the power and capacity from the dams while lengthening the licensing of private dams like Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon Complex. But Palouse wheat farmers, barge shippers and Southern Idaho farm interests are simply saying no despite billions for water quality funding.
In fact, Idaho leaders like House Speaker Scott Bedke and most of the Republican Legislature are joining a coalition of environmental groups in opposing the effort.
“This is a bad idea any way that you look at it,” Bedke told Newsradio 1310 KLIX.
The environmental groups want their Democratic senators to stop Simpson because he has proposed a 35-year moratorium on litigation.
“This proposal would ensure a future for the basin that includes more polluted, hotter water in the basin’s rivers, the extinction of wild salmon runs, more toxic fish for people to eat, and no accountability for dams and agricultural special interests,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy. “What a terrible legacy this could leave for the next generation in the Columbia Basin.”
Wyden and Crapo hope they can get all these intransigent groups to come to the table and work out an agreement that will work for the entire region. They point to their own legislation to protect the Owyhee Canyondlands in Idaho and Oregon.
“You have to make sure everybody is at the table,” Wyden said. “In this political climate, if you don’t have a bipartisan framing, everybody goes into their separate corners.”
But if he and the rest of the Oregon and Washington delegation don’t engage with Simpson and together recognize that the Snake River salmon and steelhead will go extinct if the four dams are not removed, no one will come to the table and the courts will finally decide the issue.