Connect to Congress: Q&A with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)


Q: On federal investments in coastal fish habitat restoration?

Merkley: We were able to announce about $5 million coming to the coast for habitat restoration. It will be going through the McKenzie River Trust and Wild Salmon Center, and we all want to see our salmon runs improve and they’re at high risk so this is a type of investments that are really critical.

Q: On letter to Climate Envoy John Kerry regarding climate discussions at COP28?

Merkley: The world has to quit building more fossil fuel infrastructure. We can pretend that we can simply invest in electric cars in transit and some solar panels for electric energy and somehow the challenge will go away, but as long as we are building more and more fossil fuels and building them, we’re paving the road to climate oblivion. So we see this in Oregon. We see it in our snow pack. We see it in the acidification of the Pacific Ocean. We see it in the loss of groundwater and certainly in the forest fires. So we’re in a serious challenge and it takes serious immediate changes and that means we have to quit developing new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Q: How do you respond to critics of American policy who say China and other countries emit more pollution?

Merkley: In fact, China has been deploying more renewable energy than America, and their carbon footprint per person is smaller than ours. We are the largest, over time, producer of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, and we are the largest producer of oil. We are the largest producer of fossil gas and we are continuing to build more infrastructure. So right now we really are not part of the solution. We are part of the problem, and it’s why I’m encouraging our team at the climate talks to basically sign up for the fact that every country has to quit building new fossil fuel infrastructure. They have to quit doing new drills and doing new pipelines and new LNG export facilities, and this is exactly the conclusion of the international scientists who have studied this, is you’re only going to pivot if you quit building the infrastructure to produce more and more fossils.

Q: On reports about Republican senators losing their tempers at a classified intelligence meeting about funding for Ukraine, Israel and the U.S. border?

Merkley: Actually the fireworks were about border policy, and you had the Biden Administration saying we want to invest $14 billion and we want to have more security at the border, including technology and more Customs and Border Protection agents, more judges for asylum hearings so that we don’t have a backlog for asylum hearings, more case workers so that they’re in contact with folks so they show up for their hearings, and then you have the Republican side saying, well, thank you very much that’s all great, but we just want to seal off the entire border, not take anyone for asylum, not allow anyone to come under various visas, and really quite frankly, if you look around the country, we have a huge shortage of workers. We need additional workers. We need work visas. We need students who will come here and contribute their brains to the development of our country. Sealing off our country and having absolutely no role in providing asylum to persecuted individuals, that’s not the right answer, but the right answer is deep investments so that we have control of every single foot of our border and a fully competent, timely asylum hearing process to address this current situation.

Q: Were the Republican’s disrespectful to our military leaders?

Merkley: It’s really more friction between the Democrats and Republicans, quite frankly, and yes, there was disrespectful comments towards the Secretary of Defense and to the head of the Joint Chiefs, but essentially I think that was Republicans venting about Democrats, and of course they are working for a Democratic administration, but we really need cooperation here. We had a bipartisan bill on immigration, comprehensive bill, pass the Senate in 2013. Well, here we are 10 years later. The House has never done a comprehensive bill. In 2013, they turned down even debating the comprehensive bipartisan bill the Senate had. So we know a lot of the answers that need to be included, but I’ll tell you this venue which is the emergency supplemental for humanitarian aid for Israel and for Ukraine isn’t the place we’re going to figure out all the nuance and very complicated immigration policy, but I think we should all be able to agree to invest the $14 billion proposed by the Biden Administration.

Q: Why are we tying funding for the U.S. Border to funding for Ukraine?

Merkley: Certainly Team Biden said, hey, we’re trying to be very bipartisan. The Republicans have said that we need to address, just not the international security issues but our own security issues here at home. The Biden Administration agrees so it said okay, we’ll do it all. We’re doing some $14 billion for Israel. There’s a much larger fund to support the Ukrainians, there’s $10 billion for international humanitarian aid and there’s $14 billion for the border so what began as an attempt by Team Biden to say, yes, we agree with you. We need to do a lot better on our border, has become unacceptable to far-right Republicans who say they want to melt down the whole thing and have their way or the highway, and the highway in this case means we don’t do the investments in the border we need. So they’re killing the border compromise, and that would be a huge mistake.

Q: As we move into a major election year, how do you approach working with congress people who are up for election or focused on politics?

Merkley: I’m not up for election. I just want to keep putting one foot in front of the other keep working on common-sense solutions to the challenges we’re facing, and when I did my 36 town halls, I heard about fentanyl, I heard about childcare, I heard about mental health, I heard about the price of housing and the cost of drugs, and these are all solvable issues if we put our minds to it. I say none of them are easy. I’m not saying there are simple issues, but there are definitely programs and strategies that can improve that virtually everyone would agree with so let’s not try to kind of prevent there being solutions as a weapon in order to say, oh you know, we prevented anything from being done and therefore you should elect us because we stopped the majority from acting. No, it’s not the majority acting. All of us together need to act and work consciously or in a thoughtful common-sense matter to tackle these issues.

Q: Are you moving forward on your legislation, the End Hedge Fund Control of American Homes Act of 2023?

Merkley: This is the second Congress I’ve introduced this bill. We’ve put a lot more work into it in trying to iron out some of the pieces. The hedge funds would have to invest all of their single-family housing, their residential housing, over ten years and would have to sell it to families. It would be first-time homeowners. We know that the hedge funds are buying housing across the country. They’re buying some 40%, I’m rounding off, but about 40% of the houses in the Phoenix area, in the Atlanta, Ga. metropolitan area. There was just a New York Times investigation that found that virtually every house in a suburb in South Carolina is being sold to investors, and here in Oregon I keep hearing across the state people saying, ‘Yeah, I was searching for a house but I got beaten by all the cash mystery investors.’ Who are those? Those are the investors. That’s who they are, and they want to capture all the wealth that once went to middle-class Americans through home ownership, and it’s driving up rents. It’s driving up home prices. It’s not the total solution. We have to do things like building up a lot more homes, but let’s get the hedge funds out. These houses need to be homes for families, not profit centers for Wall Street.

Q: Perception of economy versus reality?

Merkley: Unemployment is low so that’s good. Jobs are available, but we are still in price shock in the amount of how costs have gone up for everything, whether you’re shopping for groceries, or a car, or a house so that continues to exist, and a lot of our younger folks are looking at massive college debt, and then they’re looking at they’ll never be able to own a house so it feels like why did my parents get through college without debt and how come they were able to buy a house within their middle-class income, but I can’t? It looks like there’s something fundamentally wrong with this, and they’re right. There is something fundamentally wrong with this. The billionaires in America are scooping up more and more of our economy, making it harder and harder for ordinary families to have a decent home and a decent community, and this is the battle we’re involved in. I’m very concerned that those at the top, with their lawyers and lobbyists and media campaigns and dark-money campaign spending, are running this country and it hurts ordinary Americans.

Q: Should Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) resign?

Merkley: I think it’s very appropriate for the ethics committee to do a thorough investigation. We saw that’s what happened on the House side where they did a thorough investigation. They issued a report. Right now, yes, Sen. Menendez is under indictment, but he was under indictment before and he was cleared by our criminal system, and we do have the philosophy “innocent until proven guilty,” and so I think that the right thing to do is to get the facts in honoring that fairness that we seek to cultivate in our country.