Constitution resonates as issue at Merkley town hall

The most resonant and emotional topic at U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s town hall meeting in Brownsville Saturday afternoon was the Constitution.

At his 12th such meeting in five days, Oregon’s Democratic junior senator took questions from a crowd of more than 30 citizens at the town’s City Hall. He was peppered with questions (and some commentary from citizens) about health care, immigration, and the military, all of which were placed under the umbrella of the Constitution and its perceived erosion in recent years.

For example, applause and cheers erupted when Hayward Bellah, a retired U.S. Army command sergeant major, stood up and declared he is concerned about the Constitution.

“A lot of you here can relate,” he said, “when I tell you I took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic!”

The word domestic was emphasized.

“Amen!” shouted one guest.

“Second Amendment!” shouted another.

Bellah described a list of concerns, ranging from border security to economic challenges, while Merkley listened.

“We have to do a better job of being less poisonously partisan,” replied Merkley. “And what are the first three words of the Constitution?”

The crowd answered in unison.

“At the heart of The Constitution is ‘We, the people,’” said Merkley. “So it is designed to give power to the many, and not to a powerful few.”

Merkley gained applause of his own when he voiced his opposition to Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court decision which held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation; the ruling cleared the way for so-called “super political action committees” that can spend unlimited amounts of cash on political causes. Merkley said the ruling was a step back for democracy. 

On the constitutionality of presidential power to send troops into combat, Merkley allowed that President Obama has been checked recently by the Supreme Court for overstepping some bounds, but he tempered his statement with a bipartisan qualifier.

“Every president gets knocked down by the legislative branch at least one time while in office,” he said. “So we have to depend on our courts to help be the referee.”

Asked after the meeting for his interpretation of what the Constitution means, Merkley described it as a sort of double document.

“It captures our fundamental principles and our fundamental freedoms,” he said. “And it is a strategy to give opportunity to every citizen.”

Asked after the meeting about his interpretation of the Constitution, Bellah gave a similar answer, but with emphasis on different issues. The Constitution, he said, is “a mechanism to run our lives.”

And he continued to describe an America that he feels has lost its way.

“We used to be the marketplace to the world,” he said. “Now, we’re the biggest customer in the world. And what country can last if it doesn’t have borders?”

Merkley said the tone of the Brownsville meeting — and other recent town hall meetings — was as a reaction to economic uncertainties, and a search for solutions or culprits.

“Our economy is really pressuring the middle class,” he said. “Whether that’s from an overreaching government or an inequity in wealth, what you hear at these town halls is a frustration, and they’re searching for solutions.”

But he declined to speculate on how he thought the tone might translate into this year’s elections.

“Well, you know, I left my crystal ball back in Washington, so I really don’t know,” he said.