Jeff Merkley: Oregon’s man of the hour

Oregon’s progressive U.S. senator is separating himself from the pack in the fight against global warming, housing crisis, political corruption

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley has made a big splash in his eight years in the Senate. One of the Senate’s most progressive lawmakers, he made headlines when he became the only U.S. senator to endorse Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

A common thread undergirds many of Merkley’s policy positions and statements, whether he is speaking about filibuster reform, the impact of the Citizens United ruling on politics, global warming or income equality: that our society and political system need to change, and quickly, for the American republic to best serve its citizens.

Among environmentalists, he has become somewhat of a local champion for his strong protest of the lax oversight of oil train travel through the Columbia Gorge, spurred on by the derailment of an oil train near Mosier in May.

Amanda Waldroupe: It seems that oil spills and oil train derailments have become commonplace. But if an airplane crashed or another piece of infrastructure failed, it would be deemed unacceptable. Why do you think oil spills seem to get a pass on this? 

Jeff Merkley: Well, I think your analogy is a good one, and it’s one I’ve been using myself. If a commercial jetliner has a problem, all the similar planes are grounded until the problem is fully understood. It’s an extraordinarily rare event with oil trains; we’ve been seeing month after month derailment after derailment. There is no thorough investigation that fully gets to the root of the problem – an application of the remedy before the trains run out again. That’s not what’s happening. One more derailment, another derailment. That’s what we need to change. That’s the impetus behind the bill that I just introduced. 

A.W.: Why do you think oil train derailments persist?   

J.M.: I imagine that because they’re freight trains and they don’t have passengers aboard, they have not been viewed in the same framework. The trains do represent a risk to citizens. With the Mosier derailment, we were very fortunate, because no wind was blowing. If the wind had been blowing toward the schools just across the way, who knows what damage that might have done. I think one of the reasons that we’re way behind on oil train safety is that not that much oil was carried by trains until the last 10 years. What we have seen with the huge increase of oil being produced is that there aren’t pipelines to carry it, so it’s being carried by trains. In one five-year period, there was a 40-fold increase in trains. It’s a relatively new thing to have these unit trains of oil crisscrossing the country.

A.W.: The Mandate Oil Spill Inspections and Emergency Rules (MOSIER) Act, which you and Sen. Ron Wyden recently introduced, would require the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate every major oil train derailment, clarify the Federal Rail Administration’s authority to place moratoriums on train traffic after accidents, and require the Department of Transportation to reduce the amount of volatile gases in the crude oil transported by the trains. Why these three requirements? Is it enough? 

J.M.: As we’ve really studied Mosier, we found several things that surprised me. First, the NTSB chose not to investigate. Then when I was told that the Federal Rail Administration was going to investigate, I found out (the Union Pacific Railroad) controls the investigation. They collect the evidence; they send it to a lab they choose. That makes no sense at all. You need to have third-party control over the investigation to have any legitimacy with the public. If you don’t have that, you don’t have any assurance the real cause is understood or that any remedies are undertaken that are appropriate to the problem. 

A.W.: You grew up in Roseburg, at the height of its timber economy, and know the impact that a resource-extraction-based economy can have on a local economy, in providing reliable, well-paying jobs. What needs to be done to turn the renewable-energy sector into that sort of powerhouse-type industry so that these lingering loyalties to fossil fuels, oil, timber and other natural resources decline? 

J.M.: We are seeing a huge growth in the jobs in the wind sector and the solar power sectors. There are more renewable-energy jobs in Wyoming today than there are coal jobs. Coal uses massive machinery and employs very few people. When you’re installing rooftop solar or building wind fields, there is a lot more labor involved. We’re seeing a lot of growth in those jobs. We’d see even more if the fossil fuel industry didn’t put obstacles in the way. We should no longer be subsidizing the fossil fuel world. We should get rid of massive subsidies that they benefit from currently. Because they do so much less damage to the environment, the things we should be subsidizing are the solar and the wind (sectors). There’s so much at stake here. The scientists estimate that we really hit catastrophic consequences when temperatures warm by more than two degrees Celsius. We are halfway there now. We just got word that globally, June was the hottest month on record ever. It is the 14th month in a row that is the hottest month on record. We have to treat this as a threat to the life on our planet. 

A.W.: (Addressing climate change, Merkley plans to introduce legislation that would require 100 percent of U.S. energy to come from renewable sources by 2050.) You described that in a “Think Out Loud” interview as “a very fast pivot” and a “very high bar to reach.” What will get us there? 

J.M.: It’s going to take working on every level: for families to think about this, for cities and counties to pursue reductions in carbon dioxide – Oregon has been the first state to ban coal electrons – and for the federal government to work with and lead the rest of the nations together. We’ve seen some real changes. Paris was a very productive meeting. India, a major contributor to (carbon dioxide emissions) and global warming gases, now has a prime minister taking global warming much more seriously. We’ve got to work in partnership with nations across the planet. No nation can do this alone. And we’ve got to think of every way to attack it – insulate homes more, design our cars so they drive farther, promote electric cars.

A.W.: All the things you’re mentioning are things we already know. Don’t you think there needs to be more political will to attack it? What will that take? 

The vision of the republic is “we the republic,” in contrast to government by and for the powerful. But with Citizens United, “we the republic” becomes “we the privileged and powerful.”J.M.: This really highlights the problem that we have with our republic having been corrupted through the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. The fossil fuel industry and the Koch brothers are putting hundreds of millions of dollars into the political system to essentially buy the Legislature. It stands the vision of our republic on its head. The vision of the republic is “we the republic,” in contrast to government by and for the powerful. But with Citizens United, “we the republic” becomes “we the privileged and powerful.” A.W.: Portland, much of Oregon and the West Coast is experiencing a crisis-level shortage of affordable housing and a historically low vacancy rate that is affecting the lowest incomes, even the middle class. What are lawmakers in Washington, D.C., doing to alleviate the problem? 

J.M.: The Portland-metro area and Eugene are the most stressed housing portfolios in the country. The vacancy rate is estimated to be less than 1 percent. That means there’s nothing available to rent. Section 8 certificates … are out of date. One of the things we have to do in areas where the rents are changing quickly is have the basis for Section 8 be able to be monitored and adjusted more quickly, so the certificates can actually be used. Right now, if you’re so fortunate to get to the top of the list and get a Section 8 certificate, you can’t find an apartment. A very high percentage of the folks who actually get one can’t find a property they can rent. It’s a major tool that is ineffective right now. We have to restore the effectiveness of it. 

A.W.: So you’re suggesting simply pumping more funding into the Section 8 program to allow for it to pay for higher rents? 

J.M.: To adjust the market rate rent in which the certificates are useable, so that there are apartments that are available to people. That is one piece of the puzzle. And we have to construct a lot more affordable housing. There was an estimate that I saw that showed that of the last 20,000 units we have built in the Portland metro area, less than 5 percent are affordable for less than 80 percent of median family income. In other words, everything that is being built is for higher-income individuals. We have to find a way to incentivize the construction of units that are affordable to people who live below median income, which, of course, is half the population. 

A.W.: What do you think those incentives are? 

J.M.: One of them is to strengthen the tax credit program, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program. What I really like about this program is that the bulk of the units are produced by nonprofits that have a lot of pride in what the units look like; they take good care of them over time. It becomes a decent place to live at an affordable price. Strengthening that program, improving the Section 8 program, recognizing that we need to do the same in rural areas. Those are all things we should be undertaking. 

A.W.: There has been a lot of talk this election cycle about incremental change versus revolution and how much change should be happening in the country right now. Those two things come in waves in our country – there was the antebellum period before the Civil War, then the Civil War, which drastically changed our country. Then there was the 1950s, followed by the massive social changes of the Civil Rights era. Do you think we’re on the cusp of another major shift in culture?

J.M.: So, here’s the challenge. In the first three decades after World War II, we had an economy in which citizens really participated in the wealth that they were creating, … (lifting) up the middle class. But for the last four decades, from 1975 until now, virtually 100 percent of the new income has gone to the wealthiest 10 percent. That leaves nine of 10 Americans in the cold. This is part of the reason we have a housing crisis; we don’t have the jobs and incomes to support the ability of the middle class to buy or rent homes. 

It has bred enormous frustration. And frustration is what drives major changes. I think it’s why we see Bernie’s message about college resonating. So many jobs now require college education. We need to treat it as high school – a public good, an investment in the next generation of students, not a privilege for the few and the wealthy. It’s why his message about building infrastructure – that we should put people to work building infrastructure – it’s why his message about fixing the corruption of our political system resonates. People can see something fundamentally wrong when you have decisions that serve the very best off. The very best off don’t need more help, to put it simply. As my father used to say, there are two golden rules. One of them, of course, is do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The second is that those who have the gold, rule. Right now, we’re controlled by the second golden rule. It’s not in sync with the vision of our country. We need to change that. This frustration has the possibility to provide some majors changes in how we approach politics and the country.