Merkley adjusts to governing during a pandemic

MORROW COUNTY — Town halls look a little different for most politicians these days.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, has switched to holding virtual meetings with constituents, allowing them to tune in to live video chats he holds alone in his office, with staff that would normally travel with him tuning in from their own home or office.

“I’m trying to get better with all this technology, but I must say I so much prefer meeting with people in person and traveling the state,” he told the East Oregonian during a recent video interview.

He said the additional hours in front of a screen instead of in-person interactions can be difficult, and he’s trying to exercise more to make up for it.

When he does have to mingle with other people at the U.S. Capitol while the Senate is in session, he said, he worries about picking up COVID-19 and carrying it home to his 93-year-old mother, who has a heart condition.

“I’m just aware that it would be easy to convey a disease even if I have no symptoms myself,” he said.

Merkley said the attention of Congress is rightly consumed by three main topics right now: the health effects of COVID-19, the economic effects of the pandemic and a “long-needed” discussion on systemic racism.

Tackling those issues over the past few months has pushed out some other topics that Merkley had been hoping lawmakers would make progress on this year, however, including infrastructure and price gouging by drug companies.

“These were things we had heard the administration say they were open to working on, and this could have been the year they were addressed,” he said.

On June 16, Merkley held a socially distanced town hall for Morrow County, which got underway after a few technical difficulties. He started by yielding the floor — or screen — to Maureen McGrath, executive director of Umatilla Morrow County Head Start. Standing outside the Neal Early Learning Center in Boardman, she showed off a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol that will now be flown at the learning center.

During the town hall and his interview with the East Oregonian prior to it, Merkley spoke of the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES Act, which would be the fourth major package of federal COVID-19 relief bills. The act was passed by the House, but hasn’t been taken up by the Senate yet.

“The Senate leader says it’s not urgent, and I disagree profoundly,” Merkley said.

The act includes help for state and local governments that are facing significant deficits from the pandemic’s effect on tax revenues. Other provisions include enhancing SNAP benefits and rental assistance, a national testing and contact tracing strategy and support for the U.S. Postal Service.

Merkley has also joined Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., in proposing the Rebuilding Main Street Act. The bill would make adjustments to unemployment insurance, allowing employers to avoid layoffs by reducing employees’ hours, with the federal government making up the rest of the wages they would have received if they had been working full time.

In response to a question at the town hall about people not wanting to return to work because the CARES Act is currently providing extra money for unemployment, Merkley said the provisions of the Rebuilding Main Street Act would help address that.

“A group of us, three of us, have put forward a plan for people to be reemployed that is called the Main Street Act, that would enable everyone to go back to work and earn more than on unemployment, even if they are at the very low-wage jobs, so they don’t have that disincentive that you were speaking to,” he said. “The goal (of the CARES Act) was to get people through and have them be able to make their rent or their mortgage payment or their utilities, and not have a cascading upward collapse of the entire economy.”

Merkley also fielded a question from Boardman Police Chief Rick Stokoe, who asked what Merkley would say to a police officer right now who was wondering if law enforcement was a career anyone should go into.

Merkley said society has a “tremendous respect” for people who are working in the challenging field of law enforcement.

“I don’t think any member of a police department should take it as a criticism that we are having a conversation about how to make sure that public safety operates to the benefit of every person in the community regardless of the color of their skin,” he said. “I have heard from so many public safety officials who say that is exactly their goal and they are disturbed at situations where someone is operating in either a criminal way or a predatory way that does a disservice to the entire department.”

He said that conversation should include ideas, such as banning chokeholds, requiring body cameras, providing additional training and creating a national database for officers that have been fired for bad practices to prevent them from being rehired somewhere else.