Merkley discusses trade and education at Hermiston town hall

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley visited Hermiston and Irrigon Saturday.

An approving round of applause met Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., in Hermiston on Saturday after he made it clear to the audience at a town hall forum that he wasn’t happy with the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
“I have deep, deep reservations,” he said.

Merkley said he had a problem with the secrecy surrounding the trade agreement and was opposed to the idea that Congress should fast-track the agreement on a simple up-or-down vote with no amendments.

He said he has pushed the Obama administration to make sure controls on currency manipulation were added to the agreement in order to prevent other countries from using the strategy to get around the reduction of tariffs. But on that and similar requests, he said lawmakers are being told that adding such amendments would cause other countries to not sign the agreement.

Merkley said the country lost 5 million manufacturing jobs under NAFTA and he didn’t want to see something similar happen with the TPP.

Education was another hot topic at Merkley’s Hermiston town hall, where he was asked by several students to address issues related to excessive standardized testing and college affordability.

Merkley said he supported a broad education bill to replace No Child Left Behind with something that focused less on high-stakes testing.

“The shaming strategy has not worked to make schools great in any nation in the world,” he said.

Merkley said math and reading are important but there comes a point when preparation for state tests crowds out hands-on learning in other subjects and reduces career technical education.

“No Child Left Behind has left shop classes behind,” he said.

Merkley honored two different local student programs — Umatilla’s 40 robotics teams and the Columbia Basin Student Homebuilding program — for building a strong career-technical education foundation for students in the area.

As for college affordability, Merkley said President Barack Obama’s idea of free community college across the nation had little chance of gaining the votes to become a reality at the federal level, but he had seen some promising ideas floated in the Oregon legislature that would greatly reduce the cost of community college.

Merkley told the audience at Hermiston High School that he was pleased so many people had come out to ask questions because the things he hears at town halls and through letters from constituents do affect his actions as senator.

He answered a question about protecting rural mail service by noting that he was in Eastern Oregon when the U.S. Postal Service announced its plan to close 41 post offices in Oregon. He said he talked to people who said they would move out of rural Oregon if their local post office closed because they wouldn’t be able to conduct their business or wouldn’t be able to get their medications through the mail.

Merkley said he took those concerns and crafted an amendment to a bill that set standards for where the USPS could close post offices based on citizens’ abilities to get medications by mail, among other issues. As a result the only one of the 41 post offices slated for closure in Oregon that is no longer operational today is one that burned down.

In answer to a question about veteran’s benefits he noted that a suggestion from a veteran at a town hall helped him draft another piece of legislation after the veteran said it didn’t make sense that the spouses of soldiers killed in the line of duty weren’t afforded the same education benefits as their children, even though it was the spouses that would have to support the family following the death of their loved one.

He encouraged constituents to continue to bring forward new ideas and give feedback.

“Keep telling me when you think I’m on track and when you think I’m off track,” he said.