U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley included Prineville on a 12-stop town hall tour in Oregon Saturday afternoon, drawing a crowd of about 150 local residents who came to talk about numerous issues.
Held in the Barnes Butte Elementary gymnasium, the event provided an opportunity for Merkley to field questions from multiple people while sharing his thoughts on several national issues from health care and election security to partisan division in Congress and concerns about potential war with Iran.
Kicking off the hour-long question-and-answer session was an inquiry about how Merkley intended to deal with providing people affordable health care. He said in response that one of the main issues that needs to be addressed is the high costs of prescription medications.
“Here in America, we are paying far more for drugs than people in any other developed country,” he said.
He went on to tell the audience that there are three primary strategies that national leaders are considering to fix the problem. One of them is to enable Medicare to negotiate the price of drugs. Another is to have certified outlets in Canada where Americans can order from Canadian pharmacies and get Canadian prices.
Merkley said he was not completely opposed to those two ideas, but he does see flaws.
“I like Medicare negotiating, but that only helps people who are on Medicare. Everyone should get a fair price,” he said. “If Canada is the answer, fine, but why should we have to go to Canada?”
He proposed a third idea, one that is featured in a bill he is sponsoring, where those who sell prescription medications in the U.S. would be required to sell them for no more than the average price that they are sold in Japan, Australia and major European countries.
Merkley lamented the fact that the bill has not gained much traction and he said that one of the reasons for this is because of all of all the money in politics – which launched into another topic: election security.
He expressed concerns about dark money contributions to political campaigns that influence the decision-making in Congress as well as third-party donations that circumvent campaign finance laws and allow massive donations by special interests. Added to these concerns are gerrymandering, which he said is a problem in multiple states, and voter suppression.
Regarding gerrymandering, he said that the problem “takes away the principle of equal representation” in Congress. Voter suppression, meanwhile, is a problem that Merkley attributed to the Supreme Court’s ification of the Voting Rights Act.
“Ever since the Supreme Court ified the Voting Rights Act, we have had lots of strategies develop to keep people from voting,” he said.
Merkley said the remedy for these election concerns is the For the People Act, a piece of legislation that he said takes on gerrymandering and includes a whole host of good voting conduct provisions that would entitle people to vote.
“It requires paper ballots so that we don’t have electronic machines that can be hacked,” he said.
Another concern raised by a couple of different audience members was the political division in both Congress and among American citizens. Merkley agreed there is a problem and said that part of the reason that Congress is so partisan and divided is because of a culture that causes people to interact primarily with colleagues in their political parties.
“It really matters who you are sitting next to in Congress,” he said. “We are a highly separated group in (Washington,) D.C. We come in Monday night and leave Thursday. All three lunches are partisan lunches on the Republican side and two out of three are partisan on the Democrat side. You have very little time to socialize.”
Merkley recalled his time as Speaker of the House in the Oregon Legislature and how he tried to encourage bipartisan work. He said he created teamwork bills, where legislation that was sponsored by two Democrats and two Republicans was guaranteed a hearing. He assigned seating in the House in such a way that Republican and Democratic lawmakers sat next to each other, increasing the likelihood that they would socialize and perhaps find common concerns and common ground on issues.
Though he suggested such ideas to Senate leadership in Congress, they were not embraced, so Merkley has instead tried to reach across the aisle to help get different bills moved forward. He noted that he has worked successfully with such Republicans as Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell to address concerning issues. With McConnell, he worked on a vaping bill.
“We were both very concerned about candy flavors and fruit flavors being utilized to addict our kids to nicotine,” he said.
Merkley attributed much of the political division among citizens to the growing popularity of social media and cable news channels, both of which he said provide an avenue for demonizing political parties and dividing people.
As he concluded his town hall, he made a point of praising the format and expressed hope that more legislators would hold them and bring people with differing views together, rather than drive them apart.
“One of the reasons I really love town halls is because of the chance for Oregonians with conflicting perspectives to come together and share those and be heard by others,” he said. “We need to do a lot more of that in America.”