Sunday, May 28, 2023

By:  Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told a Baker City audience this weekend that he encourages President Joe Biden to invoke a clause in the 14th Amendment to end a congressional impasse over the nation’s debt ceiling that could lead to the U.S. defaulting on its bills as soon as June 5.

“It’s time to end this,” Merkley told about 30 people during a town hall at the Senior Center on Saturday afternoon, May 27.

Oregon’s junior senator called the debt ceiling, which Congress in decades past increased routinely with little or no debate to ensure the nation could pay its expenses, a “puzzling anachronism.”

Merkley accused Republicans in the House of Representatives, who have been negotiating with the Biden administration on a deal to raise the debt ceiling, of threatening to “run the economy off a cliff.”

Republicans are insisting on cuts in federal spending and proposing other changes, including requiring people to work if they receive certain government aid, such as cash assistance, food stamps and health insurance.

Merkley said such a requirement for people enrolled in Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for people with limited incomes, would be counterproductive since some of those people need Medicaid to become healthy enough to work.

Saturday’s event was Merkley’s first in-person town hall in Baker County since February 2020, just before the pandemic began.

Since then Merkley has had virtual town halls each year.

He and Oregon’s senior senator and fellow Democrat, Ron Wyden, have yearly town halls in each of Oregon’s 36 counties.

Merkley opened the town hall by recognizing the work of the local group promoting Baker City and Baker County as a dementia friendly community. Merkley presented Beth Mastel-Smith, a member of the group, with an American flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Mastel-Smith announced later that Baker County is the third Oregon community accepted by the national organization Dementia Friendly America.

Merkley touched on several other topics during the hour-long town hall, many of them prompted by questions from the audience.

Ukraine-Russia war

Merkley said he continues to support American aid to Ukraine.

“I feel strongly that we have to stand with a democratic republic,” he said. “The Ukrainian people are fighting fiercely for their freedom.”

Merkley said he believes the outcome of the war, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, will influence China’s actions with regard to Taiwan.

Political divisions

Sheila Buxton of Baker City told Merkley she is upset that so many politicians seem unwilling to “work together,” and that “extremists” get so much attention.

Merkley said the “sense of frustration with the division in America is deeply felt.”

He blamed cable television and social media for fueling the discord and “almost encouraging hatred of others.”

Border security and fentanyl

Steve Culley, a former longtime Baker City resident who now lives in La Grande, asked Merkley what he intends to do about the “root causes” of illegal immigration and the importation of fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid responsible for the majority of unintentional overdose deaths in the U.S.

Merkley said China, which two years ago was the main source of imported fentanyl, has worked with the U.S. to curb that flow.

Most of the fentanyl reaching the U.S. now comes from Mexico, he said.

Because it’s relatively easy to smuggle the drug, even tiny amounts of which can prove fatal, curbing fentanyl is “a very difficult problem,” Merkley said. “There’s no expert that will tell you it’s possible to shut off completely.”

Merkley said that during a visit to Central America in 2019 he learned that two main factors are prompting people to come to America.

The first is fear of drug cartels. Merkley gave as an example the owner of a food cart who has to either pay “protection money” to the cartels or risk having a family member murdered or raped.

“That’s the type of oppression that people are trying to escape,” he said.

The second factor is climate change exacerbating droughts that make it difficult for farmers to raise the staple crops of corn and beans.

Culley asked Merkley about solutions, wondering whether the U.S. would either send military personnel to combat the cartels or continue financial aid to the region.

Merkley emphatically said the military is not an option.

He said American financial aid “can only do a little” to deal with the drought and other factors that compel people to cross the U.S. border.

Culley then asked Merkley, regarding illegal immigration, “how many is enough?” and “are we going to start deporting people?”

Merkley said Congress needs to pass a comprehensive immigration bill, noting that the Senate passed one in 2015 that died in the House.

Merkley said people who claim political asylum are entitled to a court hearing. If they can’t prove they entered the U.S. seeking asylum, they should be deported, he said.


Suzanne Fouty of Baker City asked Merkley whether he supports a proposal to have the federal government, rather than the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, manage beavers on public land.

Fouty said the animals, by building dams and creating ponds and wetlands, can mitigate the effects of climate change, including drought and an increased risk of wildfires.

Beavers can be beneficial to farmers and ranchers in Baker County and elsewhere, Fouty said.

Merkley said he understands the positive effects that beavers can have, and that he supports efforts to increase their populations.

Airline oversight

In response to a question about holding airlines accountable for delays, Merkley recounted a recent experience when he “slept on the floor of the Los Angeles Airport” because there wasn’t a full crew to operate the plane.

Merkley said airlines, which are “making massive amounts of money” through higher rates, are booking more flights than they are capable of staffing.

He said there is no current bill in Congress addressing airline performance, but he supports drafting such legislation.

Reforming campaign finance laws and the filibuster

Merkley recounted his ongoing effort to reform the filibuster, which in effect allows any senator to require at least 60 votes to pass legislation. That can allow the minority party — currently the Republicans — to block legislation with 41 votes.

Merkley supports the “talking filibuster,” which would allow the minority party to block legislation not by a simple vote but by actually speaking continuously on the Senate floor.

His effort to require a talking filibuster for legislation designed to require public disclosure of “dark money” campaign contributions and mandate that states give voters at least a week to vote before elections or allow vote by mail, failed by just two votes in January 2022.

“It was extremely frustrating to me,” said Merkley, who has made filibuster reform a major focus during his 14 years in the Senate.

Merkley contends that “shenanigans” in elections are easier when voters cast their ballots in polling places on a single day, when, for instance, long lines or delays can prevent people from voting.

“As long as people have the chance to vote they can reclaim democracy,” Merkley said. “Right now we’re in trouble.”

Income inequality

In response to a comment from Marshall McComb of Baker City, Merkley lamented what he called a “concentration of wealth” in the U.S. over the past several decades.

He said the wealthiest Americans can use lawyers, lobbyists and medical campaigns to “offset the power of the ballot box,” and try to defeat candidates who try to upset the status quo.

In response to a question about the Greater Idaho movement, which seeks to shift state borders to include Baker County and most of Eastern Oregon in Idaho, Merkley said he believes that the effort “reflects a reality that the world looks very different in rural Oregon versus urban Oregon.”

That’s why it’s important for political leaders to “be everywhere,” Merkley said. He cited his and Wyden’s commitment to meet with constituents in every county every year.

Federal student loans

In response to a question from Peter Hall, a Haines city councilor, Merkley said he believes Congress should reduce interest rates on federal student loans.

“I’m not saying free college, but a person should be able to come out (with a degree) close to debt-free,” Merkley said.

Instead, he said, college is becoming more expensive at the same time that having a degree is vital for people pursuing a variety of careers.