Merkley talks health care, polarization, dams at town hall

At U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s town hall at Clatsop Community
College on Saturday afternoon, topics ranged from the polarization between
political parties to health care to the potential removal of Snake River dams.

Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, holds town halls in each of
Oregon’s 36 counties every year. Dozens of people, including a number of
elected officials in the county, attended the event at Patriot Hall in Astoria.

“There’s a lot that’s been going on the last few years.
It’s been a pretty tough time for America. It’s complicated – maybe more
complicated (with) challenges we have in our schools, in our health care
system, our housing shortage. So we have a lot of work to do,” Merkley
said. ” … This is a chance to hear from all of you directly.”

Finn Corcoran, a Knappa student, asked about the divisions
between political parties and if Merkley is hopeful for compromise.

“I do feel we have to do a whole lot of reaching out
because the chasm got so much larger during my lifetime and the division is so
much clearer,” Merkley said, adding that social media has accentuated the
problem of polarization.

Merkley believes his efforts to reform the filibuster can
encourage compromise.

The requirement of 60 of 100 votes to close debate on most
topics in the Senate “means either side can paralyze the other side’s
policy bills and they do,” he said. The senator has pushed for a
“talking filibuster,” which would require senators looking to
obstruct legislation to continually speak on the floor in order to block a bill.

“It incentivizes compromise because it takes
effort,” Merkley said. “Right now, the system incentivizes paralysis
with each side stopping the other. That is the place I am really focused

Another question came from a doctor who favored a
single-payer, universal health care system.

Merkley noted he was a sponsor of Medicare for All
legislation and helped lead the Choose Medicare Act, which would create a new
Medicare plan available to people of all ages that would expand on the
structure of the Affordable Care Act.

“The complexity of our health care system is just
astounding,” he said. “It isn’t one system, it’s about five systems
and you just keep worrying about how do you handle the next piece of it.”

Merkley also expressed dissatisfaction with the high cost of
prescription drugs.

“For the nation that puts the most into the research
and development out of our tax dollars, we should get the very best price in
the developed world, not the very worst price,” he said.

Judith Huck, an Astoria resident, brought up the debate over
the potential removal of Snake River dams.

“Taking down some of the Snake River dams would benefit
our community by helping revive the endangered salmon runs,” Huck said. ”
… There is momentum now to get this done. Will you sponsor removal of the dams
to help our salmon and our community?”

Merkley called the issue complicated and pointed to a number
of substantial challenges to remove dams.

“I am very open to continuing to take feedback and
study this issue, but it is a mega challenge,” he said.

Questions about taxes, fentanyl, the Hispanic community and
the lack of volunteers were also brought up at the town hall.

While he did not get asked about it, Merkley, in his closing
statements, mentioned the issue of affordable housing. The senator, who called
the topic a “massive issue” and “near and dear” to his
heart, previously ran Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that seeks to help
lower-income families achieve home ownership.

“I believe in that Habitat (for Humanity) phrase, which
is, ‘A decent home and a decent community for every family,’” he said.
“Shouldn’t we be able to accomplish that in America?”

Merkley also pointed to the county’s high rate of
homelessness, which ranks among the top per capita across counties in Oregon.

“This is not just a metro, big city problem,” he
said. “It’s a problem throughout our state and it requires much larger
investments than what we have made in affordability of homes.

“So a decent home, a decent community, a decent state,
a decent nation, a decent planet. Let’s solve a lot of problems working