Just before he wrapped up his Marion County Town Hall on Saturday in Woodburn, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley gestured to the words beneath the mural of an American flag in the Valor Middle School commons.
“I’m looking at the flag at the other end: United We Stand,” Merkley related. “How ’bout we have a little less division – maybe a lot less division – and a lot more of a sense that we are coming together as Americans to build a more successful, a more beautiful and a more prosperous nation together.”
That affirmative closing brought a warm applause from the modest gathering of about 50 on hand to hear the senator speak and answer questions about various issues.
At the onset the senator observed that town halls normally fill the room but many public gatherings have been anemic in the wake of coronavirus concerns. His staff did air the town hall on Facebook and urged in advance that anyone feeling under the weather could watch the discussion there.
Among those who were on hand: Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson, who introduced the senator; Woodburn School Superintendent Linda Reeves; Keizer City Councilor Roland Herrera; State Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon.
Coronavirus was a topic of discussion, which Merkley described as a “scary flu season.” He noted that just that morning several more confirmed cases were discovered in Oregon, bringing the total up to 7.
“Since 2010 we’ve had bad flu seasons and light flu seasons. In a light flu season, 14,000 Americans die from the flu…In a heavy flu season, more than 60,000 die. We don’t know how this will be proportionate to that,” Merkley said, explaining that health experts differ in their expectations of the how lethal the virus will be.
At this point the focus is breaking the chain of commuting the virus from one person to another, and it comes down to the hands and maintaining sanitary conditions.
For the People Act
Merkley spoke about the erosion of the credibility of U.S. institutions and its election system, including gerrymandering, voter suppression and dark money for campaigns.
“There is a bill to take this on called the ‘For the People Act,”‘ Merkley said. “Sentor Udall of New Mexico and I are the leads of this in the senate. We have 47 co-sponsors; we’d like to have 100 co-sponsors protecting the integrity of our election system.”
The bill, H.R.1 – For the People Act, has passed the House of Representatives.
Merkley said another issue of paramount importance is carbon pollution.
“It’s very important that we quickly move towrds renewable energy economy,” he said.
Going into the question-and-answer session, Merkley emphasized that town hall gatherings are established to share ideas and concerns rather than as political venting arenas.
“If someone is making a point that you completely, passionately disagree with, please be doubly respectful of that individual; let them have their say,” Merkley urged. “The tradition of town halls is disappearing across America. But here with the Oregon way of listening to each other, we’ve maintained it. In fact, I think it’s thriving in our state.”
Merkley and Sen. Ron Wyden hold a town hall in every Oregon county every year.
“In the friction that we have in our nation, private friction that may be between parties or between urban and rural, other folks across the country have given up on the town halls,” Merkley said. “Let’s double down on the communication, the town halls and listening to each other and respecting each other in the different positions that might be shared.
With that backdrop, the senator fielded questions about aggressive U.S. military involvement in countries around the world and its price tag; student load debt; abortion; checks and balances; domestic violence; prioritizing bills; farm and forest-land protection and super delegates.
Marvin Sannes said the U.S. is currently bombing 8 different countries, and the aggressive overseas activity chews up a major part of the country’s discretionary budget. He brought signs and pamphlets supporting Tulsi Gabbard, and noted in his question that she’s the first anti-war candidate we’ve had for president since Bobby Kennedy.
“I think we’ve made some really big mistakes in our strategy,” Merkley said.
He said invading Afghanistan was one. Destroying the centers where people were being trained to be terrorists is a worthwhile for defense tactic, but trying to occupy the country is not.
“We’ve lost thousands of lives, a trillion dollars, a huge number of injuries that will haunt American soldiers for the rest of their lifetimes, and that occupation hasn’t produced anything that looks like a western democracy, nor was that really possible,” Merkley said.
“Every group that has gone into Afghanistan has left not changing the basic tribal character,” he added.
He said the U.S. invaded Iraq under false pretenses, and that now haunts America; even though Iraq had a malicious dictator, the county posed a stable counterpart to Iran. That decision also cost trillions and cost lives and injuries.
The senator stressed the importance keeping the engagement of war tied to the constitution, requiring approval by congress.
He also said the massive waste in the military budget is an issue, especially in light domestic strains, such as infrastructure, education and investment in housing.
“I do think we need to move billions and billions of dollars from defense enterprise… and move it into health care, and housing and education and infrastructure,” Merkley said.
Student loan debt
One attendee said he, his wife and daughter have a half-million-dollar debt collectively from student loans. He pointed to a 2005 law passed that negated the possibility of declaring bankruptcy for student loan debt.
Merkley asked for a show of hands on how many in the room either had student-loan debt or had someone in their family stuggling with it. Most hands raised.
“It is a big deal,” he said.
He said decades ago someone could pay tuition with their summer jobs. Not so today, even though more and more jobs and trades require higher education. He also acknowledged strides made in other countries to facilitate education.
“It makes no sense at all to have people view higher education as going to produce debt the size of a home mortgage that is going to constrain you for your entire life,” Merkley said.
He said he believes student loan debt should be allowed to refinanced, the same way big banks are allowed, so instead of paying 6 to 8 percent interest, that’s pared down to 1 percent. He also advocates an increase pell grants as part of the nations investment in education.
Checks and balances
Merkley described the immensely top-heavy wealth distribution in the U.S. that has accrued while incomes decline on for most, which creates a weighty and self-serving political mammoth for that minority.
“That wealth at the top becomes very powerful and can overwhelm the machinery of a democratic republic,” Merkley said.
It affords panels of lawyers, lobbyists, campaign finances, financing media, including social media, all of which provides clout, making the rich richer.
“We saw this in 2017 with a tax bill that gave $2 trillion away almost entirely to the richest Americans,” Merkley said. “What would happen if those $2 trillion (were) invested in housing and health care and education and infrastructure here in the United States of America?”
He stressed more vigilance on gerrymandering, voting reformation with Oregon’s vote-by-mail as a model along with campaign finance reform as discussed earlier in H.R.1.
Additionally, he said decades ago when he worked for former Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, it was much easier to put bills on the floor than it is today. The senate needs to be returned to a legislative body that can debate and vote and put the issues out there. But few bills are getting traction.
“Under the recent changes in the abuse of the privilege of the majority leader – not a constitutional position – the leader of the majority party of the senate takes the privilege to be the first called on for an amendment or for the first called on for a motion, to completely blockade bills from coming to the floor or for an amendment coming to the floor,” Merkley said. “That is not distributed power among 100; that is a concentration of power that is absolutely destroying the senate as a legislative body.”
Abortion: Merkley said many complicated health issues can surface with late-term pregnancies.
“The right way to resolve them is between a woman, her partner, her religious advisor or minister and her doctor. The federal government is absolutely not the right presence to insert into that exam room.”
Super delegates: “I supported taking away the super delegates in the first round.”