Merkley: A lot of work ahead for Congress

Merkley: A lot of work ahead for Congress

By:  Peter Wong

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley says there’s plenty for Congress and the American people to do on matters from physical and mental health to carbon-free energy, climate change and the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Merkley covered a wide range of issues during an hourlong meeting attended by more than 100 people on Friday, Feb. 3, at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas. He pledged such annual meetings in each of Oregon’s 36 counties when he was elected to the Senate in 2008.

But the Oregon Democrat said afterward he has doubts about whether the new Republican majority in the U.S. House wants to do anything other than harass President Joe Biden and divert public attention from pressing issues. One of the first bills passed by the House — and likely to die in the Senate, where Democrats have a one-seat majority — would roll back much of the money Congress added last year to strengthen the ability of the Internal Revenue Service to audit wealthier taxpayers.

“That’s not going to help with any of the issues we heard about in the town hall,” said Merkley, who voted for the added funding as part of broader legislation providing for clean-energy incentives and health care benefits.

“In fact, it will hurt — because when the rich don’t pay their fair share, we do not have the resources to tackle these problems.”

Merkley acknowledged during the meeting that the Senate continues to have its own problems moving legislation because of threatened filibusters, which require a supermajority of 60 votes under Senate rules to limit debate. He has said if the filibuster is to remain, senators should be compelled to show up and debate — as he did in 2017, when he spoke for more than 15 hours against President Donald Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to a Supreme Court seat that became vacant more than a year earlier under President Barack Obama. (The Republican majority leader at the time then moved to end Senate filibusters against Supreme Court nominees.)

Asked what he proposes to change the court, Merkley said he dislikes alternatives of limiting the tenures of justices — they now serve until they die or choose to retire — or expanding the number from the current nine. The first would take a constitutional amendment; the second, action by both houses of Congress and the president.

“Anything that takes a constitutional amendment is not going to happen,” Merkley said. As for expansion, Merkley said both parties could do so when they control Congress and the presidency. “I think that further delegitimizes the court,” he said, “and I feel the court is pretty delegitimized now.”

He said he has joined a proposal by Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse to give justices senior status, which would allow them to stay active if they chose, but also opens up their positions to new appointees. (Federal district and appeals courts already follow this procedure, although no retirement age is specified.)

Merkley touched on other issues:

Nursing and mental health: Federal aid is needed for training more nurses and counselors. Merkley’s wife, Mary Sorteberg, is a home hospice nurse.

Merkley turned 66 last year; he said 10,000 Americans from the post-World War II generation continue to turn 65 every day.

“That means a whole lot of medical care is needed and a lot of practitioners are retiring. So on top of COVID and burnout, we have to train a lot more nurses,” he said. “We have to pay enough for people to be willing to teach, because they are paid less than they would be as nurses.”

He said counselors are particularly important to help children from low-income families dealing with the effects of two years or longer in online instruction and overexposure to video screens and smartphones.

Abortion, which a Supreme Court decision in 2022 ended as a federal constitutional right and returned the issue to states: “The question that a woman faces in her pregnancy is extremely big for her, her medical provider and her spiritual provider to figure out. The government should never be in the exam trying to tell her what to do.”

Carbon-free energy: Merkley voted for the 2022 legislation that provides $370 billion in incentives over the next decade. Biden has set targets of 2035 for U.S. generation of clean energy and 2050 for net-zero emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases — but Merkley said there is a lot more to be done, given that emissions keep going up.

“We have to greatly accelerate the pace,” he said. “Conservation is the cleanest possible way to go. But solar panels and wind generation are the least damaging approach we have to massive renewable energy. There is no perfect way to do it. But I would encourage everyone to say it is the best way to save our planet.”

He criticized the Biden administration’s recent move toward a major oil-drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope.

He said that in the long run, antitrust laws should be employed to break up major oil companies, but that a windfall profits tax such as that passed in 1980 is the best short-term measure.

Climate change: Merkley said the effects on Oregon have become evident with more intensive forest fires, insect invasions of forests, warming rivers and an acidifying ocean. “All these things will build for generations unless we can pivot from fossil fuels,” he said. “To do that, we have to be in partnership with the world. I think America’s leadership is essential.”

Russia’s war against Ukraine: “I passionately believe we have to stand with the people of Ukraine and their republic fighting off this oppression. They believe so passionately in fighting for their country. But they need the armaments to do it.”

Merkley said Biden is right not to provoke a wider war that might result in Russia’s use of nuclear weapons. But he added: “There is not a clear pathway as to how this will end — and that is very troubling.”

In the long run, Merkley said, world power will be defined not by military strength but by economic development and human skills. “I think the balance of this century is going to be dominated by the countries with the best physical and human infrastructure — and that means education.”