Merkley addresses citizen's concerns

Merkley addresses citizen's concerns

Senator’s town hall focuses on Trump Administration’s proposed cuts to services


By:  Jane Stebbins

More than 100 citizens filled the Gold Beach High School gym Sunday to ask U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley not what he could do for them, but what they could do to help protect numerous safety net programs the Trump administration is threatening to gut.

Merkley admitted he didn’t have many answers to the daily — if not hourly — changes on Capitol Hill, and that he had nothing good to say about the current administration. He was in Gold Beach as part of his tour of town hall meetings throughout the state.

“Most of what we’re learning is coming through the work of the media,” he said. “Whenever you have an authoritarian impulse in an executive, the most common thing they’ll go after is the most reliable source — the Fourth Estate. Everytime I hear the president attack the news media, I say we should all go and read and listen to them.”

Cuts to services

Citizens expressed their concerns about healthcare and any federal changes that could make it even more difficult to obtain.

“It’s certainly a challenge to have (proposals) put forward that seek to eliminate Obamacare and Medicaid,” Merkley said. “(Trump’s healthcare plan) would greatly increase the cost of health insurance for older Americans.”

He noted that a 64-year-old making $26,000 a year pays $140 a month under ObamaCare, and under Trump’s plan, it would increase to $1,200.

“An older American not yet eligible for Medicaid would be pushed out of the ability to buy insurance,” he said, adding that that would result in 500,000 Oregonians losing their insurance. “That’s a line of people holding hands from the Pacific Ocean to the Idaho border.”

Friday, a vote to approve the plan was cancelled for lack of support, with Trump saying he was going to work on other priorities. Merkley attributed its being pulled to grassroots outcry — letters and phone calls to elected officials.

He also spoke of the administration’s proposed budget and its cuts of 20 to 30 percent to agencies rural America needs, including the U.S. Coast Guard, essential air service and transportation, rural development and block grants.

“I’m making sure this assault on rural America and rural America’s budgets does not get adopted,” he said.

Merkley also addressed the methodology of the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, calling it little more than “court packing” and “stealing seats” after Republicans refused to even meet with former President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.

“It sets a really, really bad precedent for the Supreme Court and the Senate,” he said.

Cuts to the EPA also drew questions, with Merkley noting that much of the funding behind attempts to ease environmental protections originate in “dark money,” typically from the Koch brothers.

“It’s a very corrupting force in our democracy,” he said. “Should multi-billionaires be able to put money into campaigns? When they won control of the Senate in 2015, the Koch brothers said they were going to put $1 billion into the campaigns. They cemented their control of the U.S. Senate. This is dark money. And this is why that fifth vote really matters on the Supreme Court.”

Investigations

Citizens asked about the multiple investigations underway among the ranks of the Trump administration, and Russia’s meddling with last November’s U.S. election.

“We have absolutely no concrete information collaboration occurred,” he said of Trump’s cabinet meeting with Russian officials. “But any individual who collaborated with the Russians, that is a treasonous act and they need to be fully prosecuted.”

“I’m concerned there’s enough smoke in these investigations of collusion that we might run into a gun,” said Kathy Mullen of Gold Beach, asking of the likelihood of a select, special or free-standing committee conducting the work.

“Watergate unfolded over a long period of time,” Merkley said, adding that he doesn’t like that the hearings aren’t open to public review. “Ultimately, it was one individual and the tapes.”

He said it is already known that Russians created thousands of memes for social blogs and other media — and computer “bots” amplified those to make the memes become “trending news.”

“It’s false news they were generating,” Merkley said, “and it was very successful. We need to put these Russian strategies on ice. It is an act of war on the U.S. to do this. They’re trying to destroy our institutions and credibility of elections.”

Theda DeRamus of Gold Beach asked how a president is impeached. “It seems to me that everyone he’s appointed is against us,” DeRamus said. “Having his kids in (the White House), we’re paying for his apartment, a woman as educator of our kids who knows nothing about public education? It only took the Nazis one year to have control.”

Impeachment, Merkley said, is the most-oft word brought up — besides emoluments — and it involves a House arraignment and a trial in the Senate.

Emoluments are “without conflicts of interest — that you’re not receiving items of value from a foreign government,” Merkley explained. “And last week, China gave 38 trademarks for Trump that enriches our president.”

The trademarks give China the right to use his name for building construction services in China through 2027. Trump might not own a project being built — say, a resort — but trademarks block other developers from putting their name on it.

“Now everything done in foreign affairs has some sort of (tint) of conflict of interest,” Merkley said “ I can’t see how the House can’t take that up, being as (the Emolument Clause) is right there in the Constitution, and it’s violated every day.”

When asked about the wall Trump wants to build on the U.S.-Mexico border, Merkley said he’d spoken with officials in Mexico city and cities on the border.

“They said drugs are coming in mixed with freight through tunnels — not backpacks,” he said. “A wall would have zero impact on that.”

He noted that since the government isn’t yet funded from May to September, Trump wants to put the wall expenses in the Continued Resolution — the second half of the budget.

“What happened to someone else paying for this?” Merkley said. “There’s not likely to be an appetite for this in the Continued Resolution.”

He instead suggests better integrity and border control, enforcement at the employer level, a system that addresses work shortages in the U.S. and a method to address those who overstay their visas.

Light in the tunnel?

When asked if there was even a moderate-Republican with whom Merkley could work, he cited numerous examples of “little pieces” of legislation he’d been able to successfully craft with those who sit across the aisle.

Among them was his work with Sen. Lindsey Graham to keep a Coast Guard helicopter in Newport, and a agricultural bill worked out with Sen. Tom Coburn, a conservative Oklahoma Republican.

“All the time on the floor you’re catching someone’s arm,” he said. “A senator across the aisle — ‘Hey, can we work together on this?’”

He admits it’s getting more difficult, as the Senate now only meets four days a week, bipartisan lunches are now segregated and families of elected officials don’t attend functions as often as in the past.

He suggested people keep writing and calling their representatives about issues of concern. A New Yorker article recently analyzed the efficacy of communication to the White House and deemed letters and phone calls as the best way to bend an official’s ear.

“Keep a really close eye on the programs that are important to Oregon,” he said. “We’re looking to make sure rules are enforced and new ideas are made. Then things can be done.”