U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley presented J. W. Terry of Central Oregon Veterans Outreach with a flag flown over the U. S. Capitol in recognition of services provided by COVO to the veterans of Central Oregon at last week’s town hall. photo by Jerry Baldock
U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley presented J. W. Terry of Central Oregon Veterans Outreach with a flag flown over the U. S. Capitol in recognition of services provided by COVO to the veterans of Central Oregon at last week’s town hall. photo by Jerry Baldock

U. S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) told a town hall meeting in Sisters last week, "We are in a battle for the soul of our nation. This country was founded as a government that reflects the will of the people."

Merkley highlighted a number of issues that represent the battleground as he answered audience questions. As a self-proclaimed advocate of working Americans, Merkley says his four core issues are creating living-wage jobs, housing, healthcare, and education.

A Sisters High School student asked Merkley, "What is your stance on gun control and what will you do to change the system?"

His response included some statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 2016, which showed there were 37,461 traffic deaths, but even more gun-related deaths at 38,658.

He polled the audience by a show of hands regarding: how many favored closing the loopholes on a national level in background checks at gun shows and on Craig's List; how many favored removal of the block to conducting research into gun safety and gun violence; and how many support a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. A majority of the audience was in favor of all three. Merkley pointed out that those results were very different from his two town halls held the day before in Lakeview and Klamath Falls.

According to the CDC, in mass shootings over the past 20 years where six or more have died, virtually every one involved large-capacity magazines. Merkley would like to see a national approach to providing guidance counselors in all schools and a broadened ability of the mental-health system.

Merkley views the current atmosphere of extreme partisanship in Washington D.C. as a huge hurdle to doing the work of the people. He likened it to a "dysfunctional marriage where you continue to reach out" but nothing ever changes.

He recalled that in 1976 when he was an intern for then-Senator Mark Hatfield, politicians on both sides of the aisle spent time together outside of chambers and were in Washington D.C. most weekends. Now, lunches and social events are all along partisan lines, everyone leaves town on the weekends, and the bases are farther apart.

"On the small issues, it's pretty easy to find partners for support of a bill, but on the bigger issues it's lots harder. We need to create relationships across the aisle," Merkley observed.

Merkley was one of the first Senators to call for a special investigation into possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign..

"We need to shut down the Senate if Mueller is fired," Merkley said when discussing the Russia investigation.

There is a bill being considered that would take away the ability of the President to fire a special investigator.

When asked, "How can we stop Trump from selling off our birth right (national monuments)?" Merkley pointed out that it isn't clear if the President has the legal ability to shrink the size of national monuments. He reported that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke appears "to be looking for excuses to shrink the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument." In a memo to the President, Zinke recommended shrinking the monument to "reduce impact on private land and allow for more logging on Federal property."

Merkley sponsored the bill enlarging the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument that protects 113,000 acres of forest and grasslands in southwestern Oregon and northwestern California.

"We have to fight back," he urged the audience.

Merkley cited the Supreme Court's Citizens

United decision as a fundamental aspect of the current dysfunctional political discourse. That 2010 decision held that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections.

The Senator said that the Constitution is about having a government that reflects the will of the people, and that can't happen unless the power is distributed across the voters in an even manner - called the people's principle.

"Citizens United is the opposite of that. The Citizens United court decision says the wealthiest Americans can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on any campaign," said Merkley. "It is going to take real grassroots engagement to retake the 'we the people' vision of our nation. Hopefully that will help address a lot of other issues."

Merkley believes that the effort to make Medicaid a block grant program must be stopped. Instead of the complicated systems now in place, "We need a simple, seamless system of healthcare available simply because you live here in the United States." An audience member echoed, "Medicare for all."

The Senator explained he voted against the Omnibus spending bill recently passed, on principal, because Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) designees are still in limbo with their legal status unresolved and "that is fundamentally unfair." Merkley continued, "Dreamers are Americans and we need to get their legal status in place."

The Omnibus bill does contain a number of programs for rural America, Merkley said, including increased rural broadband access, expansion of agricultural programs, rural development housing, and rural development water.

Trump's tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum were poorly targeted, according to Merkley. He believes the U.S. has a larger foreign-trade problem. He said China is not a very large supplier of those metals to the U.S. but lots of other countries are. He outlined how once Chinese companies see American technology when working with U.S. companies, they then "do a divorce and run with our technology, so they have stolen our intellectual property and that isn't fair."

The issue of U.S. infrastructure is a big one, according to Merkley, requiring $100 billion a year for 10 years. Instead, as a result of adjustments in the budget, the current $240 billion will essentially be reduced by $40 billion. Merkley is hopeful the infrastructure can become a bipartisan issue.

In March, Merkley was in New Hampshire meeting with the Democratic Party executive committee, giving rise to questions about whether he intends to run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Merkley said he is keeping his options open.

Last Wednesday's town hall was Merkley's 18th this year and his 342nd overall. Since being elected to the Senate, he has held open town halls in all 36 Oregon counties every year.