GEARHART — Sen. Jeff Merkley didn’t waste any time informing the people of Gearhart of his top priority in the U.S. Senate.
“Certainly, the really big issue facing us is the creation of living-wage jobs,” the senator said as he began his remarks to a crowd of more than 150 Wednesday night at Gearhart Elementary School.
Merkley, who is up for re-election in November, was in Gearhart for a town hall meeting, his 202nd such event since he supplanted Sen. Gordon Smith in 2008.
“This is really wonderful to have this full room,” Merkley said. “Very few senators still hold town halls. … And while every issue doesn’t get addressed in town halls, it is such a valuable picture that emerges over time.”
Though not every issue did get addressed in the hour-long question-and-answer session, the attendees’ questions ran the gamut.
Jordan Davis, a junior and student government representative at Seaside High School, kicked off the conversation with a question about the failed $128.8 million bond measure that would have funded a new K-12 campus above the tsunami inundation zone for the Seaside School District.
“Now, not only are our schools in danger, but some of them are really, really old and they’re falling apart,” Davis said. “To be frank, what can you do as a congressional member? What can you get Congress to do?”
“It’s kind of a situation of being caught between a rock and a hard place,” Merkley said. “Because certainly, regardless of federal regulation, we want schools out of the tsunami inundation zone. … Now with the bond having failed, this is a hot item, and I’m going to be finding out if there’s any possible way under any existing pool of funds that FEMA has or energy retrofits that might help pay the price for a new school in a different place.
“So the short answer is that I don’t know the answer right now,” Merkley said. “But now that it’s on the list, I’m going to be finding out.”
After Davis’ question, the town hall’s focus widened.
Shannon Smith, of Gearhart, began the broader political discussion with a question about President Obama’s signature – and most divisive – legislation, the Affordable Care Act.
“Now that it has started and the process is going, what are you still most concerned about?” she asked. “And secondly, how do you see accountability coming in?”
Merkley was candid about the policy’s rocky roll out, specifically the difficulties with the Cover Oregon website, which has been managed by Oracle, the exchange’s primary IT contractor.
“First, the website itself is a debacle,” he said. “I think my general philosophy is ‘Keep what’s working and fix what isn’t.’”
Merkley mentioned several options going forward, including continuing with Oracle or joining the national exchange.
But despite a calamitous website rollout that has caused Cover Oregon’s agents to revert to paper applications, Merkley saw reason for optimism, citing some statewide statistics: approximately 20,000 Oregonians have received rebate checks, 30,000 seniors have received lower-cost drugs, 40,000 young adults have gained insurance through a parent’s policy, 150,000 low-income families have received insurance and about 25,000 Oregonians have individual policies through the exchange with “about another 25,000 in the pipeline,” Merkley said.
Lastly, Merkley mentioned that nearly half of the state’s residents have preexisting conditions that would have impinged on their ability to receive affordable insurance before passage of the new health care law.
“Those are all points of progress,” he said.
A major theme of the evening was the inability of the 113rd Congress to achieve any consensus and what Merkley thinks can be done to break the gridlock in a body that has gained national notice for being one of the least productive in the country’s history.
Chuck Albright, who lives in Astoria but teaches “about 20 steps down the hall” in Gearhart Elementary, applauded Merkley for his work on reforming the filibuster for nominations, but wondered what other steps could be taken.
“What else do you see happening in the future to actually get more done in our Congress?” Albright asked.
“It really is a completely different Congress than what I saw when I was a 19-year-old intern for Sen. (Mark) Hatfield,” Merkley said, referring to the “problem-solving mode” that emerged in those years after the post-election dust had settled.
“We’ve lost those features with a permanent, partisan campaign,” he said.
Merkley proposed removing the filibuster on conference committees, and highlighted the absurdity of the current system.
“It’s crazy that you have a filibuster on the debate whether to debate,” he said, especially if, as in the modern version, a politician need not physically filibuster.
“One of them should have to be on the floor debating it,” Merkley said, “so there’s time and energy, and they’re actually fulfilling that vision of the courtesy of hearing people out.”
Merkley admitted that these suggestions may not go far enough, but would “get rid of the silent paralysis we have right now,” he said. “Some say that the Senate is supposed to be a ‘cooling saucer’ … but no one, in designing the Constitution, wanted the Senate or the House to be a deep freeze.”
Several attendees of the town hall chalked the paralysis of the current Congress up to the influx of unaccounted for money in the aftermath of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, in which the Supreme Court found that political donations from corporations, associations or labor unions were “political speech” protected by the First Amendment.
Joseph Stevenson, of Astoria, said that the vast sums of special-interest money in the current election model have created “a campaign that never stops” that has “led to a corruption of the entire system.”
Stevenson, who favored a two-month-long, publicly funded election, wondered what Merkley thought could be done to quell the tide of corporate money and restore the power of one person, one vote.
“In the context of Citizens United … we are in deep trouble,” Merkley said.
Merkley suggested closing the 501 (c)(4) loophole, which allows political nonprofits on both ends of the political spectrum to spend money on political advertising without disclosing their donors, and having the Securities Exchange Commission reform the election process – both of which could be done without trying to pass legislation through an increasingly fissured Congress.
“Past that, I just completely disagree with the finding of the Supreme Court,” Merkley said. “The Supreme Court found that large, unidentified, vast sums of money in our system are not corrosive and corruptive. And I think that it’s so obvious that they are that you have to wonder, for the five individuals who had that finding, well, what bubble they’re living in.”
Gearhart Mayor Diane Widdop emceed the event, which began with Merkley presenting Clatsop Community College President Larry Galizio with an American flag and a certificate that recognized the college with a “Military-Friendly School” distinction for its work with active-duty military and veterans.
Merkley lamented not being able to see the elk during his visit to Gearhart, but was appreciative of the attentive, informed audience and the issues they raised.
“When I hear about these issues from your leaders or from citizens directly, it enables me to go fight for those things,” he said. “Thank you for this very direct participation in our representative democracy and it’s an honor to serve you.”
The Daily Astorian, 1.23.14. Link: http://goo.gl/HlOyQI