CASCADE LOCKS - High-speed rail and modern bridges and highways in China impressed Sen. Jeff Merkley in his visit to Beijing and other areas of China last year.
In his town hall Sunday at Port Marine Park Pavilion, the east Portland Democrat called for dedication of an estimated $350 billion in unnecessary defense spending to be split between funding schools, infrastructure upgrades and paying down the national debt.
Acknowledging that approval of Congress is "the lowest it's ever been," an openly frustrated Merkley described the current state of policy formation as "paralysis."
"We've got to have a change in how we make decisions, and have a little more light and a little less heat and the things that work we'll keep and the things that don't, we won't," he said.
Merkley also spoke out about the elections process, in particular the U.S. Supreme Court's 2008 "Citizens United" ruling that granted free speech rights to corporations.
"Citizens United is deeply flawed, because a financial arrangement that is designed to have lots of people be able to combine their efforts to fund a financial enterprise, that's what a corporation is, is not a person. And the amount of power that's unleashed with this is enormous," Merkley said.
He said the Citizens United decision led to what he considers the harmful influence of "super PACs," (political action committees) which the nation has seen at work in Republican primaries such as Florida and South Carolina.
"Super PACs continue to spend their money, and anything we can do together to change the tide and raise the issue and reverse what's happened is essential; because if we don't, a few years from now you will have legislators who are elected by super funds and they're not going to vote to get rid of them," Merkley said.
He equated super PACs' multi-million campaign spending on TV advertising to a stadium sound system drowning out the voice of the people.
"And what are the first three words of the Constitution?"
The audience of 45 immediately responded: "We the People."
"That's right," Merkley responded. "And you know, they put it in extra-large words so it couldn't be missed."
To start the one-hour town hall, Merkley spoke for less than five minutes, outlining the Senate Democrat's trio of main priorities for the current legislative session: continuing reform of the No Child Left Behind Act, increasing infrastructure funding and reviving the Secure School Funds bill (aka County Payments).
Officials in attendance included Cascade Locks Mayor Lance Masters and Council members Randy Holmstrom and Jeff Helfrich, Hood River Mayor Arthur Babitz and Council Member Jeff Nicol, and Rod Runyon, Wasco County Commission chairman.
The deficit, health care, infrastructure investment and jobs were just a few of the issues raised by some of the citizens in attendance. The town hall was Merkley's 12th this year and 119th since taking office in 2008.
Jean McLean of Cascade Locks asked Merkley for an update on how health care reform is being phased in, saying. "A lot of people don't realize we're not there yet," to which Merkley agreed. He said preventive care coverage is being phased in along with the clause allowing families to keep children under 26 on their policies, and that Oregon is on target in 2013 to create health care exchanges - online comparisons of insurance packages - one year ahead of the federal deadline of 2014.
"Is there any prospect of single-payer (legislation)?" Cascade Locks' Arnie Kononen asked,
"No, there is not. At best it is far over the horizon," Merkley said.
On the budget, Merkley advocated creating a 10-year horizon for balancing the federal budget, saying "a steady, gentle path is the best way out of our hole."
"A balanced budget amendment would go a long ways toward fixing it," said Cascade Locks resident Erik Toristjola, who raised the concern over continued deficit spending.
"You guys don't seem willing to do anything about it," Toristjola told Merkley, who countered that it was the administration of George W. Bush that invested in two wars and did away with the budget surplus that existed under the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
"We know now what a huge foreign policy mistake the Afghanistan war was," Merkley said.
Merkley spoke at length about the political factors that he said are interfering with the ability of Congress to move forward on major challenges such as health care and national debt.
"We do have a huge challenge with the partisan divide," said Merkley, who compared the political atmosphere along the Potomac with what things were like when he got his start in D.C. as an intern for the late Sen. Mark Hatfield, whose elective post Merkley now holds.
At age 19 in 1976, Merkley said he was assigned to represent the senator on that year's Tax Reform Act legislation on the floor of the Senate,
"That meant watching amendments unfold, meeting with Sen. Hatfield, briefing him on what the amendments are, positives and negative points and what folks back home are saying.
"There was amendment after amendment, but we didn't wait a week debating which amendments would come up. They didn't have unanimous consent; they had an understanding between the parties: one side presents an amendment, the other side presents an amendment.
"The amendments were all germane, they were all tax amendments. It wasn't like they were trying to put a contraceptive amendment on a transportation bill. And they debated, and they decided with a simple majority, during that entire debate," Merkley recalled.
"I don't believe there was ever a supermajority of any kind. Now we have a supermajority on whether we get the bill for debate, and a supermajority on closing each amendment, and a supermajority to decide it; and the result is it's just like slogging through knee-deep molasses, and you just can't move."
Merkley said, "This is so frustrating because it interrupts the way a democracy is supposed to work; that is, a group is elected to respond to concerns of the people and they try to get enacted the things they campaigned upon, and they see if it works. And if works and people like it they keep them in office and if it doesn't work and people don't like it they vote them out or they change their position.
"But if it all comes to paralysis and you can never respond to the problems then everyone gets frustrated. And I think that's where we're at now."
He recounted his unsuccessful efforts last year with Sen. Ron Wyden to lead an effort toward changes in Senate rules, including requiring a "voice filibuster," in which any senator requesting a filibuster would need to stand on the floor of the Senate and state his or her reasons.
He decried senators' ability to "simply stop a simple majority by objecting to a simple majority."
"It used to be that there was (in the Senate) a social understanding that because it is a majority body, if people did object, they stood up and defended their position. They weren't required to, but they did it because they wanted the American people to know why," Merkley said.
He said his effort in 2011 was "the first time a rules debate had been held without the support of majority and minority leaders to even hold the debate, and we had to agree to a supermajority requirement before we even started.
"When Lyndon Johnson was opposed to changing the filibuster, he still allowed a debate over it, and then he built a majority to oppose the reform. But he didn't require a supermajority before they even got started.
"Now they just object and go off to dinner or vacation," Merkley said. "If we require folks to stay on the floor and object, and be speaking to the bill, then essentially it will turn the table, because the frivolous filibusters would melt away.
"Unless you care deeply about something and unless it goes to the heart of your vision of where America is headed, you aren't going to spend the night on the floor of the Senate in order to keep talking about it, and if you do, at least you are there making your case before the American people, and the American people can say you're a hero or a bum."
He said the proposed rules change received only 49 votes.
"We will carry this again a year from January," Merkley said.
"If we'd had a talking filibuster requiring people to stand on the Senate floor and defend secret foreign corporations in America, we would have gotten the 60th vote needed to pass it, so it's an extremely important decision. I encourage people to pay close attention."