U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., hosted a town hall Sunday in Dufur, one of two in the Gorge and three for the day.
Most of the conversation with about 75 area residents centered around health care needs and concerns about fallout from new tax laws.
Merkley minced no words when delivering his opinion about Republicans making $1.5 trillion in tax cuts. He referred to the changes as “the biggest bank heist in history.”
“This tax scam so favors the wealthy that 83 percent of the benefits go to the richest 1 percent,” he said.
He said the bill passed narrowly along party lines in the Senate because it gave trillions of dollars to the richest Americans.
By “showering massive giveaways” on billionaires and corporations, Merkley said the political system could continue to be rigged in favor of large donors, such as the Koch family of industrialists.
He predicted the tax cuts would result in a funding shortfall that could demolish health care for 13 million Americans. He said lost revenue would make it more difficult to cover infrastructure improvements, help students obtain a college degree or support hunger relief programs, among others.
“The foundation for families to thrive are good paying jobs, health care and education,” he said.
Merkley also criticized House Speaker Paul Ryan’s recently stated intent to reform entitlement programs, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
"Entitlement reform is how you tackle the debt and the deficit," the Republican leader said.
“I don’t think that’s going to be particularly popular,” said Merkley of Ryan’s intent, which drew audience laughter.
The Congressional Budget office has estimated an $82 trillion budget deficit in Social Security and Medicaid over the next 30 years.
Merkley said Congress has to find a way to sustain these programs, which are critical for seniors and lower income families.
For example, he said defense spending could be capped to free up billions for other services.
He was also adamant that the Children’s Health Insurance Program be renewed, something that he felt was possible to get done even in a divided Congress. The program covers children from struggling families that make too much money to qualify for the Oregon Health Plan or Medicaid.
Oregon is among 16 states set to run out of CHIP funding by the end of January. Merkley praised Gov. Kate Brown for asking the Oregon Health Authority to find money in its budget to keep coverage going until April.
He said 140,000 children had access to health care last year under Oregon’s CHIP program, called Oregon Healthy Kids, including 779 from Wasco County.
Merkley said it was immoral that Republicans had allowed CHIP to expire and that they had not yet reauthorized it.
In November, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., got a plan to extend CHIP for five years approved by the House. It was sent to the Senate where it still awaits consideration.
Walden said last week that he expected action to be taken on the legislation as early as this week.
Merkley is also optimistic that both parties will reach an agreement on the issue.
“Those children should have health care and good health to propel them into life,” he said.
Without reining in the cost of prescription drugs, Merkley said it would be impossible to control the rising expenses of health care.
He said insurance and pharmaceutical companies don’t want the current delivery system to change since they are raking in huge profits.
Because of the money they invest in political campaigns, Merkley said there was little will in Congress to bring about true reform.
Merkley has joined Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in support of a “Medicare for All” plan. They want to expand government-run health care to all Americans.
“Health care in America must be a right, not a privilege,” said Sanders when his bill was introduced last fall.
Merkley told his Jan. 14 audience in Wasco County that America’s health care system was fractured, and its complexity was stressing out families.
He said one system would be “simple and seamless.”
“There’s a lot of turmoil over health care,” he said. “We’re going to be in this conversation for a long time to come.”
His stop in Wasco County was his 327th since taking office in 2008. Dufur Mayor Merle Keys facilitated the meeting and used a lottery system to choose people to ask questions.
The forum started with Merkley presenting a flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol Building to Cole Kortge, acting president of the Dufur Associated Student Body.
The senator then asked Kortge to name some of the activities the student body led and planned. Korge summed up the list by saying, “I try to make school as fun as possible.”
Merkley said when he had been in school, he had been part of the “nerdy math, science group” that never ran for an office. However, he decided something needed to be done “about the people who never get anything done” so he got into politics.
“We swept the slate of popular kids out of office and proceeded to do good things,” he said.
That situation was akin to being in Washington, D.C., today, said Merkley, urging people to get engaged and make their voices heard if they wanted to protect a democratic way of governance.
He said that citizen involvement was particularly important during a time of stark partisanship.
It was heartening, said Merkley, to receive 10,000 to 14,000 emails per week now from constituents who were alarmed enough by Trump administration actions and decisions to speak out.
“A grassroots movement is needed to demand change. We need to go back to the ‘We the People’ vision of our constitution,” he said.
He said two other vital issues needed quick attention from Congress: Continuation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and raising the debt ceiling to avoid a government shutdown.
DACA is an American immigration policy that allows some individuals who entered the country as minors, and remained in the country illegally, to seek deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit.
The Obama administration established the policy in June 2015 and it was rescinded by the Trump administration in September 2017. The program expires in March unless Congress acts to save it.
“Every day, more than 100 DREAMers [ acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act]— young Americans who know no other home — lose their status and are put at risk for deportation. That’s unacceptable,” said Merkley.
Last week, he and Virginia’s Sen. Tim Kaine have introduced legislation aimed at ending what they called “Congress’ abuse of the debt ceiling as a political hostage.”
The Protect Our Citizens from Reckless Extortion of our Debt and Irresponsible Tactics (Protest our Credit) Act of 2018 seeks to change how the debt ceiling is raised.
The bill enables the executive branch to initiate a process to raise the ceiling subject to a congressional override.
With some in Congress now threatening to force the U.S. to default on its debt unless separate political demands are met, Merkley said action is needed.
The legislation allows the debt ceiling to be raised to a limit proposed at the start of each fiscal year unless, within 15 legislative days, Congress passes, and the president signs, a joint resolution of disapproval.
If federal debt gets within $250 billion of the limit during the year, the president is to submit another written certification, explaining what drove the need for additional debt and proposing a new debt limit for the remainder of the fiscal year. That proposal is subject to the same congressional disapproval process.
Merkley was highly critical of Trump’s handling of foreign affairs.
“Why you have two world leaders bragging about the size of their missile button, it’s a very glib approach to a big issue,” he said of Trump’s challenge to Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea.
The rising tensions in Asia led him to take a trip to Japan last August, which meant that he missed seeing the rare total solar eclipse in Oregon.
“My whole life, I’m going to wish I was here for that,” he said.
Other topics discussed during the session of more than one hour included stabilizing commodity markets for agricultural products, expanding crop insurance programs, improving internet capability in rural areas to promote economic development, protecting net neutrality and tackling the affordable housing crisis in Oregon.
After leaving Dufur, Merkley headed to Cascade Locks for his 358th town hall and then wound up the day with a meeting in Multnomah County.