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Sen. Jeff Merkley speaks Saturday at Wy’east Middle School. He said, “The Constitution is being shredded and unfortunately it’s being shredded by our Supreme Court.”

Now is the time to begin impeachment, to clamp down on excessive pricing by Big Pharma, to actively respond to “climate chaos,” and end the degradation of the American Constitution by the current administration, and fellow members of Senate.

These are key points made Saturday by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley at a town hall in Odell, one of two that day in the Gorge.

Merkley decried the lack of federal investment in jobs, health care, education and physical infrastructure — “The foundations for families to thrive,” he called them — and the $3 trillion tax break given to the wealthy in 2017.

Merkley spoke to an audience of 40 people scattered among seats in the Wy’east Middle School Performing Arts Center.

Merkley paused shortly into his introductory remarks and asked everyone to take a big breath and hold it for three seconds.

“That air in your lungs has 33 percent more carbon than when I was born,” Merkley said, “and it is accelerating at a rate that the next generation will experience a massive in the amount of carbons they breath.

“That’s the challenge. That’s why we have to drive a much faster transition to renewable energy and non-fossil fuel,” Merkley said.

“Carbon pollution and climate chaos” is evident in the Gorge and Pacific Northwest with less irrigation water, smaller and warmer streams, pine beetle proliferation, “and the fact we have to artificially buffer the seawater against acidity.

“That’s not the way the world was just a few decades ago, and then we have the forest fires,” Merkley said.

He started his town hall by presenting the Columbia Gorge Pride Alliance with a U.S. flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol.

“We were very surprised, and honored,” said Patrick Cornelius, who accepted the flag along with fellow Alliance co-chair Meagan Winn.

The Alliance supports LGBTQ residents in the community in the Gorge, promoting gatherings and networking in and helping individuals “seize the opportunity to thrive.” 

Winn said, “We are blown away by the support of the community, not only here in Hood River, but in The Dalles and White Salmon and elsewhere, and we will continue to support LGBTQ, plus other members of the community.”

Merkley cited the Oregon Equality Act, passed while he served as Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives.

“It’s about the vision of every individual having the opportunity to thrive in our community,” he said.

He paraphrased what Lyndon Baines Johnson said about the 1964 Civil Rights Act: That freedom “is the ability of every individual to be able to participate fully in all aspects of our national life as a person worthy in promise and dignity to all others.”

Merkley said, in passing the act, “We were celebrating freedom and opportunity, and am pleased to report the Equality Act two weeks ago — a big advance in the House but it has not yet passed the Senate.”

‘Democracy’s in big trouble’: One-on-one with Sen Jeff Merkley

HRN: With all that’s going on in the country these days, how do you see the state of our democracy?”

Jeff Merkley/JM: “It’s in big trouble. Were not addressing the issues that affect everyday life, whether it’s housing, education, the infrastructure or environment. And we are in the middle of a growing constitutional crisis with the president stonewalling oversight by Congress, all part of our checks and balances.”

HRN: How, with the election year coming up, does Congress have an impact on any or all of these things?

JM: “The House is passing a lot of legislation and the Senate is doing nominations. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has decided that putting far right judges in circuit and district seats is his top priority, thus we have done no spending bills and very few policy bills and so it’s starting to feel, well, almost like the Senate is a farce because we’re co-sponsoring amendments and bills, and spinning our wheels very quickly and going nowhere.

“I think it’s going to take a change in how the Senate operates. The Senate is now a graveyard for legislation the House has passed on all types of topics, and we need the Senate to be a full partner.”

HRN: You’re on a number of important committees, including Infrastructure and Public Works. How do we move forward to funding what we all know is a huge nation-wide problem?

JM: “There are three ways to pay for infrastructure: You raise revenues, you borrow money or you take money from other programs, and the president has said he’s unwilling to do any of the three. He did say,  he had details of a $2 trillion plan, but we’re waiting. We did have a back-of-the-envelope sketch for a $2 trillion plan a couple of years ago. What it really was was the federal government doing $200 billion ‘here in this pot while having a limited $240 billion over there.’ The $200 was specious; then they said we’ll take that $200 billion we’ve taken out of and the net $40 million, have the states match it four-to-one so it’ll be a trillion dollars. And everyone just laughed; it was always the federal component has been 80 percent, so not only was it a net $40 billion being presented as $200 billion, but it was $200 billion that wasn’t going to leverage anything.

“This is a kind of show-me moment, is this another phony thing? It’s up to the president to show his cards.

“(Oregon U.S. Rep.) Peter DeFazion is working very hard in the House, on a proposed revenue fee on gas, and opened other ideas, but the Senate and president have said they’re not going to raise money and not going to borrow money. They’ve talked about taking money out of Medicare but that’s not going to happen.”

HRN: You mention spinning your wheels; it’s reminiscent of what you were saying last year when you were here. Nothing’s changed?

JM: “No, if anything it’s gotten worse, with the determination to use the Senate’s time on nominations.

HRN: How does that make you feel as a person earnestly trying to get things done?

JM: “I made the decision to run for reelection, but there is no way I want to be part of a Senate that fails to operate, that is paralyzed. So it means part of my deal with myself if I am going to run again, take six more years of my life and invest to do everything I can to restore the Senate.”

HRN: Which you talked about last time you were here, too. Should you make that decision, what would you focus on?

JM: “The first foundation is passing the For The People Act, HB 1 in the House, which takes on gerrymandering, voter suppress and dark money. If we don’t do that we’re going to lose on housing, healthcare, education and the degradation  of the environment. Really what we have now is government for and by the powerful rather than for and by the people. It’s pretty straight forward, Jefferson laid out a vision for our government, it was called distributive power, the Citizens United (Supreme Court decision) that says billionaires can spend hundreds of millions of dollars (on campaign donations) is concentrated power, and with concentrated power you get government of the powerful.

“With distributive power, you get government for the people. So the Constitution is being shredded and unfortunately, it’s being shredded by our Supreme Court, with the Citizens United decision, and with the failure to take on gerrymandering. and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act

“The For The People Act is the best thing we can do to counter that, and that has to be step one. To do that, we have to find a way to do it by simple majority. If you read the Federalist Papers about the Continental Congress, the leaders rant about the evils of a super majority paralyzing government. That’s that we have now in the Senate.”

(Note: HB 1 passed the House, March 8, “but we can’t get it up for a vote in the Senate,” Merkley said.)

HRN: What are you saying about your plans to run for re-election?

JM: “I will be running for re-election.”

HRN: Where do you stand on the prospect of impeachment proceedings against President Trump?

JM: “Before, I would have said, and did many, many places, ‘Let’s wait for the Mueller report,’ wait and see what his knowledgeable team of investigators tells us what happened. So we got the facts but we didn’t get the evaluation, we didn’t get Mueller telling us, ‘Does this rise to the level of criminality of not.’

“However, a couple of weeks ago, we received a letter signed by over 1,000 former federal prosecutors, in which they say  that the 10 acts of obstruction of justice constitute a level that would absolutely indict anyone who had done them. That is their opinion, that these are crimes.

“My first political act was to write a letter as a junior in high school: (Nixon’s vice president) Spiro Agnew was convicted of taking $100,000 in bribes, but his penalty was $10,000. I’m saying, ‘Are you kidding me?’ You take $100,000 and you get to keep 90 percent of it? I was outraged, so I wrote a letter about it. The principle was that no one is above the law and yet here was a vice president clearly above the law, and he got a slap on the wrist.

“So what we see now, when we say the Pledge of Allegiance  we end up with ‘justice for all’ and it implies equal justice.

“In the Supreme Court, carved into it is ‘equal justice for all’ and if a thousand former federal prosecutors say a crime has been committed, then I say it’s time to convene the impeachment committee and act.”

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