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Senator thinks news outlets, foreign nations contribute to current public angst

JASON CHANEY - Sen. Jeff Merkley addresses the town hall gathering at Crook County High School Sunday evening. Attendance was relatively small, about 50 people. Topics ranged from the federal tax bill to public involvement as a watchdog to government.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley completed a three-day-long series of town halls with a stop in Prineville to meet with Crook County constituents Sunday evening.

The event drew a modest crowd of about 50 at the Crook County High School gymnasium, but that didn't prevent Merkley and the questions posed by local residents covering a variety of topics. Issues raised included health care, climate change, the political polarization of the country as well the status activities of federal government under the Trump administration.

Merkley kicked off the event by highlighting some issues the U.S. Senate has been working on during the past year, one of which is health care.

"There were five versions of a health bill that would have eliminated health care for 22 million to 30 million people," he said, adding that it would have wiped out health care for 400,000 Oregonians as well. "(Sen.) John McCain finally put a stake through the heart of the fifth version."

A newly passed federal tax bill also drew criticism from Merkley, one that he said borrowed $1.5 trillion.

"That's $1.5 trillion our children will have to repay and most benefits go to the wealthiest Americans," he remarked. "I think the bill was a mistake. Not only does it increase income inequality and increase wealth inequality, it doesn't work as a stimulus because we are at the wrong moment in the economic cycle to be deficit-spending in that fashion. You want to do that when you have high unemployment."

Merkley went on to discuss the omnibus spending bill, noting that he advocated aggressively for rural development and agriculture programs as well as increased spending on rural broadband infrastructure.

"I believe that we have to get broadband into every small town across America for everybody to continue to thrive in the economy ahead," he said.

The senator then opened the forum up to questions and comments from the audience. Prineville resident Dick Phay raised concerns that President Trump's actions in office have him concerned his presidency could turn into a dictatorship. He asked Merkley what Congress is doing to push back against that possibility.

"I believe there are many protections in our system between the president and his team, and a dictatorship," he responded. "He may have inclinations of liking to disregard those barriers, but I think the Congress will stand up to him if he tried to go too far. So I'm not losing sleep over that. I'm losing sleep over the things he has the power to do as president currently that are not in the public interest."

He went on to stress that the public can influence the power of the president and other leaders through public participation in the government process and through their vote in elections.

Powell Butte resident Barbara Fontaine stressed her concerns to Merkley about climate change and the possibility of irreversible environmental damage. The senator responded that he agrees with her concerns, which prompted him recently to introduce what he is calling the 100 by 50 bill.

"It basically says we have got to get to 100 percent renewable energy, and we have got to do it over the next three decades," he explained. "We now have solar that is cheaper than fossil (fuels), wind that is cheaper than fossil (fuels), and declining costs of storage strategies."

Another audience member spoke out against the increasing polarization he sees taking place in government as well as with the public at large. Merkley agreed polarization has gotten worse and has become a big problem that is dividing the country.

He attributed some of that problem to a change in the way national news is delivered. He noted that in the past, people got their news from three primary networks that delivered the same basic information. He contends that is no longer the case.

"We have different sources of news that are dramatically different," he said.

Merkley went on to say that social media has contributed to the polarized environment of the country. He stated that the platform gives people a chance to quickly spread false statements or information before the truth comes out and squashes it.

"Anybody can put anything out there, and it's shared everywhere and then it turns out it's wrong, but you figure that out a long time later," he said.

Part of the driving force behind that misinformation, Merkley believes, is manipulation by people outside the U.S., particularly the Russians. He stressed that he was not referring to the much-debated Russian impact on the recent presidential election, but rather their use of social media to "manipulate American opinion and set us against each other."

"They created a bunch of false groups and false statements by those groups to make people angry," he said.

To fight back against misinformation, Merkley believes that Congress needs to do a better job of reaching out to constituents, and he urges people to likewise reach out to their representatives in Washington.

He praised town halls in particular for the way they put congress members and constituents in the same room to discuss the issues.

"This is rare," he said. "Why is it rare? Because we are so divided that most members of Congress are afraid to hold town halls."

Merkley concluded his town hall by thanking those who attended and were willing to share their concerns and try to find solutions to the issues that concern them.

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