Merkley shines light on W.S. community
At his first town hall in Warm Springs April 4, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley recognized the Warm Springs Community Action Team, fielded questions from the audience, and made time to meet with local groups and media over a several-hour visit.
Merkley said he wanted to "shine a light on" the Warm Springs CAT, headed up by Chris Watson, the group's executive director. The nonprofit organization offers finance instruction, individual development account programs, tax preparation assistance, home ownership programs, and small business support.
Watson said that the group had helped 18 people acquire homes, 112 people graduate from the IDA program, invested in retail businesses, and helped 434 people do their taxes last year.
"We're doing a lot of things to try to reshape the community," said Watson.
Merkley presented a flag that had flown over the nation's capital to the group, before opening up the town hall to questions.
Asked about guns and the balance between the Second Amendment and victim's rights, Merkley said he works very hard to keep guns out of the hands of people who are a threat. Oregon has closed the loopholes that allowed people to purchase guns on Craigslist or at gun shows without a background check, but there is not yet a similar federal law.
"We don't do much research on gun violence," said Merkley, noting that since 1996, there has been a ban on using federal funds for such research, which he would like to see lifted.
"In 2016, the number of deaths from gunshots exceeded the number from automobiles," he said.
While some deaths from gunshots are accidental, some are suicides, and some are individual actions, he said, mass shootings have characteristics that separate them from the others.
"One factor that's common with a lot of them is the assault weapon; it enables a shooter to shoot a whole lot of people," said Merkley, who would like to see a return to the federal assault weapon ban, which was in place from 1994-2004, as well as a ban on large capacity magazines.
"I hope we'll have a discussion, but I'm not optimistic," he said, pointing out that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell "so far has no interest in having a discussion."
On the topic of the regulation of financial institutions, Merkley said that in March, the U.S. Senate passed a banking deregulation bill, which he opposed.
Returning to the deregulation that allowed the financial crisis of 2008 is a "huge mistake," he said. "When we say you can do anything you want (to banks), they start messing up."
The bill allows banks to bet on the future price of stocks, securities and currency — the same type of Wall Street gambling that "took down the whole country and resulted in a lot of people losing everything," he said.
In response to a comment from Gladys Grant about how to put a stop to the judiciary legislating from the bench, Merkley said, "You're absolutely right ... The thing I'm mostly concerned about is Citizens United. It stands our constitution on its head."
The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling had the effect of giving corporations the First Amendment right to free speech, allowing corporations to make unlimited contributions to political parties and individuals.
"It drowns out the voice of ordinary people," said Merkley, noting that the Koch brothers spent billions of dollars to elect Republicans, and to prevent the previous administration's nominee for the Supreme Court from having a confirmation hearing.
"Mitch McConnell said it's a tradition (to not debate or vote on Supreme Court nominees during the last year of a presidency). That was a big fat lie."
Merkley said that there have been 15 times when a president has nominated a candidate for Supreme Court and there have been confirmation hearings in an election year.
Madras Mayor Royce Embanks wondered if there was anything that could be done about the lack of diversity in the White House, and among the people in Trump administration.
Since it is up to the president to nominate and hire people, Merkley said that he's not surprised by the lack of diversity, in light of the president's attacks on women and minority groups such as African Americans, Haitians, veterans, Hispanic Americans and Muslims.
Calling the U.S. "one nation indivisible," Merkley said that aside from Native Americans, the U.S. is made up of immigrants. "We'll stand together, side by side, and build a great nation together."
Prior to the town hall, Merkley discussed the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill for 2018, passed in March. Merkley voted against the bill, because it did not address the 800,000 young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally before their 16th birthdays and by 2007.
"While I have other concerns with the bill, this reason alone is significant enough that I could not support it," he noted.
However, the bill included a significant increase in funding for broadband, energy saving programs, electric loans, and waste and water programs — all for rural communities, as well as sustainable agriculture research, and two years of continued funding for the Secure Rural Schools program, which helps keep schools and libraries open, maintain roads and fund police officers.
Funding to combat the opioid crisis and funding for forest fires were also
Health care is also a key concern for Merkley, who said that a bill that would have destroyed health care for as many as 33 million Americans is now dead.
"Health care is fundamental to quality of life," he said. "We have a very fractured system. I think there is a profound need to a much simpler system of Medicare for all."
"Meanwhile, we need to take on the high cost of drugs,"added Merkley.
Although he agrees that tariffs need to be adjusted "to level the playing field," the senator believes that the president's recently announced tariffs were not part of a well-crafted plan.
"The president has initiated a trade war with China, which could affect a lot of our agricultural products," he said. "He essentially targeted a whole host of countries."