Jeness Scott brought her daughters to Sen. Jeff Merkley's town hall meeting at the Madras Performing Arts Center because they wanted to learn more about how government works.
They've been talking about the three branches of government at home.
"The kids have been more interested in kind of how the country runs," Scott said. "It was good for me because I've never been to one of these before."
"I just find it all interesting," said Josie, who's 12. She wants to know "if anything we do now is going to matter in a few years."She's especially concerned about climate change, as is 8-year-old Bonnie, who's been learning about from "Mom, school and YouTube," she said.
No one asked Merkley about climate change during the event, but they did cover a host of other topics — from noisy planes flying over Agency Plains to the U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine.
The event began with Madras Mayor Richard Ladeby introducing Merkley to the 175 or so people gathered.
The town hall was his eighth of 104; the Democratic U.S. senator visits every county in Oregon each year.
He begins each event by highlighting a local organization, and he presented Dan O'Brien of the Jefferson County Cultural Coalition with a flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol.
Then he laid out the ground rules, asking people to be civil, especially if they disagreed with each other.
Before they entered the auditorium, audience members who wanted to ask questions were given numbered tickets, which were drawn at random.
Bill Grover kicked off the questioning.
"So I wanted to know whether or not Donald Trump wants Congress to make his birthday an official holiday," he said, which got laughter from the crowd.
"Secondly, what are you doing to prevent Mr. Trump from becoming the first dictator of this country?""Wow," Merkley said. "I haven't heard it put that way before."Merkley said he has been studying the history of impeachment, which goes back to the 1300s in Great Britain.
"The founders were particularly concerned about two things," he said. "One was that a president who was to execute the laws would instead try to become a king."The other: "foreign interference in our elections," he said.
He went on to explain the Senate's role, now that the House of Representatives has drafted articles of impeachment.
"We have to approach it looking fresh at the articles and at the evidence," he said. "... We're in an ... unexpected situation where the majority leader of the Senate (Mitch McConnell) has not said that ... but instead will work hand in glove with the president's team."
Merkley said any senator who cannot bring impartial justice "should recuse themselves and not participate in the trial," which garnered applause.
Next, Vickie Jackson of Madras asked what is being done about the country's crumbling infrastructure.
Merkley said Congress had a big conversation about infrastructure in 2017 but instead decided to enact a tax bill and "cut taxes mostly for the wealthiest Americans and largest corporations."
He talked about his own trips to China, first "when bicycles filled the streets of Beijing." Now the country has a bullet train with 16,000 miles of track.
"What have we done in infrastructure over that same period?" he said.
He hopes next year Congress will "renew this conversation because we're not doing the job we should be doing. We benefit from the infrastructure built by the previous generation. We need to build the infrastructure for the next generation."
Flights over Agency Plains
Leslie Weigand brought up a more localized problem — "constant, obnoxious" air traffic. She said a Chinese company trains pilots, who fly over Agency Plains every day.
"County commissioners, help me out here," Merkley said.
He didn't think the question was federal in nature, but he referred her to two people on his team. He said his staff has provided assistance to people who have had trouble with mortgages, visas, veterans benefits and more.
Willamette University student Athena Marvitz was concerned about Vice President's Mike Pence support of conversion therapy camps for LGBTQ people, which aim to change a gay person's sexual orientation. She was especially concerned that Pence would become president if Trump is removed from office.
"There's been a lot of trauma associated with this," Merkley said. "He can't change the laws. That has to happen through Congress. Congress isn't going to help traumatize our children, I'll put it that way."
Merkley said there is still a lot of discrimination against the LGBTQ community, though not in Oregon because of state law he helped enact when he served in the Legislature "so doors cannot be slammed in your face because of who you are or who you love." He said the U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Equality Act. The Senate has not passed the bill, "so I'm going to keep working on that," Merkley said.
Child detention centers
Fran Davis of Crooked River Ranch spoke about detention centers for children whose parents are seeking asylum in the United States.
"I feel very strongly that we are doing a terrible mistake keeping those children in cages," she said. "What can we as citizens do?"Merkley said when he first read a speech by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions describing the administration's policy, he didn't think it could be true.
"It sounds like they're going to try to discourage immigration by traumatizing children," he said.
So Merkley went to the border to investigate. He was the first member of Congress to go into a processing center, where he saw children kept in 30-by-30-foot chain link "cages," he said.
He clarified that the cages had been used by previous administrations "but not used to separate children from their parents."
"I was just stunned," he said.
He went outside and told the press about it. The Washington Post gave him a "Pinocchio, saying that can't possibly be true," Merkley said. The newspaper later apologized.
He went to Brownsville, another detention center, and the supervisor called the police to meet him. Within two weeks, a full Congressional delegation visited the centers.
Before the end of the month, "the court had officially stopped child separation," he said.
Merkley said getting asylum is very difficult; only about 15% of applicants succeed.
"But while a person is in the process ... let's treat them with decency and respect," he said.
Salmon and steelhead
Don Jackson of Madras asked what was happening with the sustainability of salmon and steelhead given that sea lions were preying on them.
Merkley said that he had worked out a deal that allows people to "take sea lions," regulated by tribes and local governments. It has been passed into law and implemented.
Israel and Palestine
"Hundreds of children are arrested in Palestine every year. They are brutalized, they are physically beaten, sexually molested, and they are forced to sign confessions in Hebrew that they cannot read."
Rev. Michael Hart, Madras
The Rev. Michael Hart of Madras said he had challenged Merkley's fellow senator, Ron Wyden, about why he had voted against Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, or BDS, legislation, which is designed to "end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law," according to the movement's website. Hart is a member of the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church's Holy Land Task Force.
"It is working because Israel is scared right now," Hart said.
"Hundreds of children are arrested in Palestine every year," he continued. "They are brutalized, they are physically beaten, sexually molested, and they are forced to sign confessions in Hebrew that they cannot read."
In February, Merkley voted against a package of bills related to Israel policy, including the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would have allowed states to deny contracts to companies that refuse to do business with Israel or Israeli-owned enterprises.
Merkley said he voted against the bill not because he was "cheering on the BDS movement," which he has previously said sometimes uses anti-Semitic rhetoric. "I feel like this is a freedom of speech issue," Merkley said, adding that the power of the state should not be used to deny contracts to a company based on its opinion.
"I do believe that the only path to enduring peace in the Middle East is a two-state solution," Merkley said.
He said he hitchhiked through Israel in college, hopeful that because Egypt had worked out a peace agreement that Israel and Palestine could settle their differences.
"Now here we are four decades later and things have become much more hardened and much more difficult," he said. "I feel very strongly in support of Israel's democracy, but I also feel very strongly that we must fight for the fair and decent treatment of Palestinians."
Gail Snyder, executive director for the Coalition for the Deschutes, said given the lack of snow pack so far this year, drought is likely.
She asked Merkley if there was anything he could do to help North Unit Irrigation District get adequate water for farmers' crops.
Merkley said the details of how Wickiup Reservoir is managed is beyond his expertise.
He said he has worked to allocate federal money for piping projects, which saves water and allows it to be put back in the river, "so it's a win-win."
Melody Engstrom of Madras asked Merkley if he would make an endorsement in the Democratic primary and whether the election would be fair.
"I'm probably unlikely to make an endorsement," Merkley said, adding that he has celebrated that so many are willing to run, including five senators.
Merkley said one of the problems in the country is that states allocate all of their electoral college vote to the winner of the state, no matter how the vote was split. He said that discourages Republican candidates from going to bluer states and Democratic candidates from going to redder ones.
He would like to see the presidency decided by popular vote, a notion that the audience applauded.
Oregon has joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, where states agree to award all of their electors to the popular vote winner, provided states comprising at least 270 electoral college votes — a majority — adopt it. "So that's a possible piece of the puzzle," Merkley said.
"80, 90% of Americans agree that we shouldn't be ripped off by drug companies. If we can't get something like that done, then we know something's fundamentally wrong in our system, and we've got to fix it."
Capitalism and healthcare
Another questioner criticized the Republican Party, saying "You know, despite the distraction of the current administration, the Republican Party has adopted a position not of capitalism but of preservation of capital."
Education, housing and medical care costs have risen faster than wages, he said, adding that he wonders if there is "any movement to take on the adult conversation" that the U.S. can be a capitalist society that prioritizes people.
"I'd like to see us have that conversation," Merkley said.
Other business-oriented economies have well-funded public schools, daycare subsidies and free college, he said.
"If you let the capitalist economy crush the families, then you have a mess, and that's where we are right now," he said, adding that major countries "take away the stress of healthcare."
He asked how many people would like to see a simple, seamless healthcare system in the United States. All the hands went up.
He said Congress isn't taking on simple problems like the price of drugs.
For example, there are three proposals for taking on prescription drug prices —having Medicare negotiate prices, having approved pharmacies in Canada, and not being able to charge more than the average prices in Canada, Japan and Europe, he said. Of the three, that was the most popular among the audience.
"Ooh, I like that response because that's my bill," he said. "It's called a reference bill, and it just says you can't gouge Americans."
He said Trump expressed interest, then backed off a few weeks later because of the power of special interests.
"80, 90% of Americans agree that we shouldn't be ripped off by drug companies," Merkley said. "If we can't get something like that done, then we know something's fundamentally wrong in our system, and we've got to fix it."
"We must not let this escalate into another misguided war with the death of thousands of Americans and another trillion dollars of our national treasure."
Sid Snyder asked a "multiple choice question" that led Merkley to talk about authorization of military force and actions in Iran.
He said Congress's 2001 authorization of military force was specifically related to Al Qaeda and the 9/11 attackers.
"That ... has been stretched by administrations ever since, Democratic and Republican," he said.
He said the Constitution does not allow the president to go to war, despite precedent.
"You can't trust a decision that involves American lives and vast treasure to one person," Merkley said.
Regarding last week's killing of Iran's Gen. Qassem Soleimani by the U.S., Merkley said the general "has been involved in plotting bad deeds against Americans. No question." It's not clear exactly what he was doing, Merkley said.
"What is absolutely clear is that his status is equivalent to our secretary of defense," Merkley continued. " ... This is why you hear all the experts saying there will be retaliation. There will be reverberations. We must not let this escalate into another misguided war with the death of thousands of Americans and another trillion dollars of our national treasure."
Merkley concluded with a call for everyone in Congress to hold town halls so they can hear directly from the people, saying it is a privilege to serve.
Despite the hourlong session, Scott said 8-year-old Bonnie was surprised by how fast it went by.
"And Josie, she thought it was pretty satisfying, actually," Scott said.
Josie was a little disappointed that no one asked about climate change, but she was glad LGBTQ rights were addressed.
Merkley opened the floor to any students who had a question, regardless of whether their number was called.
The girls considered it, Scott said, but they weren't sure what to do.
"I think they decided that they were going to prepare a question and go back and ask next year," she said.
As for Scott, she didn't realize Merkley had a team that could work on people's problems, and she was impressed that he was willing to hear from any student.
Marilyn Clark of Culver was disappointed that members of the county Board of Commissioners did not attend. Mae Huston had a schedule conflict. Designated Republican county commissioners met in John Day to nominate a replacement for Oregon Sen. Cliff Bentz. He resigned from the Legislature to run for Greg Walden's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Walden is retiring at the end of his term.
Carina Miller, former Warm Springs Tribal Council member, said she appreciated the work Merkley does at the national level for rural Oregon.
Pinky Beymer, also of Warm Springs, said she appreciates how Merkley reaches across the aisle and tribal sovereignty.
"I want to know his issues and just give him support," she said.
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