Interview: What drives Senator Jeff Merkley

"We need to use every tool we have to reclaim our country," U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley told me during his latest visit to Des Moines. "We are at the verge of a tipping point, and maybe we're almost past it, in which the power of the mega-wealthy is so profound that we can't tip the balance back in to we the people."

The senator from Oregon spent much of Labor Day weekend in central Iowa supporting Democratic candidates for the state legislature. His fifth trip here since the 2016 election won't be his last: he will be a featured speaker at the Polk County Steak Fry later this month. During our September 2 interview, I asked Merkley about the most important matters pending in the U.S. Senate, prospects for Democrats in November, and his possible presidential candidacy.


Before getting into electoral politics, I wondered whether Merkley saw any path to blocking Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. Iowa's own Senator Chuck Grassley scheduled Judiciary Committee hearings on President Donald Trump's nominee this week. Merkley noted that many insiders didn't think it would be possible to stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. (He was one of the most vocal Senate critics of that trade agreement; the Obama administration finally gave up on gaining Congressional approval in late 2016.)

By the same token, "it looked like a done deal" when Republicans were trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017, with control of both chambers of Congress and the White House. Democrats kept opposing efforts to "undo health care for 20 or 30 million people," eventually persuading GOP Senators John McCain and Susan Collins to block proposed legislation.

Merkley considers it "outrageous" and "an enormous abuse of the process" to consider this nominee when "the documents on his record are being screened--censored, really--by a Republican lawyer who worked for Kavanaugh." (Hundreds of thousands of pages are being withheld, and 42,000 pages were released the night before hearings began.) "We're going to keep pushing for those documents," Merkley told me. Indeed, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee waged a "coordinated attack" on Grassley's handling of the matter during the first hours of hearings on September 4.

What we already know about Kavanaugh provides "many reasons he should not serve," Merely added: "his clear view to tear down Roe v Wade," his "anti-consumer work," hostility to workers' ability to negotiate. Not only that, the nominee's view of presidential power "is so expansive, it's fit for a king in a kingdom, but not for a republic and a president." Kavanaugh has argued the president shouldn't be investigated, can't be indicted, and has no obligation to follow a law he thinks is unconstitutional--even if courts have upheld the statute. This idea that the president is "beyond the law while serving" is nowhere in the U.S. Constitution, Merkley said. On the contrary, that concept is "exactly what George Washington feared."


Since Merkley is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for agriculture, I sought his insight on the state of play surrounding the Farm Bill. That legislation is in a conference committee after senators approved a bipartisan bill while House Republicans went in a much different direction.

Merkley enjoys the "very collaborative" work with his colleagues in this area. Trump's draft budget would have cut vital farm programs, including agricultural research, conservation, and crop insurance, but "Democrats and Republicans on the Senate side worked together to essentially keep the status quo in place and improve on it."

The "poison pills" in the House Farm Bill have made a deal before the election all but impossible. By separating food assistance from farm programs, House Republicans upended a "grand political compromise" that's worked well for agriculture and hungry Americans for decades, in Merkley's view. He expects conference talks to wrap up after the election, with the final Farm Bill close to the Senate approach.

While in Des Moines last September for the Progress Iowa Corn Feed, Merkley was optimistic Senate Democrats would be able to get the DREAM Act or something similar attached to a must-past bill before the end of 2017. It didn't happen. Do Democrats have any leverage to help immigrants who have temporarily been shielded from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program?

Merkley sees immigration as a November 2018 election issue. Senators were "very close" to negotiating an immigration package with a DACA fix last year. The problem was the president: "Tuesday Trump" was on board with a deal, but "Thursday Trump" went into a rage, spurred by "two days of Breitbart beating him up" for considering any legal protection for DREAMers.


Merkley went to Texas twice in June to investigate and sound the alarm about Trump's family separation policy. Before visiting an immigrant detention center in Brownsville, Merkley thought "they can't really be doing this." He expected to find that federal officials' "talk greatly exceeded their action." Instead, he witnessed "extraordinarily dark moments" that stemmed from the administration "deciding to rip children away from their parents' arms at the border."

At a processing center, he found "kids being sorted into cages." He was barred from entering a former Walmart where he had heard as many as 1,000 boys might be held. Returning on Father's Day with other members of Congress, he learned that nearly 1,500 boys were in that building, up from about 300 a few months earlier. "The more that we found, the more bad things that were going on."

Many parents were told their children were being taken to the bathroom or for a medical check, but the kids never returned. The detention center was "absolutely unprepared" for the population explosion. They were short on many supplies and urgently needed some 90 mental health counselors, but had trouble recruiting them. "That shows you the lack of planning and the callousness," Merkley said. "Every aspect was callous."

Although U.S. officials had claimed immigrants could seek asylum at any port of entry, Merkley learned on Father's Day that border guards were blocking people without visas or passports from crossing the pedestrian bridge at Hidalgo. In other words, migrants were not allowed to present their case for asylum. Even worse, under new rules imposed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, only those threatened by a foreign government are eligible for asylum, not immigrants at risk of being killed by a gang or criminal enterprise in their home country.

Since Merkley drew attention to this policy, many adults have approached him to describe their own traumatic experiences of family separation. "It's very dark, and it's very evil," and he still finds it hard to believe that Sessions, Trump, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and presidential adviser Stephen Miller thought this policy was a good idea.

The administration never had a plan for reuniting these families, Merkley said. A lot of parents were led to believe that if they gave up their asylum claim, they would soon see their children again. It was a lie. The ACLU has a team trying to connect parents with children detained in this country, but the task is "progressing really, really slowly" because the government didn't collect good contact information before deporting asylum-seekers.


When I asked Merkley what else was worth watching for in the Senate, either before or after the election, he brought up two significant proposals he recently helped block. Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker drafted a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that "would have transferred the responsibility for declaring war essentially from Congress to the president." The president could order military action against terrorism in any new area, and Congress would have needed a supermajority vote in both chambers to stop it "after the horse was out of the barn." The idea had momentum and support from Democratic Senator Tim Kaine.

Merkley offered a different AUMF "that's in sync with the Constitution." By "dramatizing the contrast" and the potential "abdication of Article I powers," he persuaded other senators to abandon Corker's proposal.

Also this summer, Republicans wanted to add language to an appropriations bill that would "establish internment camps" for immigrant children who entered the country without authorization. Iowa's Senators Grassley and Joni Ernst signed on to versions of that idea, seeking to override the 1997 Flores consent agreement prohibiting the detention of children for more than 20 days.

Merkley put up a separate amendment saying no, we are not going to allow internment camps under any circumstances. The upshot was "neither one got a vote, which was my whole intention, was to block them from doing that." He said the Republican excuses for their proposal were not valid. Families don't "disappear" if not detained; a study of the Family Case Management Program showed 98 percent of families showed up for their check-ins, and 100 percent showed up for their asylum hearings. "There's no excuse for child separation under any moral code or religious tradition. There is no excuse for saying we're going to throw families behind barbed wire like we did with Japanese-Americans during World War II. It's just absolutely wrong. "


Having traveled extensively around the country and visited Iowa five times in the past year, what is Merkley's big takeaway? "There's a tremendous amount of grassroots energy." On other trips, Democrats wondered if they would be able to sustain that energy through the election. "The answer now is clearly yes." He'd be "terrified" if he were a Republican legislative leader.

This November's election will be the first in living memory without an oval for straight-ticket voting near the top of the Iowa ballot. Oregon doesn't have that option, so I asked Merkley how he thought the change might play out here. He speculated that people who feel more aggrieved and "determined to reclaim something that looks like the America we know and love, government by and for the people," will be fired up to vote all the way down the ballot.

As a former speaker of the Oregon House, what would Merkley say to someone who wants Democrats to win but doesn't feel comfortable knocking on doors or calling strangers on the phone? Those who hate cold-calling or persuasion calls can reach out in other ways, he said, for instance by contacting known Democratic supporters to recruit volunteers.

If partisan engagement is too daunting, Merkley added, people should look for different paths to be involved in their community. "You can be in despair, or you can be in the fight. And being in the fight is far better for your health, and far better for our collective good." Maybe that means volunteering at a food bank or for Habitat for Humanity or by planting trees, every one of which will draw carbon dioxide out of the air. "Don't sit home and just wallow in your despair. That's not ok. That's immoral."


Merkley told me he has no specific time frame for deciding whether to run for president in 2020. He and his wife have been talking about it and will revisit the subject after the November election.

The question I have: Everybody who comes here [to Iowa] has a different life story and a different style. And I have no idea if my life story, my blue-collar roots and the battles I've fought on the environment, and on predatory lending, and equality, and this whole host of things--I don't know if these things will resonate. Only one way to find out.

If they hadn't resonated at all, then my life would be much less complicated right now. But it's been a very good reception. And maybe that's just the graciousness with which everyone in Iowa treats everyone, so we'll try to figure that out."

Health care reform is a top priority for many Democratic activists and will likely be a major theme of the next Iowa caucus campaign, so I asked Merkley to clarify his stance. The only sitting U.S. senator to endorse Bernie Sanders for president is a co-sponsor of Sanders' Medicare for All bill, which would create a single-payer system. But in April, Merkley and Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut introduced the Choose Medicare Act, which would allow individuals or employers to buy a Medicare policy on their state's health insurance exchange. The concept is similar to the "public option" progressives sought when Congress was debating the Affordable Care Act.

What is Merkley's preference, and which approach would he campaign on if he ran for president? "Medicare for All is a vision that I absolutely think makes so much sense, and have advocated for continuously. How do you get there?"

The Sanders bill starts with a descending age, a proposal floated when the Affordable Care Act was being drafted. For a week, Democrats thought they had 60 Senate votes in favor of lowering the Medicare age to 55. Then Senator Joe Lieberman "bailed on us," and they were stuck because they needed a Republican to get the bill through.

Merkley still supports that concept, but he doesn't want to put all his eggs in that basket.

This is the right time to think about every strategy so that we have done homework on a variety of ways to see what we can really make happen.

Do we go straight up the mountain? Do we zigzag back and forth? Do we circle in an upward path? How do we get there?

So this Choose Medicare [bill] is saying look, lots of people are already spending money on the exchange. Why not let them choose a Medicare policy? Lots of companies are already buying policies for their employees. Why not let them choose a Medicare policy?

The combination of those two things would give a Medicare option to the vast bulk of America. And because it's voluntary, you aren't being forced to choose it, we have a much better shot of getting the political votes that we need to make it happen.

But this is brainstorming over how to get there. And I think this is the right moment for brainstorming. Because when we find a window of opportunity, we won't want to be, "Well, let's start researching. If this path doesn't work, what are the other paths?"

No. We already need to have developed a set of ideas so we can find one and make it happen before that window of opportunity closes.

I suspect a Medicare buy-in would have broader appeal in a state like Iowa, where the uninsured rate is relatively low. Many people are happy with their employer-provided coverage and wouldn't want to give it up for a public plan. But why prevent others from buying into Medicare on the exchange?

Another reason Merkley wanted to develop this idea in more detail: Oregon has had success with what he described as a "public option for workers' compensation." The state accident insurance fund brought down rates for private workers' compensation too, because it created more competition. He said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a former insurance commissioner of Rhode Island, told him adopting an Oregon-style program had halved workers' comp rates in his state as well.

Merkley is confident that allowing individual consumers and businesses to choose Medicare would reduce costs for private insurance policies. Corporations in that sector would feel pressure to put more dollars into "real health care" rather than administrative expenses. "You can't predict exactly how the planets will line up, but let's be prepared with every idea having been worked through so we're ready to seize the opportunity."


Another debate often heard in Democratic circles: should the party push for tuition-free college, at least at public institutions? Or should the focus be on investing enough in higher education to make college debt-free for students?

Merkley said Oregon has very affordable community college for people who go straight from high school. Pell grants from the federal government cover a lot of the cost, so the state doesn't have to kick in very much to make it happen. When he was leaving high school, the state invested enough in public universities that if you worked full-time and lived at home during the summer, you could save enough to nearly pay for the next year's college tuition. It was close to debt-free.

"If we could do it 40 years ago, why can't we do it today? It's because we're sending, essentially, the resources of the country to the richest Americans, rather than investing in the ability of families to thrive." Merkley pointed to the "tax scam" Republicans approved late last year. "It's the biggest bank heist in the history of this planet. A trillion and a half dollars" borrowed in order to shower more tax cuts on the wealthy. "It happened here in America. It shows you how corrupted our government has become through voter suppression, through gerrymandering, and through dark money in campaigns, Koch brother, cartel-style money in campaigns."

Look at the three big things the Republican Congress did in 2017, Merkley said: the "bank heist," a series of bills "to destroy health care for 30 million Americans," and a successful effort to "steal a Supreme Court seat to maintain the corruption that exists right now. This is something I never anticipated seeing in the United States."

Democrats urgently need to win back the Senate or presidency "to stop any more court-packing by these people who do not believe in the vision of our constitution." The U.S. Supreme Court hasn't taken on gerrymandering, "opened the door to voter suppression" by striking down a large section of the Voting Rights Act, and opened the door to huge amounts of dark money through the Citizens United ruling.

I asked Merkley whether he would be open to a universal basic income program, which presidential candidate Andrew Yang is advocating. Yang maintains the old Democratic prescriptions of education and job retraining give people false hope, because the well-paying jobs aren't coming back and retraining programs mostly don't work.

"I really like the idea of guaranteed jobs. There is so much work to be done in our country," Merkley said. For instance, Oregon has millions of acres of second-growth forests that are prone to burning. They need "massive amounts of thinning to restore something similar to a normal forest. Well, that's a hell of a lot of jobs in the woods. It's not that everybody should move to Oregon and work in the woods, but it's just an example of work that needs to be done."

Is he talking about a Civilian Conservation Corps type of approach?

Yes, yes, types of jobs that pay well with benefits. And the reason I lean in that direction, of jobs being created in the cities and wherever, is because a job creates structure to your life. It creates pride. It creates--a job is much more than just the income. It is a key part of the foundation for a thriving family. A check is not the same thing.


Some Democrats believe the party needs a tougher stance against Republicans. At the recent Iowa Democratic Wing Ding in Clear Lake, possible presidential candidates Michael Avenatti and Representative Tim Ryan promised to fight the GOP and Trump. In contrast, a major theme of Representative John Delaney's presidential campaign is that Democrats should be more bipartisan to build a broader coalition, as many voters are turned off by divisive politics. Where does Merkley see himself in this debate?

We need to use every tool we have to reclaim our country. We are at the verge of a tipping point, and maybe we're almost past it, in which the power of the mega-wealthy is so profound that we can't tip the balance back in to we the people. And this is what I mean by, if we don't understand that the dark money in campaigns is a strategy of the rich to keep controlling, buying Congress--you don't have government by and for the people if people can basically buy the elections with massive infusions of cash.

Money doesn't always determine election outcomes, but we saw in 2014 that the Koch brothers put hundreds of millions of dollars into the U.S. Senate races, including in Iowa, in order to "become the Senate puppet-masters," Merkley said. "They use these front groups" like Freedom Partners and Generation Opportunity. When they started attacking him in Oregon, he told his team, "We've got to punch back. We've got to rip away their facade." Merkley recalled, "My team was terrified"--the dark money groups had put in $5 million, but they could put in $50 million. "I wrote the ad, because my team didn't want to." Here's that television commercial:

Script: "The out of state oil billionaire Koch brothers have come to Oregon, spending millions on deceptive attack ads to elect Monica Wehby. Because Wehby and the Koch brothers share an agenda that will cost us. An agenda that guts the Clean Air Act. That gives more tax breaks to millionaires. And rewards corporations that ship American jobs overseas. Monica Wehby may be a good investment for the Koch brothers, but she's the wrong choice for Oregon."

The strategy worked, Merkley said. The groups left a month later.

We kicked them out of our state, and we need to kick them out of every state, but we have to rip away the cover they hide behind. They do not want to be exposed in that fashion. So let's expose them. And that means we have to fight.

This isn't about being gracious. This is about saying raw political power from the wealthy is destroying the concept of our government, our we-the-people government, and we want our America back. It's our America, and we want a we-the-people republic, not government by and for the Koch brothers.

Along those lines, Merkley described his years of work in the Oregon House to take on payday lenders. Those loans of 300 percent, 400 percent, sometimes 500 percent interest rates created "a vortex of debt that sucks you down into bankruptcy." For eight years as a member of the minority party, he pushed for reform. "So, I lost. I lost, I lost, I lost, I lost. And then I became speaker. And then I won. But I won, I think, by one vote." During that fight, some Oregon lawmakers said these payday lending companies create jobs. He had to demonstrate that the business model destroys more jobs.

In the U.S. Senate, he worked intensely on the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. One battle was against "liar loans," when advisers got kickbacks for steering people into subprime mortgages on false pretenses. The deals often ended in foreclosure, cheating consumers out of "the most important investment to building wealth for middle-class families."

You don't defeat powerful interest groups "by being nice. You take it on by laying out what's wrong and carrying the fight and holding people accountable," Merkley said. "Are you going to stand for this predatory assault on America's families? Or are you going to stand with us and end this practice? [...] You've got to clarify the battle lines."

I had one more question about a fault line in Democratic activist circles: should candidates talk mostly about economic issues and less about so-called "identity politics" (such as reproductive rights, LGBTQ equality, racial justice), in order to win back white working-class voters who drifted to Trump?

Merkley rejected that as a false choice. It's "absolutely clear" that Democrats can fight for justice "on multiple fronts at the same time." Working families "have gotten the short end of the stick for four decades." We should be crafting an infrastructure bill to put people to work and taking on trade in a constructive way, not "throwing bricks" that come back to hurt our agricultural exports. "We can fight for fairness in incarceration" and also fight for health care, living wage jobs, housing, debt-free college and other "key issues for working families."


Before our interview ended, Merkley wanted to talk about climate change, an issue he's focused on in the Senate. "You see the impacts of a warming planet everywhere." Oregon is experiencing longer and "more horrific fire seasons," destroying forests and producing smoke that hurts the economy. Other parts of the country have had more intense hurricanes, floods, droughts, or soil erosion. The estimated damage from climate-related incidents in the U.S. last year was $300 billion.

"We have a responsibility to take on the driving force of carbon pollution," Merkley said. He's sponsored legislation designed to keep more fossil fuels in the ground and strive for generating 100 percent of energy from clean, renewable sources. We can't think in terms of "a little more energy conservation in appliances or better mileage in cars" anymore. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have gone up 100 parts per million in his lifetime. "The goal has to be to end the burning of fossil fuels," and we need to puruse it intensely.

Reorienting the energy economy would create millions of jobs, maybe tens of millions of jobs, Merkley added. Plus, the energy economy would be "cheaper than what we have now," because wind and solar are now cheaper than fossil fuels. Renovating house creates a lot of jobs.

Democrats couldn't get a cap-and-trade bill through the Senate when they had 60 votes. Does Merkley believe we need to think about a carbon tax? Merkley sees a lot of potential support for some form of carbon tax, which is simpler and would be more fair than the ill-fated cap-and-trade proposal of 2009/2010. But "we shouldn't think about that instrument alone," he said. We need to find ways to allow people to generate more electricity with small-scale wind or solar. That's a good economic investment. We need utilities to work with us on allowing more distributed solar. "It's better economically, better environmentally, and better for jobs."

The argument against such policies is that electricity bills will go up quickly, but climate change seems like a distant problem. "We have to shatter several of the myths that the Koch brothers have promoted to try to basically destroy renewable energy," Merkley countered. They claim that if we act on climate change, other countries won't. But they are acting. China and India are going through dramatic changes. Nor are renewables more costly. A Colorado energy company put out a request for proposals and found wind and solar was cheaper than generating electricity in an already-depreciated coal-fired power plant. Let's allow people to put a solar field in an empty lot, or a solar canopy above parking lots, or community solar projects for school roofs.

Merkley sees an opening to reach some voters who are not ready to acknowledge the climate is changing. Even if you're not ready to say we need to solve that problem, "stand with people's right to produce their own energy, fight for the opportunity to renovate our energy industry to get that cheaper energy and to create those jobs."

For those who want to hear what a potential Jeff Merkley stump speech might sound like, here's the full audio clip of his remarks as the featured guest speaker at the Progress Iowa Corn Feed in Des Moines in September 2017.

The next chance for Iowans to meet Merkley will be at the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry on Saturday, September 29. The other three headliners at that event will be Representative John Delaney of Maryland (who has been campaigning for president in Iowa for the past year), Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, and former advisor to President Barack Obama Alyssa Mastromonaco.

Top image: Iowa House candidate Heather Matson (left) and Iowa Democratic Party First Vice Chair Andrea Phillips watch Senator Jeff Merkley speak to activists at a field office opening in Ankeny on September 3. Cropped from a photo by Amber Gustafson, used with permission.

  • His forest/job comments were interesting

    Here in Iowa, we don't have huge forests that need thinning. But we do have huge water quality and flooding problems that can only be solved by transforming and healing our landscape and undoing some of the damage that has been done to it over the past 150 years. There are plenty of new jobs in that, whether in private businesses or public work programs. They range from growing seed for cover crops and prairie plantings to the earth-moving that is needed for wetland restoration. The work is there. What we need is the will.

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