Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
Experience: Former speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives; former executive director of Portland Habitat for Humanity; nuclear weapons analyst for the Congressional Budget Office
WASHINGTON — When Jeff Merkley arrived in the nation’s capital in 2009 as a newly elected senator, it was not his first stint in Washington.
But it quickly became obvious to the Portland Democrat that the Congress of which he was now a member was very different from the ones he knew as an intern for Sen. Mark Hatfield in the 1970s and later as a nuclear weapons analyst for the Congressional Budget Office in the 1980s.
Merkley immediately felt “deep disappointment over how dysfunctional the U.S. Senate had become,” he recalled in an interview with The Bulletin last week as he discussed this year’s run for a second term.
Because of Senate rules requiring a 60-vote supermajority to overcome even a single senator’s objections, a resolute minority could impede most Senate business.
“We can’t have three coequal branches in the Constitution if the minority of one branch” — 41 senators out of 535 members of Congress — “can prevent the other two branches from being staffed with judges or executive appointments,” he said.
So Merkley did something about it. He became a leading proponent of filibuster reform. Last year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., capitulated to the reformers, and the Senate changed its rules, after several gentleman’s agreements on nominations with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., dissolved into partisan clashes.
Nominations, except for the U.S. Supreme Court, now only require a simple majority to advance and pass. Legislation still requires a 60-vote supermajority to overcome a filibuster.
The change demonstrated both Merkley’s perseverance — he lobbied for years to help win over stubborn colleagues leery of changing venerable Senate traditions — and his sense of fairness: If a rule is being abused, better to change the rule than to find your own loophole to exploit.
Merkley credits his own upbringing as the son of a millwright in southern Oregon with instilling the values that guide him. His two children attend the same high school, David Douglas High School, from which he graduated, and when he needs inspiration, he looks at the lives of his neighbors in east Portland.
“There are many people in Congress who come from very powerful backgrounds, with family legacies of power and wealth. There’s not many folks who come from basically a blue-collar background and continue to live in a blue-collar community,” he said. “I’m not sure, but I may be the only one.”
Merkley was the 61st wealthiest senator in 2012, according to an analysis of personal finance forms by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog on money and politics. His net worth, difficult to pin down because of the wide ranges on financial disclosure forms, was between $79,024 and $2,471,996.
“The vast bulk of Oregonians are working-class people who just want a fair shot. The advocacy for that fair shot is where all my votes come from,” he said.
Merkley faces nominal opposition in the May 20 Democratic primary from William Bryk and Pavel Goberman, but neither candidate has filed a campaign finance report with the Federal Election Commission, probably because neither has raised the $5,000 that triggers a filing requirement. And neither appears to be actively campaigning.
Merkley remains a vocal supporter and co-sponsor of a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10. On Wednesday, the bill failed to overcome a GOP-led filibuster.
Looking ahead, Merkley said his top priority if elected to a second term would be creating good-paying jobs.
As it recovers, the economy is “not giving folks the (kind of) jobs you can base a family on,” he said. “We shouldn’t be focused as much on the gross domestic product, or as much on the Dow Jones” industrial average when considering the state of the recovery, but on the ability of working-class Americans to earn a living wage.
During the recession, high-wage jobs accounted for 41 percent of the jobs losses, but only 30 percent of the recent job growth, according to a recent study by the National Employment Law Center. Conversely, low-wage jobs made up 22 percent of the jobs lost during the recession, but 44 percent of the jobs filled during the recovery.
“When it comes to living-wage jobs,” Merkley said, “(people) need somebody to fight for them.”
Affordable Care Act and Cover Oregon
During his first term in office, Merkley has been a supporter of the Affordable Care Act. The issue will likely play a significant role in the general election whether or not the Republican nominee is Portland neurosurgeon Monica Wehby. Wehby faces State Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, and three other candidates in the primary.
In the intervening years since the law was passed, Oregon has become a cautionary tale as its online health care exchange, Cover Oregon, never became fully functional, despite spending hundreds of millions of federal government dollars. Last month, Oregon officials announced they would abandon the failed exchange and instead send customers to the federal exchange, healthcare.gov.
If he had to do it again, Merkley said he would still vote for the act.
“Let’s start with recognizing that there are 300,000 Oregonians who gained access to health care through this act,” said Merkley, who enrolled in the program himself using a paper application, so he shares the frustration of his constituents who could not use Cover Oregon to sign up online. “Access to health care is a huge quality-of-life factor,” he said.
The law includes provisions for more doctors, nurse practitioners and other health care providers, which is essential as health professionals who are baby boomers are going to be retiring just as other baby boomers create the need for additional health care providers, he said.
Additionally, 900,000 Oregonians have gotten free preventive services under the Affordable Care Act, he said.
“It is the wisdom of our mothers: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he said.
The law also ended predatory practices deeply embedded in the health care system, he said, such as the ability to deny coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions. This applies to roughly half of people 55 and older, he said.
It also made rescission illegal, he said, referring to the practice of dropping a policyholder’s coverage after he or she has incurred a major injury or illness.
Merkley vowed to work with any member of Congress on either side of the aisle to make needed improvements to the law.
“Nothing this complicated is going to be without some missteps that need to be corrected. But we cannot go back to a system where health care is for the healthy and the wealthy,” he said.
Merkley said he held almost 40 town halls across Oregon in January and February, and fielded very few questions about health care.
“There is no sense that a majority of Oregonians think we were better off with the predatory system of the past than we are with a fair shot at getting health care today,” he said.
— Reporter: 202-662-7456, firstname.lastname@example.org