EUGENE — President Donald Trump is pingponging so rapidly between issues and advisers that Congress is frustrated by the inability to sustain a dialogue with the White House on issues foreign and domestic, Sen. Jeff Merkley said in an interview with The Bulletin.
“We have never seen anything like this particular president before,” Merkley said on Monday, “a president who is very unknowledgeable on policy issues — domestic and international, a president uninterested in learning.”
Merkley, 60, was re-elected in 2014 to a second six-year term. The junior senator to fellow Democrat Ron Wyden, Merkley was in Eugene for one of the over 30 town halls he has held since the beginning of the year. An unabashed progressive Democrat, Merkley won favor across Oregon during his re-election bid. In Deschutes County, he was the only Democrat to win a majority of county voters in any major race.
Merkley beat Republican Monica Wehby by over 7 percent of the vote. Statewide, Merkley beat Wehby by 16 percent.
While there are specific issues and problems, the underpinning of nearly every debate is the wild swings in staff and policy direction by President Trump.
The fallout is that Trump’s default approach is to tear down whatever is in place without a solid idea on what to do afterwards, Merkley said. That ranges from repealing the Affordable Care Act to NATO to handling the emerging threat of North Korea’s nuclear program.
“There has been a lot of opportunity for misunderstanding, for miscommunication, that could result in warfare,” Merkley said.
But the same approach impacts every state, county and city, Merkley said. In Oregon, scores of federal positions have gone unfilled, leaving local governments and officials with no reliable contact — or at best, placeholder officials — to key partners such as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice.
Merkley pointed to President Trump signing the declaration of emergency for damage from last winter’s ice storms that caused severe damage throughout Oregon, including Deschutes County. The original request was ignored, then rejected. When the state’s delegation to Washington asked for a reversal, it heard nothing — until Trump’s decision was announced Tuesday.
With wildfires an annual event, Merkley said he wants to end the problem of “fire borrowing,” in which the U.S. Forest Service has to fight blazes out of its annual allotment of funds from Congress.
“For the top 1 or 2 percent of fires, the really big ones, there ought to be a FEMA-like fund that would treat them just like we would a hurricane or earthquake,” Merkley said.
During the interview and town halls in the Willamette Valley on Monday, Merkley hit on a range of themes.
The electoral college defeat of Hillary Clinton last year showed that Democrats need to show Americans more clearly what they are for, not just that they are against Trump. It wasn’t good enough that people have jobs, health care and education — they should be quality.
Merkley said he was concerned with efforts by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to attack businesses and individuals who are growing and selling marijuana in Oregon and other states where cannabis is legal.
The health care debate and possible Republican tax reform plans are about shifting more of the nation’s wealth to those who are already rich, Merkley said, while compiling deficits that future generations will have to pay for.
As a consistent “no” vote on Trump’s appointments requiring the Senate’s “advise and consent” power, Merkley said he was concerned that Trump could try to use the summer and year-end breaks to make “recess appointments” that would circumvent Senate approval.
“It would help if the administration would catch up on nominations,” Merkley said. “But they have to be quality nominees. The whole purpose of the Senate’s ‘advise and consent’ role is to weed out incompetent nominees. And we are seeing a lot of those.”
To head off the tactic, the Senate is holding brief sessions amounting to little more than a lawmaker banging the gavel, to officially break up the recess into smaller periods, which each time resets the clock on when Trump could take advantage of the law.
Merkley was elected to the state House in 1998 representing an area around Portland.
He was Speaker of the House during the 2007-08 session. In November 2008, he ran for the U.S. Senate, defeating two-term incumbent Republican Gordon Smith. Born in Myrtle Creek in Douglas County his family lived in Roseburg before settling in Portland.
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