U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley faced questions about impeachment, gun rights and abortion right off the bat during a town hall meeting at the Madden Brothers Performing Arts Center in John Day May 30.
“I’ve never had so many tough questions in a row,” he said after addressing all three.
About 200 people attended the meeting. Merkley met earlier with officials from the Grant County Court, the city of John Day and other local cities and timber industry representatives.
After 10 years in the Oregon Legislature, Merkley was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008. The ranking Democrat of the Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on Agriculture and Rural Development, Merkley also sits on the Senate’s Budget, Foreign Relations and Environment and Public Works committees.
On the tough questions at his town hall meeting, Merkley said he felt comfortable that gun rights could be protected even if background checks were made stronger. While a broad consensus exists in favor of background checks, other measures were more controversial, he said, such as restricting high-capacity magazines.
When asked by Grant Union High School freshman Riley Robertson if liberal abortion policies were a convenient form of birth control, Merkley said no. Government was not a suitable decision maker for this issue, he said. Abortion decisions should be made by women, their spouses and their spiritual advisers, he said.
Several people asked if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, was blocking bills in the Senate. Merkley explained that Senate rules have created a situation where the majority leader can control what bills are brought to the floor and the amendment process. Both Democrats and Republicans have abused this position and contributed to the degradation of the system, he said.
Merkley said he didn’t know why McConnell was blocking efforts to protect U.S. elections from interference by Russians or other foreign governments, but the White House has shown no interest in this issue. McConnell’s sole focus now was on getting federal judges approved, he said.
Russia hacked election equipment and used social media and robots to influence elections in the U.S. and in other democratic countries, Merkley said. While Russia has a modest-sized economy, about the size of Spain’s, it exerts a greater global influence by possessing nuclear weapons and using the internet to influence elections, he said.
Russia will continue its election meddling, Merkley said, further accelerating division within the U.S. Other governments might follow Russia’s lead in this effort. The U.S. response so far has been totally unsatisfactory, he said.
Adele Cerny expressed concern about President Donald Trump’s attitude toward war and the lack of funding and staffing in the State Department needed for diplomatic efforts.
Merkely referred to two amendments that recently failed to pass in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. One called for Congressional approval for use of U.S. military forces in Venezuela and the other called for the same for Iran.
A possible explanation for why Congress leaves it up to the president when it comes to use of military power overseas is the fear of making a mistake, Merkley explained. If Congress calls for use of military power and the facts are wrong, it can look very bad for Congress. If Congress withholds military power when in fact it’s needed, that could be worse, he said.
When Grant Union senior Tanner Elliott asked if eliminating the electoral college was a good idea, Merkley said yes. The system might have served a purpose 200 years ago, but presidential candidates need to be chosen by direct election as a way to reduce the extreme tribal divisiveness currently seen in U.S. politics. Merkley said he introduced a constitutional amendment to provide for direct elections, but he didn’t think it would get very far.
One day earlier, Merkley announced he had introduced a bill to create economic opportunities in forest-dependent communities while reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
The Wildfire-Resilient Communities Act would establish a $1 billion fund to enable the Forest Service to increase the pace and scale of catastrophic wildfire reduction projects; empower federal agencies to work with local communities to plan and prepare for wildfires; permanently reauthorize the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program so more projects can receive funding in a fiscal year; and create a County Stewardship Fund that would provide payments to counties equal to 25% of stewardship contract receipts on federal land within their counties.
“Folks here in Central Oregon and all across our state know firsthand that increasingly severe wildfires pose major threats to the health and economies of our communities,” Merkley said in a press release.