Q & A with Senator Merkley

Kevin Kamberg

When Sen. Merkley's Online Media Director Sarah offered me the chance to interview Jeff I immediately jumped at the opportunity. I posted some excerpts from it on my blog earlier this morning, but this is the "full monty" version in it's entirety.

Q:

You recently co-sponsored the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act which, as you put it, "is a step in the right direction to make sure that all Americans are compensated equally under the law." Would this extend to members of the military, or civilian employees of the DoD?

A:

The Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act will extend the same employee and health benefits that married couples have to all federal employees regardless of their sexual orientation and that includes employees at the DOD. However, the bill does not extend health and employment benefits to members of the military because it’s in conflict with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I believe it is long past time to get rid of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and allow members of the military to receive the same benefits married couples have as well as be able to serve openly in the military.

Q:

Concealed handguns are prohibited in federal facilities without regard to whether they're allowed in state facilities - in Oregon they are generally allowed under state law. So why should concealed handguns be allowed in federal parks? After all, you can't even put a canoe in Yellowstone without a permit while none is required for Wyoming's state waterways.

A:

Right now, a person could be driving down the highway going from state to federal parkland and be totally unaware they are breaking federal law. The amendment I supported simply puts the matter in the hands of the states and allows them to determine whether or not firearms are allowed on parklands within the state’s borders.

Q:

During the 2008 election season the Insurance Research Organization published a report asserting that "Blue Cross of Massachusetts employs more people to administer coverage to 2.5 million New Englanders than are employed in all of Canada to administer single payer coverage to 27 million Canadians." In light of this claim, what are your thoughts on the various health care plans going through Congress, which do you feel is most effective, and why?

A:

Currently, America spends nearly twice as much as other industrialized nations on health care but we rank 37th in terms of outcome. The issue is not health care spending – it’s wise health care spending. We must take steps to ensure that health care funding is used to actually improve patients’ health and cover more Americans.

For the last several months the Senate HELP Committee, which I am a member of, has been working diligently to design a health care reform bill that will provide health care to every American. I am fighting for the plan to include aggressive strategies to reduce costs including prevention, disease management, evidence-based practices and wellness strategies.

I am also fighting for the plan to include a public option. I believe citizens should have a choice of the type of plan they want, including a Medicare-style option. This would encourage competition and keep the insurance companies’ feet to the fire on policy pricing.

For both cost-saving reforms and a public option, these battles are not yet won. We need all the help we can get from the progressive community to push on these issues.

Q:

Given the recent passage of the Credit Card Act, do you feel that the time is approaching for a potential interest rate cap? Would you want to help lead the charge on this idea?

A:

In Oregon, we had a situation where predatory payday lenders were charging triple digit interest rates, draining the wealth from our families and ensnaring them in a cycle of debt. We put an interest cap on those loans and the worst offenders went out of business. Workers are still able to access short-term loans if necessary, but now those loans are made on a much more level playing field.

It makes sense to pursue a similar strategy with credit cards and I supported Senator Sanders’ amendment that would cap interest rates. It wasn’t successful but it is an issue we may want to reconsider in the future. I’m very pleased with the strong reforms in the CARD Act, and hopefully by informing and empowering consumers we’ll get reasonable interest rates without a cap.

Consumer protection is the best systemic risk regulation. I believe we also need a financial products safety commission which will regulate and ban deceptive practices in financial products such as mortgages, credit cards and consumer loans.

Q:

Are you thinking of anything particular that can be done to improve on the gains you've seen so far for homeowners with respect to mortgages?

A:

Absolutely. We must regulate the mortgage industry and end deceptive practices that trap families into mortgages they can’t afford. Recently I introduced two bills that will help prevent mortgage crises in the future. The first is the Promoting Mortgage Responsibility Act which will ban prepayment penalties that charge excessive fees and make it nearly impossible for a family to renegotiate into a more affordable loan. The second is the Transparency for Homeowners that will ban steering payments that lure homeowners into mortgages they can’t afford.

We also need to revisit the issue of mortgage modification. I’m closely monitoring the implementation of the Administration’s foreclosure prevention programs and trying to ensure that families with homes that are underwater or who are looking at short-term income loss have options. The lifeline option that would allow bankruptcy judges to alter the terms of home mortgages – just as they do with yacht loans and vacation home loans – is also an important part of the solution. Millions more families face foreclosure over the next few years. If we do not have the tools to prevent these foreclosures, we’re just going to continue down the spiraling path of empty homes, lower home values and more foreclosures.

Q:

What are your thoughts on the recent California Supreme Court ruling on the state's Proposition 8? In light of this ruling, what do you feel is the future of marriage equality in Oregon?

A:

As a supporter of gay marriage, I am very disappointed that Prop 8 was allowed to stand, but glad that the couples who married while gay marriage was allowed in California had their marriages upheld. But the court decision in California shouldn’t overshadow the tremendous gains that have been made in just the last few months. It was exciting to see Iowa become the first state in the heartland to end marriage discrimination. In addition, a number of states decided that the politics of division weren’t strong enough to prevent them from doing the right thing. Moreover, polls show an ever-increasing number of Americans support extending marriage rights to same sex couples.

While Oregon’s constitutional amendment defining marriage is a significant obstacle to the establishment of equality in Oregon, I am hopeful that the conversation in Oregon will continue and that Oregon will eventually choose to support marriage equality as the only right course under our U.S. constitutional guarantee of equality under the law for all Americans.

Q:

Senator Wyden and former Senator Smith famously met weekly over lunch to discuss policy priorities for Oregon. Have you and Senator Wyden continued the tradition? Has the fact that both of you are members of the same caucus changed the nature of the tradition?

A:

We do carry on the tradition and meet for breakfast every week. Senator Wyden and I are forging a strong partnership based on a belief that a united effort will reap benefits for the people of our state.

Q:

In light of President Obama nominating Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, would you speak to your own personal guiding principles on where non-judicial criteria such as gender, ethnicity and religion rank compared to judicial criteria such as legal expertise and temperament?

A:

Strong experience in various legal fields is incredibly important when it comes to being qualified for a judicial appointment. In regards to other criteria, I do believe that a person’s life experiences provide insight on constitutional issues. The job of a Supreme Court justice is in large part about making judgments regarding competing values, and how a person views the world is relevant. It is important, therefore, to build a Supreme Court that reflects the diversity of America in gender, race and life experience.

Q:

The bean soup served in the Senatorial dining room is legendary. Could you slip on a food critic's hat and describe it for Oregon foodies?

A:

I have not tried it yet, but I heard it’s pretty good.

On a side note, Carla noted in her write up of Sen. Merkley's visit to Washington County that "there seemed to be an especially high population of anti-immigrant folks among the questioners." Well, that was not by accident. Turns out that it was a planned crashing of the Town Hall specifically to target Senator Merkley, and the same folks are planning another act of what they call Resistance when Sen. Merkley visits the Salem Saturday Market on June 20th. Barring something unforeseen at this point, I'm planning on showing up too and would encourage others to do the same.

Comments

  • Mandy (unverified)
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    [spam deleted - Kevin]

  • Julie Edwards (unverified)
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    Hey Kevin - Thank you for posting this interview. I just wanted to clarify for folks here at Blue O - Senator Merkley is not and has never been scheduled to appear in Salem on June 20th. I'm not sure where that rumor started, but it's just not accurate. However, if you'd like to spend your Saturday enjoying the market, as a native of Salem, I hope you head down.

    Julie Edwards Communications Director Office of Senator Jeff Merkley

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    Kevin,

    Thanks for the post and for the info it contains, but where are the questions on foreign policy? For examples, I'd be interested in the answers to the following questions: Do you agree with NY Times columnist Tom Friedman that getting out of Iraq with a functioning government there should be a higher priority for Sec. of State Clinton than working towards a two state solution for Israel/Palestine? Or, do you support the Defense Department budget cuts proposed by Sec. Gates? Should there ben more cuts? Or, what goals do you see this administration seeking in its military operation in Afgfhanistan/Pakistan and do you think they are reachable? Or given current and forecasted economic growth in China, are you satisfied that the US government is doing all it can to help Oregon companies sell their goods and services there?

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    Thanks, Julie! I'd meant to double-check it but life's been hectic lately and I never got around to it.

    Dave, I'm a FP wonk at heart and always have been. But I tried to ask questions that I thought would appeal to Oregonians with less wonkish biases than I have. Perhaps I veered too far the other way. That's certainly within the realm of the believable, as far as I'm concerned. But either way, the Senator was unable to get to all of the questions that I had anyway.

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    Hey Dave Porter. If you want the answers to those questions, call or write your Senator and then post his responses on BO. I think Kevin did a great job hitting questions that us Oregonians care about and I am sure his time was limited.

    Thanks for packing in what you could Kevin, we are lucky to have such a smart and accessible delegation.

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    we are lucky to have such a smart and accessible delegation.

    That is a really excellent observation. We could parse the burgeoning role that online media plays in politics, and I'm sure that it plays a role in how, where and why Senator Merkley and his staff make themselves accessible. But the fact remains that the contrast with former Senator Gordon Smith couldn't be more stark. Jeff Merkley does not have the "country club" mentality. He's willing and even eager to mix it up with average, everyday Oregonians regardless of what color our collar happens to be.

    This is the kind of change I can believe in!

    And while I'm handing out credit, I need to reiterate the invaluable assist from several folk with this interview which I mentioned in passing on PK. Ben and TC both deserve much credit. TC for contributing three of the questions and Ben for general editorial advice and framing suggestions on nearly every single question and which directly contributed to how salient the interview reads. In addition I need to mention that I struggled with one particular question, rewording it over and over and over. Finally I turned to Carla and she helped me cut to the chase with far fewer words than I'd been attempting to use.

  • Julie Jenkins (unverified)
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    However, the bill does not extend health and employment benefits to members of the military because it’s in conflict with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

    So legislation passed in the Congress takes a back seat to an ad hoc personnel strategy devised by the military. You know, that's not what the Constitution says.

    Right now, a person could be driving down the highway going from state to federal parkland and be totally unaware they are breaking federal law.

    And everyday revenue citations are written exploiting that fact and not one of those speeding cases are dismissed because of all the posting on the roads. That's why it's so conspicuous, for the revenue citations. It's been case law for 50 years. Two questions, two answers in defense of the status quo.

    3rd is OK. Totally hypothetical, but OK. Some specifics in terms of the help needed would be useful.

    Consumer protection is the best systemic risk regulation.

    And do you think we're anywhere near that? No, I think Kevin meant that this "good news" that some TARP recipients will pay back the monies by Q4, hasn't exactly been forthcoming over that fact that 99% of it is coming from simply raising interest rates on current debt. My small business has been hit with an increase from 9% to 21% on all our credit instruments, and 3 lenders have left the business. I'm faced with bankruptcy. They simply sold crap to idiots, used my tax dollars for a bail-out, and now I'm going to pay with my business credit for them to pay the government back. Guess what? I'll simply file and say "fuck you". If that's the trend, what does Q4 look like now?

    We must regulate the mortgage industry and end deceptive practices that trap families into mortgages they can’t afford.

    Progressive don't cotton to pandering talk. This is supposed to be real. Every con works off the fact that the mark wants to believe the con. Every industry will have some that try to sponge off the stupid. The issue is that there is nothing else in banking. The whole business has become tricking consumers into pointless fees, late charges, new IT systems, third party marketing... Nothing to do with banking! And QWest isn't interested in being an utility, and it goes on and on. All look at their business as a chance to get a cash flow that they can invest in a scam. NOBODY cares about their nominal, core business anymore. Might it not be in the country's interest to get THAT back on track? As we move from an manufacturing/provider based system to a services rendering model, let's remember that there is a concomitant increase in systemic fraud.

    But the court decision in California

    Yeah, we don't have two nominal parties saying the exact same thing. Calling a public referendum a "court decision" is what the reprehensible right does. It's more pandering. I've got a question. As a pol, can you imagine a situation where you would EVER put the blame on the voter? It's always someone else, that, coincidentally, isn't ever going to vote for you. Are your supporters perfect, will you name an issue where you would publicly blame them, or will you admit that you pander as bad as any hack? It's one, which is it?

    We do carry on the tradition and meet for breakfast every week.

    I can't afford breakfast. How is it that I can afford both of yours? Email is very effective. I've already communicated more to you than I'll bet last breakfast did.

    I have not tried it yet, but I heard it’s pretty good.

    So, the relevant question is what he had instead. We send them there to make choices.

    I'd be supportive against town hall spammers, except, why not? You're not really having an open discussion, you're winning support for an a priori plan. They're just fighting spam with spam. Someday, someone like the Bus Project is going to come along and have a real conversation, and both sides will sit their muttering. Prove that "we need progressives'" help isn't just something you say to middle-of-the-roaders to sound like you're down with proggies. Show up on the bus.

  • Matt Pettini (unverified)
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    we are lucky to have such a smart and accessible delegation.

    That is a really excellent observation

    That assumes that the average American lawmaker is, well, average. Fact is that they are fascist, evil, greedy baby mongers that would take your last dime as soon as look at you, and then throw it away, demand more, and throw you in jail when you don't pay. Legalized mafia.

    Point being, if our reps are not at all like that, say they're just average people, that makes them much, much, much better. It does not necessarily make them "smart and accessible". They're there becasue they're smart at politics. That counts for a lot on BO, but doesn't usually deliver much on the bottom line.

    JM has not shown well in the before and after comparison stakes, and Sen. Wyden's conversion to openness might still be his pout about the Senate vote when his wife was delivering. Next year is midterms already, and this time there are some real clear benchmarks. Nearly 1/4 of the way through the two year cycle, they're not exactly what you would call up to the Duckworth-Lewis par score, yet.

    Hope Harry K doesn't read this. After the years that JM bashed real progressives as trolls, right in these virtual pages, always towing the party line, to even TOUCH the mantle, is sacrilege!

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    I can't afford breakfast. How is it that I can afford both of yours? Email is very effective. I've already communicated more to you than I'll bet last breakfast did.

    Wow...how presumptiously smug.

    Disagreeing with Merkley on policy is something we can (and should) debate. But you're slamming the guy because he has breakfast once a week with his Oregon colleague? That's just stupid.

  • Boats (unverified)
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    Someone should ask the senator how long a governmental run health care industry will function treating every illegal alien between Blaine WA already here and those coming from as far away as Tierra del Fuego once the stupid Yanquis show they have not the will to stop them from taking advantage.

  • vincent Michel (unverified)
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    Mr. President why are the banking,and loan company not making loans as you promised they would do for the american people we are all hurting and not getting any help. Time for them to answer to you for not helping us the little people that keep them in business, maybe we should boycott their business. Check http://obamamortgage2009.blogspot.com/2009/03/obamas-mortgage-modification-do-you.html#comments

  • josegiles (unverified)
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    Check out http://obamamortgage2009.blogspot.com or obamamortgage2009.blogspot.com There needs to be a program for the elderly but not quite to retirement age for mortgage modification when the have lost their job during this particular recession. I made a decent wage because I put my time into a company and now have no job. I am looking at $10 - to $12 hr jobs after working all my life. You can't make a mortgage payment on that kind of money. I will eventually lose my home.

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