Writings and observations

Merkley’s Q & A

Jeff Merkley

Jeff Merkley at Dallas town hall/Stapilus

U.S. senators are under pressure – that’s part of the job – and Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, a year into the role, felt it from at least two directions in the last 24 hours, as this is written. From the left, Friday night; from the right, midday at Dallas. As hot as the economy is, topic A seems to be, still, health care and the legislation in Congress.

Friday night was an event organized by Merkley staff for a meet-up with bloggers; eight or nine bloggers (your scribe for one, a few from Blue Oregon, a frequent writer for the Huffington Post and others) met at Madison’s in southeast Portland to . . . converse, really, informally. It was an on-the-record session, but informal enough as to not resemble a press conference with formal statements. Blue Oregon blogger T.A. Barnhart has delivered a good rundown on what was said and the overall tenor. (A good event, and we’d hope it becomes the first of many.)

The key subject, out of a wide range discussed, remains health care, and where the current legislation goes from here. The bloggers generally were dissatisfied with what has been done in Congress, with the watering-downs and scale-backs in the bill, and some were convinced the bill was better off dead. Merkley generally agreed with them on the policy questions, but argued that enough good remains, and the effect of a defeat would be so paralyzing, that pressing forward was the way to go.

Cut to the civic center at Dallas, for Merkley’s Polk County town hall meeting. (Like fellow Senator Ron Wyden, Merkley has committed to a town hall in every county, every year, and so far is on track.) There, he had to pivot a bit in managing the audience – maybe a little over a third of it was strongly against the bills, ready to believe the worst about it from any scrap of information and quick to denounce it as a government takeover of health care (though just about anything that could amount to such has been long since stripped out). His stance on the issues was unchanged, though, from the night before.

A year ago, Merkley still sounded a little wonkish in talking about legislation, but he’s since gotten the knack of handling a town hall, explaining and proposing in plain and simple language. He broke down the health bills as including mainly what amounts to a patient’s bill of rights, and a plan to foster competition among and access to a range of insurers.

Asked about special deals for specific states demanded by individual senators (Ben Nelson for Nebraska, for example), Merkley denounced the practice, and also said he agreed that the process should be more open. He actually drew some applause from some of the health care critics for some of those statements – “The idea of special deals for one state is wrong,” for example.

Still, four questioners asked the senator why he supposed a bill that has scored 65% negatives in the polls, and one man accused Merkley: “He doesn’t really care what we feel.” Merkley responded (more directly than those questioners gave him credit for) by noting that he had campaigned and been elected on health reform, that his job is to use his best judgment, and that action is needed.

The atmosphere was less heated than it was last summer (reflecting the recent Wyden town halls – see our report on that last week) and the misinformation floated less extreme. Still, by the time one man proclaimed, “Our health care system isn’t broken,” something on the order of a reality check seems to be in order.

Merkley addressed that in part, pointing out the extremely high cost of health care and how it’s dragging down the economy. But, as he hears such comments in future halls (as probably will, often in the same words), he might diplomatically offer a few other thoughts:

First, if you want to talk polls – not that they ought to be the basis of every decision – then use them correctly. It’s true that polling consistently shows most Americans unhappy with the current health care bills, but that’s because many of the unhappy want the bills stronger (including such things as the public option) rather than weaker or non-existent. Components such as the public option have very strong polling support among the public at large – the public would be willing to pass a health care bill far more liberal than the Congress will.

Second, check your facts. The number of sheer lies, on top of the number of distortions, on health care been been beyond astounding, and information ought to be checked out. Especially when the source turns out to be someone who has a financial stake in the outcome. And when you ask why this legislation is being “rushed through” – when it has been under a blazingly intense spotlight for more than a year now, is the product of policy discussions going back over a decade – please ask yourself: How long should it have to take? To the next century, perhaps?

Third, learn something about how things work. Talk about the “two thousand page bill” (which Merkley, like Wyden, was very wisely abl to say he had actually read) has become a key piece of evidence for how the whole thing is overblown and incomprehensible; but legislation that large is not especially unusual in Congress, and it’s often not even a sign of special complexity. A bill is long usually because it addresses many areas of law (this is true in state legislatures too), not necessarily because it is complicated in concept. Long bills are not exactly unheard of in the halls of Congress, so gee: Why is it that certain spokesmen well aware of that suddenly find this one so daunting?

All right. For good reason, senators don’t like to go around insulting their constituents, even the nutjobs among them. But Merkley’s getting increasingly good at this: He may well be able to find ways to incorporate some of these points in a fine soft sell.

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