Oregon millworkers son Jeff Merkley has been a U.S. senator 10 years, but hasn’t forgotten where he’s from. He’s one of labor’s most reliable champions in the Senate, with a near-perfect labor voting record. I visited his office to talk labor policy — and whether he’s running for president. Our audience of labor union members matters very much to him, and he was generous with his time: We discussed the government shutdown, immigration, climate change, his opposition to Jordan Cove, trade, his possible presidential run, a fix for troubled union pension plans, Medicare for All and what would happen to union health plans if it passes, taxing the rich, and infrastructure, closing with a message for union members.
Who caused the shutdown?
The best way to think about it is the president took hostage seven spending bills. These were bills that he had signed off on. The Republican-led Senate passed them. The House was ready to pass them. And then the president changed his mind. And when he changed his mind he bragged to the country: “This is going to be my shutdown. I’m going to take responsibility for it.” And he said some 30 times how much he wanted to have a shutdown. So who’s responsible? It’s the president of the United States.
The underlying issue of the shutdown, or at least Trump has made it an issue, is the idea that undocumented immigration of a particular kind — crossing the border — is a security threat. And even people seeking asylum who show up on the U.S. border are said to be a security threat. That’s a very different perspective than the one the Senate had a few years ago when it passed comprehensive immigration legislation. Can you address that fearful worldview? What’s the right approach to immigration?
Trump’s presentation was that murderers and rapists are swarming the border. And that is a big lie. What you have is a much lower level of people coming to the border than came in years past. We’re at less than a third of what came across in the year 2000. And mostly now we have instead of individual men seeking work we have a lot more families fleeing persecution, fleeing the drug gangs, fleeing death threats and assault and a whole host of horrible situations.
I released a planning document for the Trump administration from December 2017. A whistleblower gave it to me. And it basically lays out that we don’t want all these families fleeing persecution coming to America, and here are all the things we can do to respond: child separation, criminalization of the parents … we can do all this to deter them from coming. In other words, make them miserable, with pain and trauma. So Trump’s public story was a vision of mostly men, murderers and rapists. The reality of what the Trump administration was planning for was they didn’t want families to come, and were plotting to make their lives miserable. So there IS a humanitarian crisis, but it’s a humanitarian crisis the Trump administration has created by the mistreatment of migrants seeking the opportunity to have an asylum hearing.
Now most migrants lose their asylum hearings. I used to say that four out of five lost, but the new statistic is nine out of 10 lose their asylum hearing. But we want to treat people in the tradition of our country — a country in which most of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants — with decency and respect. If they win their asylum hearing, then we should have treated them with respect. If they lose their asylum hearing, we still should have treated them with respect. But there’s no reason to deliberately inflict injury. And so much has been aimed at children, and that’s just really horrific.
We think maybe about a third of our readers may have voted for Trump. There might be some anxiety in certain labor markets toward immigration in general. If you have relatively high levels of immigration, in theory, you could see an impact on labor markets. You could see people feeling anxious about continuing on in their occupation or passing it down to their children. Do you have any thoughts on that, and what the Senate comprehensive immigration bill might have done that would help or hurt that dynamic?
Both Democrats and Republicans support border security. In the 2013 bill, there was almost $40 billion for border security. The largest number of folks in our country who are undocumented, they don’t across the border; they overstay their visas. And so the bill included massive amounts for investments in computer systems to track when people leave. That’s something we don’t do currently, so therefore we don’t even know how many there are. We have to do rough estimates of how many people have overstayed.
And from approximately 2009 through 2014 we actually had a net out-migration. We had fewer people each year who were in the country — because the economy was slow and border security was tremendously increased under President Obama.
So the president is trying to sell another myth that this is about border security. It’s not about border security. We gave him $1.5 billion or more last year for that, and he didn’t spend it very quickly. It’s now mostly contracted. It still hasn’t mostly been spent. As of a month and a half ago only 6 percent of it had been spent. So there’s no rush by the administration where they could have done so.
I’ve met with the border guards in various places. They say we need more border guards. We need more sensors to enable the border guards to respond. A big wall doesn’t stop someone, because you can get over it, under it, through it. But if you have sensors that tell you someone is approaching or has passed through, you can respond to it and pick people up. Part of the irony here is the administration has said people have to quit coming between the ports of entry. The people who come to the ports of entry, the administration has turned them back. So they don’t let them come across the center of the bridge. And I have witnessed this myself: Four border guards, lined up, blocking asylum seekers from crossing the bridge.
That’s a violation of international law, isn’t it?
Yes it is, and of our national law as well. So the president is saying to the country: Why don’t these people just come to the ports of entry? They HAD been coming to the ports of entry, and the border guards, under President Trump’s instructions, have been turning them back. And that’s very dangerous for them, because they have no family, no friends, few resources … they’re just easy pickings for gangs to prey on when they’re pushed back. So a lot of them after they’re turned back at ports of entry will go down a mile and cross between the ports of entry to present themselves for asylum. Because it’s so dangerous to stay on the Mexican side of the border. I’d like to see how many Americans would volunteer to spend the night on the streets of Ciudad Juarez. I wouldn’t.
There’s a piece of the Republican leadership that wants to sustain a broken immigration system in order to use it as a political tool. In 2013, when the Senate worked really hard to do a bipartisan bill that addressed all aspects of border security — people overstaying their visas, deportations, border guards, revising the visas — it was the Republican House that blocked the fix.
Let’s shift from a manufactured crisis to a real crisis, global climate change. There’s been talk of a Green New Deal. Are you behind that?
The Green New Deal is a continuation of the bill I introduced last cycle, which was called 100 by ’50. It’s the concept of driving a transition to 100 percent clean renewable energy, creating millions of good-paying jobs, and seeking to make sure that underserved communities, communities of color, low-income communities benefit from clean energy and from the job creation.
And then throw in an element of just transition for people in the fossil fuel industry. Our coal miners, at great cost to their own personal health, have provided the energy to drive our country for generations. They should be able to be a the front of the line for jobs in renewable energy. We should get as many of those jobs into existing communities as possible. Those concepts were all in my 100 by ’50 bill.
I like the name “Green New Deal” because it emphasizes job creation. There is so much work to be done. When you renovate a house you create jobs. When you renovate the entire energy system of our country, tens of millions of jobs.
The thing that appeals to me about the Green New Deal is the idea of a really major federal commitment. You’re not just passing a tax credit and hoping somebody does the investment. You get the job done the way it was done back in the ‘30s.
We’re talking about an investment that might approach a trillion dollars a year for 10 years.
Unfortunately this conversation has been happening for a long time. I remember, I want to say 18 or 19 years ago hearing this fantastic presentation by a top union official about a proposal for a new Apollo-style program. They would mount a similar level of federal commitment as they once did to putting a man on the moon to have the conversion to a clean energy economy with a just transition. None of these are new ideas. They just haven’t happened.
I was only able to get four cosponsors for the 100 by ’50 bill, and I’m hoping we can double or triple that. We’re holding lots of conversations with the labor community. There is a tension because so many good-paying jobs exist in the fossil fuel world. And those are known and in hand, whereas the good-paying labor-organized jobs in the renewable energy world are a vision to get to. So they’re not as real. But I think in addition to clean energy jobs, we also have to do a massive infrastructure bill.
I’ve been so frustrated in the last couple decades to watch China go from bicycles (on my first trip there) to ring roads and traffic jams (on my second trip) to bullet trains and mass transit systems most recently — while our infrastructure is basically sitting still.
I think what would help solve this tension is to simultaneously have a lot of work done on things we already know and understand, and to have it be organized labor that builds these things.
Speaking of actual versus potential jobs, maybe about a third of our readers are in the building trades. You came out against the Jordan Cove project [a proposed liquid natural gas pipeline and export terminal in Coos Bay.] What would you say to those readers who felt like they could have had a chance at that job for several years at a union wage building that? Why are you against it?
I went through a very long process and I had a very close consultation with our labor union leaders here and nationally about it. And what we found — and I say “we” because I had others looking at it — was that over the last decade the more we’ve learned about the natural gas world, the more we’ve come to realize that it is a huge contributor to climate chaos. At the point of burning it’s much cleaner than coal, and uses less carbon for a given amount of energy. But it leaks a tremendous amount of methane gas in the pipeline system and thus is no better than coal in general.
We are seeing such a vast change, quickly, in the impact of carbon dioxide and methane on our climate. We see it here in Oregon in multitudinous ways. We have to artificially change the chemistry of our seawater for our oysters. We are experiencing lower average snowpacks that affect our winter sports and our irrigation water and the health of our trout and salmon streams. We have more aggressive pine beetle infestations because the pine beetles aren’t killed by a cold enough winter. And the biggest factor we see are forest fires. While forest management is part of that, the longer, drier, hotter summers, in combination with more lightning strikes, are the main culprit.
And just to understand how fast these things are changing: Most of these things were theoretical 15 years ago, and we see them in reality today. So I reached the conclusion that we have so much infrastructure work to do … let’s build things that build a better world for our children and our children’s children, not fossil fuel infrastructure that will do deep damage to our children and our children’s children.
It’s the toughest decision and conversation I’ve ever gone through. I come from a small town, Myrtle Creek, and then Roseburg, and I think about a coastal community that lost a lot of its timber mills. I mean, we’re shipping raw logs out of there to China, which just irritates the hell out of me. We lost the canneries. And I’ve worked a lot on Coos Bay infrastructure, helping to save a railroad, and other efforts to support their economy. I know that the infrastructure would be so valuable to that town. So that was a very very tough decision.
The other piece of it was from the beginning I had conveyed to the pipeline project that it was unacceptable to use eminent domain for a private for-profit company. They had to be incredibly generous in recruiting land, and use public pathways if they weren’t generous enough. And they have kept eminent domain hanging over the heads of people for a decade, and I find that unacceptable.
You mentioned logs going off to China. In one of your latest press releases, you called NAFTA a disaster. Why do you think NAFTA has been a disaster for American workers?
Well we’ve watched trucks that were built here go to Mexico. We’ve watched Oreos that were baked here go to Mexico. Their wages are a fraction. I’ve talked to Freightliner workers who had to go down and train their replacements in Mexico. And they felt enormously guilty about it. But they had mortgages to pay, and it gave them six months more work, and somebody was going to do it.
If you give full access to our market for products that are built under a different set of rules — low environmental rules, low labor rules, lower wages — then the factory is going to move. And manufacturing is a huge part of middle class America.
So this is an area that Trump and I start at the same place, which is fairness in international trade. I think he’s done a … I’m trying to think of a polite way to say it … a really incompetent chaotic fashion of trying address it. In fact I think he’s going to do more damage than good the way he’s addressed it with China, instead of doing it with a clearer system of how you narrow the trade deficit. You know, the trade deficit is higher now. It’s hit an all-time high under Trump. That’s how badly he’s done. China wants our market.
So what do you think of his NAFTA 2.0?
There’s nothing in that that would have stopped a company going to Mexico.
You don’t think it’s an improvement over the status quo?
It has little tiny improvements on auto parts and dairy. That’s about it.
Are you running for president?
I’m still exploring.
You were the only Senator to endorse Bernie Sanders. So is your decision in any part based on whether he decides to run?
No. I’m trying to evaluate the whole complexity of that journey. There are big issues that keep me awake at night.
One is the deep corruption of our Constitutional government. And by that I mean gerrymandering and voter suppression and dark money. They’re being used by the privileged and powerful to stand our Constitution on its head and produce government not by and for the people but by and for the powerful. We see that with the tax bill that raided the treasury for $2 trillion and gave it to the wealthiest people in America, the biggest companies. That’s what happens in corrupt countries, not what happens in governments that are supposed to reflect the will of the people. We saw it in the fact that the Republican leadership in the House and Senate spent most of 2017 trying to destroy health care for Americans rather than improve health care for Americans. So we’ve got to take on that corruption if we’re going to restore the vision that was being enacted when I came out of high school: We’d seen a big increase in the number of folks who had good paying jobs and a fair share of the wealth they were helping to create. But we’ve lost that over these last 40 years. And I want it back.
The second, partly as a result of the first, is that the foundations for thriving families — housing, health care, education, living wage jobs — are being deeply neglected or damaged. There’s just no substitute for a good paying job. I live in a blue-collar neighborhood, the same neighborhood I was in from third grade through graduating from high school. And there’s fewer electives today at my public high school. The classes are more crowded. Folks who used to be able to afford to buy house on working wages can’t. Families are now saying, “Well, the only way we’ll own a house is to inherit one.” Families are not sure they should encourage their kids to pursue higher education. There aren’t as many pathways for apprentices. We don’t have shop classes to the same degree that we had them. We lost a lot of them to No Child Left Behind. There’s so much we have to do to invest in early childhood education, to invest in career and technical education, and create the multiple pathways into the working world. So that’s the second big area, investment in families.
The third is climate caps, carbon pollution. You can’t undo the carbon in the environment. In fact we’ve accelerated it. When I was born we were in the vicinity of 312 parts per billion. Now we’re approximately 100 parts higher, so about a 30 percent increase in carbon in the atmosphere. That’s a massive change in the chemistry of the planet in a single generation. And the rate: When I was born it was going up one part per million every two to three years. Now it’s going up two to three parts a year.
I see you’ve laid out these three issue areas. Are these the themes of your presidential campaign then?
Those are the three things I’ve talked about everywhere in the country I’ve gone this last year. Those are the mega issues where we’re vastly off track.
What is your decision making process? What would make you want to run or not?
I am not in the luxury of being outside my Senate cycle. So I have my Senate campaign cycle to weigh against a presidential run. Where can I be most effective in influencing these issues? It comes down to that. I’m the only senator thinking about the race who couldn’t be on the ballot for both. Cory [Booker] was in that category, but New Jersey fixed it.
When is the filing deadline for Oregon?
March 10 .
So in theory, if you ran and did poorly we could still keep our senator?
Or not, because others may run. The Republicans may get an opportunity to have a strong candidate. And I cannot let an Oregon senate seat go to someone who is fighting for the privileged and powerful.
You’ll let us know?
READER POLL: Should @SenJeffMerkley run for president?
— Don McIntosh (@nwlaborpress) February 14, 2019
I’d like to talk about the million union members who are in multi-employer pension plans that are forecast to go insolvent. I realize you weren’t on the special select committee that was set up to look at that issue, which met and then died last year without coming up with a legislative proposal to solve the crisis. But a number of our readers are in those funds. Any sense of what might come out of this Congress on that crisis?
I still think the Butch-Lewis Act has the most legs. But it doesn’t have much momentum on the Senate side. [Editor’s note: The Butch-Lewis Act would direct the federal government to make loans to distressed pension funds to enable them to invest out of the hole.] The Select Committee failed to come to a compromise. There was a leak of a compromise that immediately was trashed pretty thoroughly.
Including by some labor people.
Absolutely. That’s who I heard from. Because what it did was increase [Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation] premiums on everyone to help bail out those funds. The compromise that was leaked would take half the resources needed to shore this up from the federal kitty. The other half would be taken from premiums from the labor community. And no one seemed too excited about that strategy. It went quietly away. I don’t think we’re any closer to a deal on it. On a side note, I put forward a bill that caps the amount you can tax shelter for the mega-rich. The Romneys of the world have like $200 million in a retirement tax shelter. People who don’t even need it have this massive tax shelter. So I cap it at $4 million, and people have to start paying down every year 10 percent of the amount above $4 million in a retirement account. And the revenue from that would go to support the multi-employer pension funds. I think it’s outrageous that we see it as of value to massively tax shelter huge retirement kitties for the richest Americans. Even $4 million sounds high to me. You take $4 million in a retirement account: Let’s say you live 40 years after you retire. That’s still $100,000 a year. So why should we shelter more than that?
You were cosponsor of the Medicare for All legislation in the past. Are you still behind that idea?
Yeah. And I also sponsored “Choose Medicare” with Chris Murphy. It allows you to buy a Medicare policy as a public option. It’s similar to what we do [in Oregon] with SAIF [State Accident Insurance Fund] where you have a public-option workplace insurance.
I remember well the proposal for a public-option in health insurance, from the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama. But then he never pressed it as president.
No, he dropped it in a massive compromise with insurance companies. It really would have helped.
I do have a question about Medicare for All. So often it seems like when these really important pieces of legislation are crafted, there’s no awareness or attention paid to union benefits that already exist. Do you happen to know what, if anything, the bill does with the existing union health plans? You have all these collective bargaining agreements where employers are obligated to contribute to these union cosponsored health trusts. And many of them have very very good benefits. What happens to them if Medicare for All passes?
I’d have to double check. I don’t think it undoes any of that. After all, those are funds owned by the different unions. So the government wouldn’t take them away. On the other hand, people would be eligible, if that collapsed or disappeared, to get Medicare. … I’d have to check.
It seems like there are two possibilities. One: Whatever employers were paying toward health insurance, they could just say “Thanks very much, Uncle Sam, I appreciate the $1,200 a month you just gave me back. This is going to be a great year for our shareholders.” Two: Since that bargained-for benefit is no longer necessary, employers could be required to put those funds back into wages.
I’d have to check.
Under “Choose Medicare,” we basically continue Medicare for those 65 and up. But now we create a public option that has those benefits but better. We say, “Look, you’re buying health insurance on the exchange? You can buy a Medicare policy. Your company’s buying a private policy? Now you can buy a Medicare policy.” And it would have the efficiencies of Medicare, including the ability to negotiate drug prices. That competition would really drive down the price of health care for everyone. I don’t think there’s an easy jump directly to Medicare for All, because people will say well, “If I’m happy with my existing health care, I want to keep it in place.” So that’s one reason I wanted to propose a way to say, “Okay, you can choose Medicare if you want, but we’re not compelling you to do so.”
I also introduced a bill, the Low Drug Prices Act, that says a drug company cannot charge more for a drug in America than they charge for the median price for Canada, Japan and 11 of the largest European countries. So it produces kind of the same effect as saying you can import drugs back from those countries.
Does it have any cosponsors?
I just introduced it about a month ago, so I’ll have to reintroduce it. There are several different versions of this. The common version is let Medicare negotiate drug prices. That’s fine for 65 and up, but I don’t want to have them gouging those 65 and down. I’ve voted for importing from Canada before. I’ve voted for every form of fair competition and ending gouging. But so far we’ve only been getting about 30 votes out of 100 on any of these. And yet it’s so popular. It tells you how powerful the drug industry is.
It also tells you how corrupt the system you’re describing is.
That goes to my earlier point. The turning point for me was 2014. I already knew these problems were big. But when Citizen United was picked up as a vast tool by the Koch brothers, and they switched six seats from blue to red, it absolutely put the Senate completely in their grip. The puppet-masters of the Senate are the Koch brothers, and following that we’ve just had bill after bill after bill that was designed to make the best off better off rather than ordinary Americans have a fair opportunity. So I’ve addressed those three areas and a fourth, the three being gerrymandering, voter suppression, dark money. The fourth is direct election of the president. I’m having my team write a constitutional amendment on direct election. But I also support a national popular vote as a way to get there, which doesn’t require a constitutional amendment.
One thing we talked about when you first got to office is what I would characterize as an undemocratic process where you let a minority in the Senate decide everything. Where are you at with the filibuster reform campaign that you put forward — your proposal was that if you want to filibuster a bill, you actually have to do it, stand there and speak for hours, not just pretend to do it?
I reintroduced those bills last session and I’ll reintroduce them again. People speak about the Senate today and say “Isn’t this the way it was designed? Isn’t this what George Washington meant by “the cooling saucer?” Well, first, that’s an apocryphal saying. But that was a reference to six years of service rather than two. You have a chance to be more reflective. You’re representing a broader constituency. And the indirect election of senators used to exist. But now we have this deep freeze where neither party can campaign on a set of ideas and implement them. I’ll be proposing reforms to the Senate again. The Republicans weaponized nominations, so I’ve laid out a path for executive nominations to be done in 100 days, so that the Senate gets 100 days to reflect on them and then if they don’t hold a vote on them it’s automatic, they’re approved. It’s an automatic vote held.
Why is it just you advocating this, instead of a coalition of senators and public interest groups?
It WILL be a coalition. I’m working with Tom Udall. We did it together with the “We the People” bill, and we’re working to do it again.
One of our readers wanted to know whether you’ll be joining the call for higher taxation on high income individuals. There’s a pack of reporters following around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and some really exciting ideas are coming out, like a 70 tax rate on the highest incomes. What’s your thought on that?
We’ve got to undo the massive bank heist that occurred in 2017. Think of what $2 trillion could have done for infrastructure. For health care. For education. For housing.
So you want to see the corporate tax cut reversed.
That’s a big bill. There’s a lot of pieces in there. But the fallacy of the bill was that by giving the rich and big corporations a lot more money they’ll employ more people. They only build more factories and hire more people if there’s more customers. And there aren’t more customers if you screw the middle class.
Yeah, there’s no question that we haven’t seen a positive economic impact from that tax cut. But most of the price tag came from a reduction of the corporate tax rate. What Ocasio-Cortez is advocating is a return to the higher marginal rates on high income earners.
It was corporate tax, but it was also individual taxes.
So when we talk about high-income people paying their fair share, what do you think their fair share is?
Well, I’m not prepared to say a percent, but I am prepared to say they’re paying a hell of a lot less than they should be paying. They had a pretty sweet deal before that tax bill, and that tax bill directly and indirectly put another couple trillion in their pockets.
I’ve now held 369 town halls, an average of one every 10 days I’ve been in office. And no one has ever come to a town hall and said, “I got this great idea: Raid the national treasury and spend it on the richest Americans.” And nobody raises it because it’s just about the stupidest idea you could come up with.
Speaking of large sums of money, Donald Trump, when he was running, said over and over and over again about this $1 trillion he was going to put together for long overdue spending on infrastructure. And miraculously that changed to $1.5 trillion in a tweet. But when he delivered a bare bones sketch as to how he might go about that, it consisted of $200 billion all of a sudden, and the remainder of his very large fantastical amount was supposed to come from states and the private sector. Do you want to say anything about that?
Well, it was even worse than that. He took $240 billion out of existing infrastructure accounts, and put $200 billion in the fund, so that’s a $40 billion reduction. And then he said the 80-20 formula, in which the feds pay 80 percent and locals pay 20 … we’ll flip it on its head. People were dying on the floor laughing, except it’s too painful to laugh about. Any community that has 80 percent of the money for an infrastructure project, they’d build it today.
They wouldn’t be waiting for Uncle Sam.
No. Maybe they’d build it slightly smaller, or leave some piece of it unfinished. But you’re certainly not going to be sitting there waiting, if you’ve got 80 percent of the funds. It was meaningless. And I was so puzzled by it. Because it was the mega-bipartisan national win that would have helped working people: investing in infrastructure, investing in jobs and a better economy. And we’re falling behind the rest of the world in a massive way. So it was like this beautiful apple right in front of your nose ready to be picked, and the president chose instead to do a $2 trillion bank heist for rich people. Which tells you how corrupt our country is.
Do you think there’s any prospect of the Senate allying with the Democratic House to call the president’s bluff and say it’s time to dig deep and do major infrastructure investment.
Yeah, I think it’s a possibility. The president would probably like to have a big win. But it just troubles me that he doesn’t understand any of the details. I don’t think he could explain to you what you told me and I told you — that his proposal was an 80-20 flip. I don’t think he knows that. I don’t think he ever spent an hour pondering the stupidity of that proposal. It was an embarrassment. It should have embarrassed anyone in the administration who had anything to do with it.
I think they released it on a Friday.
It was a back-of-the-envelope type of thing. So now it’s harder because the Republicans are going to say, “Oh my goodness, look, we’ve raised the federal deficit from $400 billion a year to a trillion, and we managed to do that in two years … we’d better not borrow any more money.” And therefore it makes it much harder to do an infrastructure package. That’s the challenge we’re going to face. Well, can we pull that money from reversing the tax ripoffs bank heist for the wealthy? Republicans are not going to do that. Can we borrow the money? They’re going to oppose that. So I don’t know how we get there. But do a lot of Republicans believe we absolutely should do a trillion dollar infrastructure plan? Yes. But they have to be willing to either borrow or pay for it. And right now they’re not willing to do either.
Is there one particular thing, aside from everything we’ve covered, that you’d like to say to our union member readers?
American workers have been getting the shaft, and if we don’t have a massive grassroots effort to retake the structure of our government, we’re locking in government by and for the wealthy for the rest of our lifetimes. We have to make this upcoming 2020 election an incredibly powerful fight on behalf of ordinary Americans.