With Democrats now in charge of the U.S. Senate, Oregon’s Jeff Merkley could help pass major pro-worker legislation. NW Labor Press reporter Don McIntosh spoke with him by phone Jan. 28.
LABOR PRESS: 4,000 Americans are dying every day of COVID who didn’t have to die. 10 million are out of work. Global warming is melting the ice caps and contributing to superstorms and terrifying forest fires. We have the worst economic inequality in a century. There’s also a crime wave, homelessness is worse than ever, and there’s a national yearning for racial justice. What’s the government going to do about all of this?
JEFF MERKLEY: I think you’ve accurately noted the really big issues we have to address. The biggest is the health care side and the epidemic. The vaccine rollout is not going smoothly, and only with huge effort are we going to get people back into employment. In the Senate, because of the outcome in Georgia, the Democrats have a majority, but they have it by the slimmest possible amount — 50-50 plus the vice president. But it’s an institution where policy cannot be passed without a supermajority. I call this the “McConnell veto.” [Republican Senate leader Mitch] McConnell revels in the role of destroying good policy as part of his theory of power, that if you disembowel the team in charge, you make a case for replacing them. And it’s been his philosophy throughout his political career. He’s been focused on the achievement of power, not the achievement of the health and welfare of American families. So that is the burden we have right now in the Senate—the need to move quickly and boldly on issue after issue in an institution afflicted by rules that prevent it from moving boldly and quickly.
You’ve been a consistent advocate of filibuster reform for a decade. Finally some of your colleagues have come along. Are we in the final stretch?
There’s been an enormous change over the last couple years. Part of it is that people saw how McConnell abused the “McConnell veto” in 2009-2010, and having seen that horror film once, they don’t want to see it again. Under Lyndon Johnson’s six years as majority leader, he had to file for cloture, that is, to close debate, one time. Under Harry Reid’s six years as majority leader, he had to file 400 times. That’s because of McConnell. And the result is that each one of those filings you have an intervening day plus 30 hours of debate. It just paralyzes this place. So my colleagues have seen the damage done. They now understand that this is not a strategy of making sure everyone is heard. This is making sure that every bill is stopped. Every bill that helps America is stopped. We still have some members that are hoping and believing that somehow there can be a cultural change, a change of heart that can solve this problem. But the vast bulk of Democratic senators are now fully on board that these abusive practices by McConnell have to end.
Could this filibuster be modified at any time?
I think you’re going to see us go through regular order on the floor, and put important bills on the floor, to invite Republicans to offer amendments to see if they then proceed to block those bills after they’ve had a chance to participate. And that process I think will help solidify the sense that we have to move quickly for reform if there isn’t cooperation from the Republican side on letting the Senate function.
There’s just so much at stake, for everybody. And for the union movement in particular there’s a couple pieces of legislation where the House has done their part and it’s waiting on the Senate. Can you say a few words about the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, that would restore workers’ rights to get a union and a fair contract?
Absolutely. When I was running for the Senate in 2008, I was advocating for card check [a bill to allow workers to use a simpler method of unionizing that’s less vulnerable to employer antiunion campaigns] and we had a majority, but we never voted on card check. We failed. We cannot fail again. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act has to be on the floor. It has to be voted on. Workers need to be able to see where we stand. We need to hold accountable those who vote against this, and you can’t hold them accountable if they don’t ever have to to cast a vote. Of course I’m determined that we pass it, but we will face the McConnell veto, and maybe that will be one of the elements that will cause a unanimous sense among Democrats that the McConnell veto has to end. The way I see this is that we have seen in the decades since 1975, 45 years, we’ve seen a great expansion of American wealth, but it’s all gone to the very wealthy. The wealthy are using that wealth to secure government by and for the powerful. Teams of lawyers work night and day to file court challenges, and teams of lobbyists swarm Capitol Hill on their behalf. They have their campaign money, Citizens United dark money, the media campaigns that they use to frame issues to their benefit … they have many instruments at their disposal because of the money they can deploy. That’s what we’re up against. And we have to understand that system of power perpetuating power, wealth perpetuating wealth for the wealthy, and we have to take it on squarely. And a big piece of that fight is the ability of workers to organize. The PRO Act is essential in a vision of government that works for the people.
It’s certainly the most far-reaching labor law reform I’ve seen in my lifetime. It would really make a difference in a more level playing field for working people. The other one is the Butch-Lewis Act. We’ve got about a million union members and their survivors who are in union pension funds that failing largely through no fault of their own, nor their unions, nor the funds. Butch-Lewis is a plan that would rescue them, and it passed the House. What are your thoughts on it?
Yes, getting legislation that supports the solvency of multi-employer pension funds is really important. So many people have worked so hard in very difficult jobs, and they have been counting on pensions to be the foundation for a gracious retirement as opposed to poverty.
So many of us were horrified to see the assault on the Capitol Building on January 6, and I remember seeing that your office was invaded and ransacked. They did something with your Chinese art piece and stole a laptop? Can you tell us what happened, and are you recovered?
We all have a small office over in the Capitol so when we’re doing the actual work of legislating we can run back and forth. They refer to them as hideaways. And my hideaway is on the first floor in the old Senate chambers that was there before the Capitol was expanded. So they busted the door and trashed the office, ripped things off the walls, stole pictures. The laptop was recovered. I wasn’t too worried about it. It was password protected. But they abandoned it in the Capitol and we recovered it. Carpenters have repaired the door. Essentially it’s been put back together. I was very concerned about legislators who were trapped in their hideaway offices when the mob was pounding on the doors screaming for blood. Some folks were terrified for their lives. I wasn’t in that position. A trashed office can be cleaned up and restored.
Where were you at that time?
I was on the floor of the Senate. Almost all the senators were on the floor of the Senate. Just a few were in their hideaways. When there was an initial ruckus outside the doors of the corridor that leads to the House—the main hallway that connects the House and Senate—I didn’t think too much about it, because we often have demonstrations. Normally they’re in the balcony, and people start chanting or singing or put out a banner and they’re quickly ushered out of the balcony by the Capitol police. So when I heard a ruckus outside those doors I figured that’s just a few protesters that weren’t allowed on the balcony so they decided to chant outside the door. No big deal. But it was a big deal. It wasn’t just a couple protesters. It was a vast mob. The moment we realized it was something more significant was when a couple staff members ran up the aisle and had Pence gavel closed the session and rush him to safety, and told everyone else to rush out a side door. The police started trying to lock the doors, and didn’t know where the keys were. And you could tell this is not a drill they’d gone through. The idea that the Capitol would be stormed I think was outside the stretch of what people considered possible. There was intelligence about plans to assault the Capitol but that intelligence wasn’t acted on. And it wasn’t defensible. So when you had a police line standing behind movable fence, that works for a normal crowd; it doesn’t work for a crowd that’s determined to move forward. In fact you can turn those into a weapon. It’s extraordinary that it’s been 207 years since a mob sacked the Capitol, and hopefully it will be a couple hundred years more we’ve got to rethink security of the Capitol, because we may have more angry mobs in times to come.
Any final message for our union readers?
We’re going to see a big battle over the Biden plan. It is really important that we rebuild our economy and health care system from the ground up. And Republicans are going to try to block it from being considered. So the only path to get it done is probably reconciliation [under Senate rules, reconciling budget bills with their House-passed version takes just a simple majority and can’t be filibustered.] We’ll have to have 50 Democrats absolutely united taking that forward. That plan, the American Rescue Plan can’t end up being a boat out of water. We can’t let that happen. We have to win that fight so suffering American families can get help.