Speaking on the eve of Labor Day weekend, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) focused on the pressures faced by the middle class at his annual town hall Aug. 30 at Columbia Gorge Community College.
“Certainly, the pillars and pathways to the middle class are strained — small business, home ownership and education,” Merkley said. “They are at the heart of living wage jobs.”
Before the Great Recession that began in 2008, 60 percent of jobs were living wage, he said, but of the ones that are returning after the recession, only about 40 percent provide a living wage.
From 1945 to 1975, the middle class shared in the U.S. economic boom, he said.
“But from 1975 until now, working wages have been flat — and in the last decade they’ve been flat — and in the last decade they’ve been declining.”
Merkley noted that the United States lags both China and the European Union in percentage of gross domestic product invested in infrastructure. In China, the number is 10 percent, in Europe it is 5 percent, while the U.S. invests only 2 percent.
“That’s barely enough to repair the infrastructure we have — maybe not even enough,” Merkley said.
Under the category of home ownership, he also talked about the bill he sponsored to get rid of predatory lending practices and a pilot program that just started in Oregon to make it possible for refinancing mortgages.
In connection with small business, Merkley said. “I have sponsored a strategy to increase the availability of capital.”
The bill would allow businesses to solicit crowd funding.
“Small businesses can open up to the public and people who are interested can invest,” he said.
Merkley opened the meeting up to questions from the audience.
The first question focused on the shipping of coal to China.
“I think we should be very careful around our energy strategy,” Merkley said. I have called for a programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS), so we can fully understand how our communities here will be affected by the coal trains.”
Merkley was turned down on the programmatic EIS and more limited study is planned.
“Out of that may come the notion that we have to examine the pieces of the puzzle more carefully,” he said.
Dan Spatz, a college employee, urged study of the economic impact of coal-fueled competition from China as it relates to American jobs.
Rich Martin asked Merkley about the Toxic Substances Control Act, which he said is relatively useless and possibly damaging in its present form.
“People don’t understand that of the roughly 80,000 chemicals, only about 200 have been tested,” Martin said, asking Merkley to bring Oregon’s environmental consciousness to the act.
Merkley told a story of the tobacco industry’s concerns about fires caused by cigarettes falling into the cushions of furniture and causing fires. The industry advocated for mandatory use of a chemical fire retardant on furniture.
“It turns out the fire retardant doesn’t actually stop the fires,” Merkley said, “and the result is massive exposure to a toxic chemical.”
Merkley noted that Congress deals with chemical issues in every session. He said Sen. Tom Udall is raising a lot of questions about the current form of the bill and whether it is even worth passing.
Merkley also talked about the looming question of a U.S. tactical strike in Syria.
“Wouldn’t it be great if the world responded together?” Merkley said. “Absolutely. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that’s going to happen.”
Merkley also talked about the president’s right to use military force under the War Powers Act, noting that the power is limited to instances of “clear and present danger” against American assets, land or people.
“I don’t want us to have another mistake in either when we respond or how we respond,” he said.
Merkley polled the audience on their feelings about whether the U.S. should respond in one of three ways: do nothing, respond with allies, respond whether allies join the effort or not. Each option had advocates, but most people raised their hands for an allied response.
Other issues Merkley addressed included:
• student loans: He noted the spending on four loan programs over 10 years would run at a significant profit, about $170 billion.
“The last thing we should be doing is earning a profit on these loans for people who are trying to maximize their potential,” Merkley said. “I will be spending the next two years doing everything possible to restructure those loan programs.”
Merkley also expressed interest in the “Pay it Forward” program brought forward for consideration in Oregon. “Instead of a loan, you take out a contractual responsibility to pay 3 percent of your future earnings for 20 years,” he said. One of the challenges is how to fund the up-front costs.
• banking reform. “The issue is keeping banks out of the world of high-risk investment,” Merkley said in response to an audience member’s call for a return to Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act banking regulation, repealed during the Clinton Administration.
• forest policy: Merkley called current forest policies a “lose-lose situation” not good for the ecosystem or the timber industry. One of the challenges is the budget for forest management, he said. “The challenge last year was that the fires we had ate up a lot of the Forest Service budget. Nothing was left to plan for future sales.”
Merkley also noted that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is sponsoring a bill to help the so-called O&C counties, which have been hardest hit by the loss of timber receipts. The bill would set aside the most sensitive areas and “get reliable and sustainable production on the balance.”
• the Trans Pacific trade agreement: “The [Obama] Administration has kept negotiations very tightly held,” Merkley said in response to audience concerns that the pact is bypassing congressional oversight. He quoted Ross Perot in reaction to the North American Free Trade Agreement passed in the Clinton Administration, saying, that “big sucking sound” is jobs leaving the country. “We’ve lost more than 5 million jobs over the past decade,” Merkley said.
“The first thing we have to ask is if this pact is moving jobs to low-wage, low-environmental standards countries? Or is this pact going to be something that creates markets and jobs for Americans?”