Sen. Merkley: Democrats want to ‘unrig’ system

With less cross-party socializing and elevated levels of partisanship, the chasm between Republicans and Democrats makes it increasingly difficult to find partners across the aisle. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D), who gave the morning keynote address at the 2020 Oregon State of Reform Virtual Health Conference, believes the divisions on cable television and social media drive this phenomena. 


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Back in the 1970s and ’80s, blockades were rare and amendments were common, he said. Now, the 60-vote filibuster rule makes any changes challenging.

While there is talk of eliminating the filibuster, or cloture, rule, there isn’t any guarantee that will happen even with a fully blue majority in the executive and legislative branches. Longtime legislators may not see the need to eliminate the rule since they remember the days when the Senate functioned, Merkley said.

“You have a situation where those who were here decades ago saw a Senate where use of the supermajority was rare,” he said. “It was never deployed in the fashion in the ‘70s and ‘80s that it was deployed by Mitch McConnell in 2009 and 2010. He used it as a full-on strategy of obstruction. It was not used for compromise. It was about ‘paralyze the place.’ Folks that have seen that abuse are prepared to say if we see a repetition of this abuse we have to end it. We sat through that horror show once, we aren’t going to see it again.”

Though Merkley found partners across the aisle on dozens of bills, once issues become nationalized it is nearly impossible to work with the other side. Issues like immigration, gerrymandering, voter suppression and dark money can’t be jointly tackled.

He attributes this chasm on the lack of socializing, which is minimal now compared to what it used to be. 

“When you don’t know people well and you haven’t had casual moments or fun moments with them, then it’s much harder to work together,” he said.

As an example of different perspectives, legislators’ reactions to the Portland protests and forest fires vary based on from where their information comes. Republicans, for example, perceive federal interventions in the Portland protests as positive, whereas Democrats believe the federal government overstepped its bounds. 

Even if Democrats take control of the Oval Office, retain leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives and takeover the Senate majority, they still will have a long way to go in order to advance their agenda. He expects the first order of business will “unrigging” how the Senate works.

“The Republican priorities take 51 votes, or 50 plus the vice president,” he said. “The Democrat priorities take 60 votes. The Senate is fundamentally rigged against policies to invest in the American people. In health care, housing, education, infrastructure, or to create quality of opportunity in civil rights, or LBGTQ rights or dreamers, or to take on the climate. So that inequality in how the Senate operates, that rigged Senate, has to be unrigged.”

A blue wave would also wash Pacific Northwest U.S. legislators into leadership positions in the health care space. Sen. Ron Wyden (D) Ore., currently ranking member of the Finance Committee and Sen. Patty Murray (D) Wash., ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, would both take over leadership positions that could have an impact on health care.

“Oregon has been a leader in health care in so many ways,” Merkley said. “It has often produced ideas and piloted strategies that have been looked at by the rest of the nation.”

There is always a tension between how much you prescribe at the federal level and how much you incentivize and simply leave to the states.

“I don’t have the sense that there’s necessarily a high momentum to nationalize (the Oregon) model across the country,” he said.