In 2008, Jeff Merkley unseated two-term Sen. Gordon Smith and was thrown into a legislative body that had earned a historically low public approval rating. Like a handful of other Oregon Democrats, iconic Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield was his mentor. Merkley interned under Sen. Hatfield in 1976.
Originally from Roseburg, Merkley, with his family, moved to Portland, where he graduated from high school. He went on to study international relations at Stanford University and, later, earned a masters in public policy at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. Among other institutions, he has worked to reform health care, the banking system and predatory loans. The increasingly corrosive filibuster was Merkley’s issue.
In May 2012, Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, said of co-sponsors Merkley and Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and their efforts to reform the filibuster: “These two young, fine senators said it was time to change the rules of the Senate, and we didn’t. And they were right. The rest of us were wrong—or most of us, anyway. What a shame… If there were anything that ever needed changing in this body, it’s the filibuster rule, because it’s been abused, abused and abused.” 1859 caught up with Sen. Merkley in D.C., just after the same Senate Majority Leader effectively killed the reform he had so recently lauded.
First let’s talk about what’s really important. What triathlons are you competing in this year?
I don’t really know if I’ll get around to a triathlon this year. Last year, though, I did an Ironman distance triathlon in October in Wilmington, North Carolina. I couldn’t really train for it properly—sometimes getting an hour here and an hour-and-a-half there. I did it in fifteen-and-a-halfhours. It was incredibly hard.
What was your motivation in running for U.S. Senate?
It was very unexpected. It started with Sen. Hatfield back here in Washington. I worked on the Tax Reform Act of 1976. In those days, you went to the Senate floor and monitored the amendments and followed a bill all the way through. What I saw was a legislature that really worked. There was civil dialogue and debate.
My education was in math and science. Policy was completely new to me. My dad was a millworker, so I understood the idea of building things, but not building public policy. I ended up dropping out of college for a year and stayed in D.C. … just so I could think about this question: Is public policy something that you can do as a career?
What were your first impressions of the Senate as a freshman senator?
Well the first thing that really struck me is how fierce and partisan it had become. Before there were people working together. There were no TVs, so no public posturing. You could argue from different points of view, and it wasn’t a matter of good and evil, just different points of view. Many of the senators had served in the war with each other and treated each other with respect. The filibuster was rare and not a regular tool of partisan strategy. You only need forty votes to control the agenda. I was shocked to see the filibuster being used so much.
Sen. Hatfield was the only Oregon senator to ever serve on the coveted Senate Appropriations Committee. He was seen as being politically deft at steering funding for key research projects such as the Hatfield Marine Science Center and others. I know it’s early in your tenure, but are there any big projects in Oregon you have your eye on?
The Senate Appropriations Committee is completely dysfunctional. There are twelve subcommittees–each puts out one bill. Out of the twelve bills in 2011 and 2012, only one of those actually got to the floor to be debated. This is exactly the problem with procedural issues taking up all the Senate’s time. Here’s a bit of irony—the window in the Appropriations Committee room was put in by Senator Hatfield so that everybody outside could see what was going on in the committee. I was sitting there yesterday thinking about that and just hoping that we would be able to get anything done.
You serve on a number of committees, including Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; Appropriations; Budget; and Environment and Public Works. Where do you spend your most time?
I’m very involved in the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. It has a huge effect on Oregon’s lumber, wood products and door and windows industries. I’m also deeply involved with consumer protection. The predatory mortgage lending schemes do not serve our country well. Every time you can kill a predatory scheme, it’s a good thing. This week, I’m going to introduce legislation on payday loans and medical debt.
Tell me about what went right and wrong on filibuster reform?
I think that it’s great that the Senate came together on a bipartisan basis. … Yet this bill isn’t nearly as bold as I would like, and I’m skeptical if it goes far enough. The silent filibuster is killing the Senate, and we have the responsibility to fix it. This reform fell far short of the bold proposal that would have taken out the secret silent filibuster that is paralyzing the Senate.
In 1999, the Graham-Leach-Bliley Act effectively repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated traditional banking from investment banking—essentially because Citigroup was already doing it. Ten years later, the Federal Reserve secretly bailed out Citigroup with $100 billion. The other beneficiaries of the Graham-Leach-Bliley repeal—JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, et al— reportedly received nearly half a trillion dollars for their part in the housing crisis. What can we do to prevent this from happening again?
Our banking system needs to take deposits and make loans and not be in the hedge fund business. The Volker Rule puts in a firewall. This firewall that says if you want to be a hedge fund, don’t do it with depositors’ money. The first thing is that we have to block predatory mortgages to get at the cause. Teaser rates mortgages were a colossal mistake. These loans did enormous harm to families. Most families were steered into them unwittingly. What the customer didn’t know was that the loan originator was getting a huge kickback for steering that family into that loan. AIG sold these bundled mortgages and sold them as swaps because they didn’t want to call them insurance and face regulation. So they called them swaps, avoided regulation and got us into this mess.
What’s your feeling on what will get done on gun control?
The president put out a list of ideas. I’m bringing two tests to bear: Will it make a difference and is it compatible with the Second Amendment? I’m encouraging Oregonians to send me their perspectives.
What is the legislation as a senator you would most like to build your legacy around?
Legacy? Legacy is not something that I think of—I just got here. I’m concerned that the middle class is under assault from all angles and we’re losing jobs. There’s nothing like a good job to stabilize the family. I came to fight for jobs for the middle class, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.