LA GRANDE — Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley during an online town hall discussed issues ranging from universal health care to pulling the Winter Olympics out of China.
The virtual event Tuesday, May 18, was the Democrat’s 15th town hall of 2021 and his 447th since becoming senator.
“When I hear that number I can’t believe it’s 447 town halls. How’s that happen?” he joked.
He started off the event with an overview of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that is sending $350 billion to local governments, including about $2.8 million to La Grande and $5.2 million to Union County.
The plan was “designed to rebuild the economy from the ground up” and avoid sending the money to the states to distribute, Merkley told the more than 30 people who attended the virtual event. He also touched on President Joe Biden’s plan to reinvest in the United States’ infrastructure.
“I really feel like the infrastructure in America is sliding down,” Merkley said, adding the nation has not kept up with maintenance and improvements.
And he expressed concern about the erosion of voting rights.
“The right to vote is basic to the vision of a republic,” the senator said, adding the U.S. has a history of expanding voting rights, including the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The United States should be moving in that direction and not curtailing voting rights, he said.
Then it was on to questions and answers.
Eli Lien, an Eastern Oregon University sophomore majoring in integrated and multidisciplinary studies, asked what was happening in Congress regarding D.C. statehood.
Merkley said while the House has approved a bill to make the District of Columbia a state, the Senate has not even scheduled action on it.
Anne Marie Dill of La Grande asked Merkley about his support for the Choose Medicare Act, which would make the federal health care coverage program available to all. Dill is the chair of the local chapter of Health Care for All Oregon.
Merkley said he supports Choose Medicare because the U.S. health care system is so complicated. People move from job to job and have to change insurance coverage, which can affect their families as well. The system the county has now results in people falling between the cracks of coverage, he said, and he wants to simplify the system so it’s easier for people to take that insurance with them when they transition between jobs.
“So I thought it was an idea worth considering,” he said.
The Choose Medicare Act would open Medicare to employers and allow them to purchase quality, affordable health care for their employees without requiring replacement of employment-based health insurance. The program also would direct Medicare to negotiate fair prices for prescription drugs.
The U.S. pays much more for drugs than other countries, Merkley said, and this was an issue President Donald Trump even pushed. Until the drug companies pushed back. He lamented the lobbying power and reach of Big Pharma. He said the administration has to stand up for the American people when it comes to negotiating for drug prices.
He also heard and addressed concerns about the spread of COVID-19, the Boardman to Hemingway transmission line, cuts to programs that help first-generation college students and the Wild and Scenic Rivers bill that Oregon’s other U.S. senator, Ron Wyden, is promoting.
Merkley concluded his town hall with a discussion about China, its human rights abuses and how the country continues to reap economic benefits from weak U.S. policy to the detriment of the U.S.
The U.S. years ago opened its doors to Chinese products that undercut American companies, and often to stay in business they moved to China, where the labor was cheap but also where the Chinese government could spy on those companies and steal their technology. Now China is a country building state-of-the-art infrastructure with more than 16,000 miles of rail for bullet trains in the last eight years and a massive and improved military while also violating human rights on a regular basis and still ripping off U.S. companies.
Merkley, a member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee and chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said China’s mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims and ethnic and religious minority groups who live in the northwestern region of Xinjiang amounts to genocide. He also said the county engages in crackdowns on freedoms in Hong Kong and other a human rights abuses.
Yet the international Olympic committee selected Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Merkley said the parallel with the 1936 Olympics and Nazi Germany is obvious. Those Summer Olympic Games boosted Germany’s international image while the county was committing human rights abuses against its Jewish people.
He called on the Olympics to move the games from China, called on sponsors to withdraw their support and called on a diplomatic boycott of the games if they remain in Beijing.
Merkley also encouraged locals who need help with federal issues to reach out to his Constituent Services Team through his office or to contact Jessica Keys, his Eastern Oregon field representative, at 541-278-1129. His staff might not be able to resolve all problems, he said, but he promised they would try.
Like at the start of his in-person town halls before the COVID-19 pandemic, Merkley highlighted a local nonprofit that benefits the community. On Many 18 he put that light on the Northeast Oregon Network, or NEON.
During the pandemic, the La Grande-based organization helped locals pay rent and utility bills, provided grocery gift cards and more. NEON Executive Director Liberty Avila expanded on Merkley’s remarks, explaining the organization has been responsible for helping locals obtain health insurance coverage, and at the height of the pandemic NEON helped people who tested positive with the coronavirus to quarantine.
Merkley’s office sent Avila a U.S. flag that flew over the nation’s Capitol, a gesture he also makes at his in-person town halls.