By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Merkley and Bonamici draw big crowd

According to a show-of-hands poll Merkley conducted partway through, the group included a handful of supporters for presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton, along with a large contingent of Bernie Sanders advocates.

Questions included those related to the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, proposals to increase the minimum wage, health care delivery and the U.S. Constitution.

Merkley made a point to discuss his efforts to combat climate change and work to pass the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act transportation bill. Bonamici stressed her efforts to better fund education and assist laid-off workers, taking particular note of employees from Newberg’s shuttered paper mill.

As part of his effort to address climate change, Merkley has sponsored a bill called the Keep It in the Ground Act of 2015.

The act would prohibit issuance of new leases or renewal of non-producing leases for drilling for oil and gas on the outer Continental Shelf of the Gulf of Mexico, Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans. It also would prohibit issuance of new leases or renewal of non-producing leases for coal, oil, gas, shale and tar sands extraction on federal lands.

Co-sponsors include Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). In November, the bill was referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

An Amity high school student, self-identifying as a Republican, started things off with a challenge to Merkley and Bonamici about how raising the minimum wage would help his fellow schoolmates find jobs.

Bobby Scharf said he was able to work on the family farm, but schoolmates had to seek jobs in town. He argued that increasing the minimum wage would decrease the number of jobs available.

Merkley said that’s a common argument, “but the statistics don’t support it.” He said, “We have not seen a loss of jobs due to increases in the minimum wage.”

Merkley said that wages have not kept up with costs over the past several decades. He argued, “Anyone who works full time should not have to live in poverty.”

Bonamici noted that Scharf appeared to be referring to Oregon’s minimum wage, which is $9.25 an hour.

“Federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and it applies in states that do not have a minimum wage,” she said. She noted that Scharf is still a student, and can afford to work at low wages, but that “a lot of people working at minimum wage are single parents” who can’t make ends meet at that level.

Both Merkley and Bonamici pledged to take a close, careful look at the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in response to a woman holding a protest sign, who asked that they not support the bill. Bonamici said she would be looking for wage and environmental protection clauses, while Merkley said he is concerned about protecting onshore manufacturing jobs.

They agreed that women’s health care should be funded, and Merkley noted that a Republican caucus effort to defund Planned Parenthood failed.

Efforts to decriminalize medical marijuana on a federal level have not so far been successful, they said, but are ongoing, and have bipartisan support. Merkley also cited his work with Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to pass a bipartisan amendment that requires the Department of Justice to “respect Oregon and Kentucky’s state industrial hemp laws.”

The amendment, tacked onto a Senate appropriations bill in 2014, “will ensure that the states’ research on industrial hemp can continue,” according to Merkley.

The Keystone XL Pipeline also came up for discussion. TransCanada has filed a lawsuit against the United States, under the North American Free Trade Agreement. It is demanding $15 billion in damages.

Bonamici said the lawsuit is “a gross misuse” of the trade agreement’s provisions to protect investments in foreign countries.

Merkley said that he had argued unsuccessfully for prohibitions on any such lawsuits involving health, wellness or environmental regulations.

In response to a question about preserving access to public lands, Merkley said executive decisions to declare national monuments “has been a powerful tool for protecting some of our most valuable” areas, and that presidents have, in general, tended to be judicious about using the power.

“It works best when it’s done in coordination with the local community,” he said. “We have to be thoughtful in the way we approach national monuments.”

Both congressional representatives praised the Affordable Care Act, but acknowledged that there are parts of it that need work.

“We have to keep making improvements as we come across places where it’s not working well, and there are plenty of those,” Merkley said.

A man who identified himself as a Republican asked how the pair feel about updating the Constitution, saying he believes the document “is being attacked by many.”

Merkley said he was “powerfully relieved that our Constitution is under attack,” because “it was written with the principle that the people have an equal voice” in discussions about national policy.

He said, “corporations are drowning out” the voices of ordinary people, because of the constitutional law case of “Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission,” in which the Supreme Court ruled the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political spending by nonprofit corporations. “This is government by and for the 1 percent, not by and for the people,” he said, to loud applause.

Bonamici said that, in general, she does not support “updating” the Constitution. However, she said, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case was “dangerous.” She said, “We can change that with a constitutional amendment,” drawing loud applause.

Merkley and Bonamici also took a few moments at the beginning to honor the Amity Downtown Improvement Group, and presented group members with a flag that had flown over the nation’s capitol. They also held a moment of silence to honor slain Seaside Police Officer Sgt. Jason Goodding, 39, who was killed Friday night as he and another officer attempted to arrest a man on a warrant for felony assault.