Sen. Jeff Merkley: leading the way in partisanship

So much for working well across the aisle for the common good.

Jeff Merkley, D-OR, is one of the most partisan U.S. Senators, according to a just compiled Bipartisan Index that measures members of Congress. Of 100 Senators, Merkley ranked 93rd in bipartisanship.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-OR, a true blue partisan.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-OR, a true blue partisan.

A low score indicates that a legislator is viewing his or her duties through a partisan lens, rather than prioritizing problem solving and being open to working with the other party when possible, entertaining a wide range of ideas, and prioritizing governance over posturing.

The Lugar Center, a non-profit organization focusing on global policy issues, teamed up with the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University to develop a Bipartisan Index to measure members of Congress. The ranking of all senators, released for the first time on Tuesday, rates lawmakers by how their legislation does in attracting co-sponsors from the other party as well as how often they sponsor legislation proposed by members across the aisle.

“…sponsorship and co-sponsorship behavior is especially revealing of partisan tendencies,” said former Senator Richard G. Lugar, President of The Lugar Center. “Members’ voting decisions are often contextual and can be influenced by parliamentary circumstances. Sponsorships and co-sponsorships, in contrast, exist as very carefully considered declarations of where a legislator stands on an issue.”

Berkeley’s abysmal ranking in the Bipartisan Index suggests that he’s more interested in making political points than being an effective legislator. Partisan bills certainly have their place, but as Lugar said in his Introduction to the Bipartisan Index, “…at the beginning of the legislative process, when effective governance would argue for broadening a new bill’s appeal, too often the opposite is happening.  Bills are being written not to maximize their chances of passage, but to serve as legislative talking points.  Taking a position is not the same thing as governing.”

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Monica Wehby: down for the count

Originally positioned by the Republicans as a smart female political newcomer and seen as a credible challenger to Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Monica Wehby has become a damaged candidate with diminishing changes of success.

“I’m not a politician,” she said in announcing her candidacy in January 2014. So, far, that’s pretty clear. A pediatric neurosurgeon at Randall Children’s Hospital, she has been tripped up almost from day one.

wehby

It’s not as though Merkley should be a particularly strong opponent. Winning the first time by just 49% to 46%, he’s a pretty colorless Senator with one of the most liberal voting records and without any significant legislative accomplishments.

With today being the first day of the federal fiscal year, Merkley can also be fairly targeted as a Senator who has done nothing to effectively deal with the burgeoning national debt, now at $17.5 billion and counting, that is going to burden all our children.

Merkley is also running at a time when the country overall is in a pretty sour mood, with 67 percent of registered voters saying the nation is on the wrong track (NBC/Wall Street Journal) and 57 percent of registered voters nationwide saying it’s time to give a new person a chance in Congress (NBC/Wall Street Journal).

But if the polls are right, that doesn’t seem to matter to enough Oregonians to make Merkley vulnerable.

Instead, Wehby has been left defending herself against such things as charges arising out of opposition research that she harassed a boyfriend and her ex-husband. As Joe Pounder, a veteran GOP researcher, told Politico, “There’s the growing intensity of a media cycle fueled by the salacious and voyeuristic.”

Likely opposition research that generated reports on the website Buzzfeed in September that multiple portions of position documents on Wehby’s website had been plagiarized also has slowed any Wehby momentum.

Despite Wehby’s efforts to position herself as a new choice, and the significant support she’s been getting from independent spending, it’s pretty clear at this point that she hasn’t broken out to capture the hearts, minds and votes of enough Oregonians to win.

Dear Senator Merkley: anybody can write a bill

Anybody in Congress can write a bill.

That, in itself, isn’t much of an accomplishment. The real test is whether you can get your bill passed. Jeff Merkley, after 6 years in the Senate, doesn’t seem to understand that.

Senator Jeff Merkley

Senator Jeff Merkley

In an effort to portray himself as an accomplished legislator, Merkley has a TV ad out asserting, “….I wrote a bill to make China play fair on trade.” The problem is Merkley’s bills never passed.

When I served in Washington, D.C. as staff on a subcommittee of the House of Representatives, I worked with the Legislative Counsel’s office to draft dozens of bills at the request of the subcommittee chairman and ranking minority member. That’s the easy part. The tough part is getting something through the entire legislative process in the Senate and House and signed into law. That is the grueling work, depending on persistence, personal relationships, hard work and knowledge of the legislative process.

As a newspaper reporter after leaving Washington, I argued on numerous occasions against writing up lengthy stories on bills submitted by Oregon’s members of Congress just because they’d been put in the hopper. It’s a too common tactic by legislators to garner media coverage on a topic without actually having to do anything substantive.

The public is too often fooled by this tactic because they either don’t understand the legislative process or don’t assiduously follow the progress, or lack thereof, of proposed legislation.

Merkley’s clearly trying to pull a fast one. The ad should come down.

Grab them by the throat, Jeff, and don’t let go.

I’m standing with you, Jeff.

How could I not after getting your letters pleading for money and using every poll-tested word in the book to convince me to make my check payable to Jeff Merkley for Oregon.

merkleySenate

You tried to capture me with the first line, hitting me over the head by asking me if I’m “fed up with Koch-style special interests always getting their way in Washington.”

“Koch-style special interests.” Ah, yes. Always lead with a reference to the Koch brothers, the favorite bogeymen of the Democrats, denounced by MoveOn “for using your vast wealth — more than the combined wealth of the bottom 40 percent of Americans — to corrupt our democracy” and assailed by Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid for being “un-American” and leading the way to a dystopian America run by moneyed interests.

Forget about the fact the Democrats have their own moneyed interests. According to OpenSecrets.org, from 1989 to 2014 rich donors gave Democrats $1.15 billion — $416 million more than the $736 million given to the GOP. Among the top 10 donors to both parties, Democrat supporters outspent Republican supporters 2-to-1.

 Then you asked if I’ve “…had it with the Republicans shilling for the wealthy and powerful.”

“Shilling.” What a great word. A shill supports something with the pretense of sincerity, when in fact he’s being paid for his services. So I guess while the Republicans shill for their wealthy patrons, the Democrats shill for theirs. In your case, principal contributors to your campaign during 2009 -2014 have been:

 

Industry    Total raised       From Individuals From PACS
lawyers/law firms $337,313 $259,615 $77,698
Leadership PACs $166,500 0 $166,500
Real estate interests $146,868 $74,358 $72,510
Building trade unions $117,000 0 $117,000

Oh, and I just loved your appealing for my money “because the Republicans and their special interests cronies are hell bent on defeating me in 2014.”

“Cronies.” Another loaded word. The Republicans don’t have supporters, backers or enthusiasts. They have despicable, contemptible, loathsome “cronies”, part of a corrupt system of trading favors.

Then you said your race against Republican Monica Wehby is “going to be an uphill battle” because you “refuse to play ball with the Washington insiders…”

Ah yes, those dreaded “Washington insiders.” But wait a minute. You’ve been back there in D.C. for almost six years now. Aren’t you an “insider”, too. Or, with all the anti-Washington sentiment going on, are you trying to make voters forget that you’re an incumbent?

You also warned me that your record “…will be twisted into as many smears as special interest Super PACS can jam into a 30-second TV ad.”

So the TV ad you have up now asserting that Wehby will vote in favor of measures to “gut the middle class”, isn’t a smear? I mean, you know that the growth in Medicare costs, for example, jus unsustainable. And when a researcher hired by the Democratic Party of Oregon got ahold of a police report on Wehby’s alleged harassment of an ex-suitor and it somehow became public, wasn’t that a smear?

All candidates rely on catchphrases to define themselves and their opponents, as well as establish the framework of the campaign. Part of the reason is because, even though candidates sometimes talk about issues, “The unspoken reality…is that the vast majority of Americans don’t vote based on particular issues at all,” Dr. Frank Luntz wrote in Words that Work. “The fabled issue voter is a rare specimen indeed. ‘Agrees with me on the issues’ is inevitably one of the least important candidate attributes in determining public support.”

Instead, Americans decide who to vote for more on a candidate’s image or vibe, Luntz says.

You know that. You know most voters don’t really know that much about the substance behind issues and don’t deal well with complexity or intricacy. So you’re trying to poison the well with negative sounding buzzwords about the opposition. Smart.

 

 

Vote? Fuhgettaboutit

A bunch of folks won in Oregon’s May  20 primary elections, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy the enthusiastic support of Oregonians. In fact, far too often a small number of Oregonians are determining the winners and losers in Oregon politics. Only about one-third of registered voters bothered to vote in the May primaries.

And this doesn’t take into account the fact that significant numbers of eligible adults 18 years and older are not even registered to vote.

non_voters

In the hotly contested Republican primary for the U.S. Senate race against Jeff Merkley, candidate Monica Wehby captured 132,501 votes, 49.99 percent. That allowed her to overcome her principal challenger, Jason Conger, who pulled in 99,706 votes, 37.61 percent.

Wehby’s victory sounds impressive until you realize that there are 650,176 Oregonians registered as Republicans. That means Wehby won the primary with the votes of just 19.77 percent of registered Republicans. Those are the only people who can vote in Oregon’s Republican primary in the state’s closed primaries.

Votes in Washington County Commission races were similarly low. There are 284,138 registered voters in the county.For the nonpartisan Commissioner-at-large position, Andy Duyck won with 43,837 votes. That’s 15.4 percent of registered voters.

The fact is, despite Oregon’s much-vaunted vote-by-mail system, the May primary had one of Oregon’s lowest voter turnouts ever and turnout has been falling for years.

Why?

In races where there seems to be no real contest, motivating voters to turn out is damn hard. Jeff Merkley won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senator with 271,344 votes, just 33 percent of registered Democrats.

In other cases, it’s hard to get excited when there truly is no contest. For example, in three Metro races the incumbent candidates, Carlotta Collette, Shirley Craddick and Kathryn Harrington, had no opponents.

In some cases the ideological split in a voting district is so unbalanced, with Democrats or Republicans firmly in control, that going to the polls if you’re in the minority seems like a total waste of time. A Republican in Multnomah County may feel that way as may eligible voters in most Congressional districts in the U.S. According to the Pew Research Center, political scientists and analysts disagree on why so few House districts are competitive; some blame gerrymandering, while others say the district maps reflect a politically polarized America where people are more likely to live among those who think like they do.

Then there are the races that just don’t engage voters, where few voters feel any connection to whoever wins and probably couldn’t even name the incumbent if asked.

Of course, Oregon’s closed primary system is also a guilty party. With 648,146 Oregonians registered as Nonpartisan (nonaffiliated, minor parties & others), a number that’s been growing steadily, none of them can vote in a Republican or Democratic primary.

There’s also the growing disenchantment with politics and politicians in general in Oregon and across the country. In Kentucky, for example, turnout was only 26 percent in a nationally covered intensely competitive primary between U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Matt Bevin.

Merkley’s money: pick your poison

I got a friendly personal note from Senator Jeff Merkley the other day. Well, it was addressed to me and had his signature, so I think it was personal.

Anyway, he told me that if I’m “fed up with special interests always getting their way in Washington” he needs my help because “the special interests that are used to calling the shots are hell-bent on defeating me in 2014.” And in a kind of ironic twist, he said he needs lots of money because every supporter he adds today will be “a rejection of the big money politics that’s created a government by and for the powerful.”

This is the same man who has raised nearly $8 million from the special interests that he embraces, particularly unions, lawyers and law firms, and real estate interests. In the DC game, it’s more a matter of picking your poison than staying pure.

specialinterests

During 2009 -2014, principal contributors to Merkley’s campaign have been:

 

Industry    Total raised       From Individuals From PACS
lawyers/law firms $337,313 $259,615 $77,698
Leadership PACs $166,500 0 $166,500
Real estate interests $146,868 $74,358 $72,510
Building trade unions $117,000 0 $117,000

 

The lawyer/law firm contributors include the American Association for Justice, also known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America ($26,000) and the Boston-based law firm, Thornton & Naumes ($25,000). Thornton & Naumes is a heavy hitter in the contributions game, having contributed $326,250 so far during the 2014 election cycle. That made it the top contributor to 23 members of Congress, all but one a Democrat.

The trial lawyers have been long-time big-time money machine for the Democratic Party. Already losing tort-reform battles in states run by Republican governors and legislatures, and threatened by the GOP-led House, the trial lawyers are deathly afraid of having to deal with a GOP-led Senate, too, so they’re manning the barricades and handing out cash..

Another special interest heavily invested in Merkley is the real estate industry, blamed by some for exacerbating the housing collapse by promoting easy-credit policies.

Then there are the unions. Now there’s a special interest.   Unions making big contributions to Merkley in the 2014 election cycle include:

  • International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, $30,000
  • Communications Workers of America, $25,000
  • National Electrical Contractors Assn., $25,000
  • International Association of Fire Fighters, $23,500
  • Operating Engineers Union, $20,000
  • Teamsters Union, $20,000
  • Painters & Allied Trades Union, $18,000
  • International Longshoremen’s Association, $18,000
  • International Association of State/County/Municipal Employees, $16,500.

In 2013, the union membership rate–the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions–was 11.3 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, was 14.5 million.

The strongest union representation in 2013 was with public-sector workers, which had a union membership rate (35.3 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.7 percent). This reflects a fairly steady decline in union membership over the years. Thirty years ago, for example, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

Unions in the United States are waging an aggressive effort to maintain their membership and to support union-friendly government policies. And Merkley’s on board.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Merkley Razzle-Dazzle: Both ways is the way I want it

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) can’t seem to make up his mind.

In 2012, he voted for a bill to reform the federal flood insurance program, a bill everybody knew would mean higher insurance premiums for property owners to deal with a $24 billion debt the program had built up.

Now he’s portraying himself as a champion of the besieged middle class by lambasting those premium increases and voting to roll them back.

Merkley’s situation is captured perfectly in A.R. Ammons’ terse poem: One can’t have it both ways
 and both ways is the only way I
 want it.”

Merkley is obviously assuming that Oregonians just don’t know his voting record or have very short memories.

RazzleDazzle

In 2012, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was $24 billion in debt, partly because of big losses associated with damage from hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.The program was widely criticized for its below-market insurance rates and huge losses associated with multiple claims on homes and businesses that had flooded repeatedly.

Merkley voted for a bill designed to improve the program’s solvency by having property owners pay insurance rates that better reflected flood risks and reimbursement costs. The bill became law as PL 112-141 on July 6, 2012.

It was abundantly clear from the get-go that affected property owners were going to have to pay a lot more money for federal flood insurance. “The solvency and debt-reduction requirements imposed…by the 2012 reforms…virtually ensures that premiums will be going up across the board,” said an Association of State Floodplain Managers’ summary of the legislation.

But then Congress started hearing from constituents outraged that their flood insurance premiums were rising, some by hefty amounts.

Merkley responded by adopting the “Give ’em the old Razzle Dazzle approach, holding a September 2013 Senate hearing that gave him and others an opportunity to vent about problems with the flood insurance reform.

“The flood insurance bill, in combination with flood zone remapping, is delivering a massive financial blow to middle class families,” Merkley said. “This is unacceptable and substantial changes in the program are needed.”

In March 2014, Congress backtracked on the reform law, passing the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act that reversed some rate hikes and capped annual increases.

In a March 18, 2014 e-newsletter to his constituents, Merkley called the 2012 flood insurance reform law (that he had voted for) “misguided” and said he’d been hard at work to fix the huge rate increases resulting from it. Didn’t he understand what was in the 2012 legislation when he voted for it? If not, why did he vote for a bill he didn’t understand?

President Obama signed the rollback bill on March 21, 2014, even though his administration had argued in January that abandoning the 2012 reforms would “further erode the financial position of the NFIP.”

Members of Congress from both parties and around the country fell all over themselves in an effort to celebrate and take credit for the rollback of the 2012 reforms.

But negative reaction was also swift. “The new legislation will perpetuate a broken system by keeping premiums unrealistically low, encouraging coastal communities to continue to build — and rebuild — in high flood-risk areas, exposing them to growing risks and costs,” said Rachel Cleetus, an economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It makes no sense for taxpayers to continue to subsidize flood insurance in high-risk areas that are only going to become riskier with rising seas and worsening storm surges.”

The rollback of the flood insurance hikes may take the heat off Congress for now, but it will have to tackle the issues again because the program’s debt problems have not been fixed. But, hey, that’s for another Congress to worry about.