As Oregon’s junior senator, Jeff Merkley is a member of the world’s greatest deliberative body, even if these days that title tends to come in ironic quotation marks.
He is also part of the Democratic Senate leadership, and on the vital Appropriations Committee.
But the must-read political web site Politico.com has detected Merkley’s membership in a smaller but very active group:
The “hell, no” caucus.
And people say politicians can’t take clear positions.
Politico.com noticed six Democratic senators – Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, and Merkley – who voted heavily against confirming Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees.
“Right now, I feel that we are on the brink of a constitutional crisis. We’re staring into the abyss, and we shouldn’t just be treating it as business as usual, confirming people,” Merkley told the on-line magazine. “So I’m lodging a bit of a protest against the Republicans’ desire to just pretend there is no issue here.”
Politico.com also reported that all six senators have been mentioned for the 2020 Democratic ticket. The announcement of the membership produced a CNN story last week about the prospects of Merkley as a national candidate, which noted that last year The Nation magazine declared Merkley “the most valuable senator.”
Merkley does not deny membership in the group, but he says it’s not like the caucus holds meetings and has a secret handshake.
“The Politico article laid out something that we didn’t know existed,” he said in a recent interview about the hell-no caucus, the senators in consistent opposition to Trump nominations.
“I don’t vote against people without a reason. The president keeps nominating people who are deeply flawed.”
Merkley ran through a list of some of the people he’s voted against: for attorney general, Jefferson Sessions, with a lifelong opposition to civil rights; for secretary of the treasury, Steve Mnuchin, from a business that made a bundle out of foreclosures; for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, who showed no sign of ever having set foot in a public school.
When the writers of the Constitution gave the power to fill jobs to the president, Merkley points out, they gave right of approval to the Senate. Now, he says, “I’m trying to exercise my responsibility.”
While none of Trump’s nominees have been defeated in the Senate – although confirming DeVos required both a delay in Sessions’ resignation from the Senate and Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote – Merkley points to the withdrawal of Trump’s first nominee for secretary of labor after a focus on his fast-food labor practices. “As long as he nominates unfit people,” he says of the president’s choices, “we will oppose his nominees.”
And, Merkley notes, he has voted to confirm some Trump nominees, such as ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue – which is more than most members of the “hell, no” caucus can say.
Merkley might even have voted for more if the president had nominated more officials, but five months into the Trump administration, hundreds of administration jobs remain empty with no nominees – including all U.S. attorney slots and key ambassador slots, despite Trump’s insistence that all Obama incumbents in those jobs resign immediately. Leaving those jobs unfilled seems to be an actual policy position.
“The secretary of state is in no particular hurry to nominate people” to fill dozens of high-level jobs in the department, reports Merkley. “That’s very concerning to those of us who serve on the Foreign Relations Committee,” who actually believe in diplomacy. Scott Pruitt appears to think that not filling jobs at the Environmental Protection Agency is a way to keep the agency from regulating anything.
On when all those jobs might be filled, “I wouldn’t hold your breath.”
The process also seems to be slowed by a rising reluctance to take jobs with the administration.
There hasn’t been much legislation to oppose, either. Five months in, “We haven’t even had a major bill before the Senate yet,” points out Merkley. “There’s been nothing to do week after week. There’s been an occasional vote on a nominee, and that’s it.”
Last week, Trump claimed to have passed more legislation than any president except Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he appeared to be counting largely post office namings.
When’s there’s nothing to do, or even when there’s a lot to do, Washington talks a lot, and Politico.com finds that all six members of the caucus come up in conversations about 2020. Merkley was occasionally mentioned in the vice-presidential talk in 2016, and his being the only senator to endorse Bernie Sanders last year could make him a link to that wing of the Democrats next time around.
“It’s a compliment when people bring that up,” responds Merkley, “but I’m focused on taking back the Senate in 2018.”
Which is exactly what anybody would say.
And he didn’t say “hell, no.”
NOTE: this column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 6/18/17.