04 Oct

Science committee makes a science of ignoring science

After a summer of planetary upheaval, nobody can say the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is ignoring the messages sent out by the quivering natural world.

After all, the committee scheduled a hearing on what we could learn from the solar eclipse.

It seems a fitting agenda for a committee that often seems to be operating in the dark.

“When we came back to the Capitol after (Hurricanes) Harvey and Irma,” explains Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., who’s spent years on the committee, “I suggested to the chairman that we should be having a conversation about climate change, and he said, they’re not caused by climate change.”

To go with the special glasses used to watch the eclipse, the committee leaders may be using special glasses to watch the climate.

The science committee chairman, Lamar Smith of Texas, warns against “so-called self-professed climate scientists,” and argues, “the benefits of a changing climate are often ignored and under-researched.” Plants respond well to warmer weather and more carbon in the atmosphere, he declares, and melting Arctic ice will open up more shipping lanes. Smith has used the committee to attack and subpoena climate scientists – and darned if there aren’t a lot of them – who warn of the dangers of rising global temperatures and sea levels.

And a summer that saw his state’s largest city – along with Puerto Rico and much of Florida – virtually drowned, as Houston was hit by its third 500-year storm in three years, hasn’t changed his mind.

A long way from the Gulf of Mexico, Bonamici also had reason to wonder about the summer’s atmospherics. “While they’ve had floods and hurricanes in the Southeast,” she notes, “the Northwest was burning up,” with massive forest fires in southern and central Oregon and the Columbia Gorge.

It’s not that climate change causes hurricanes or forest fires, but it does seem to fuel them. Warmer weather and warmer ocean water strengthens hurricanes, creating the 40 and 50 inches of rain that Harvey brought Houston and the unprecedented one-two punch of Iris and Maria in the Caribbean. And while no climate condition can affect teenagers’ drive to be stupid, Bonamici notes, “We had a very hot, very dry July and August, so when the 15-year-old threw the firecracker, it was a tinderbox.”

The science committee works along with an administration that’s not very interested in the summer’s developments, either. The president, who’s said that climate change is a Chinese-driven hoax, sniffed after the hurricanes, “We’ve had bigger storms than this.” Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency head who seems to be working to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, piously declared about any connections to climate change, “To use time and effort to address it at this point is very, very insensitive to the people in Florida.”

This sounds like the kind of insight the science committee might want to ask him about, except that Pruitt has never appeared before the committee – despite suggestions from Bonamici, ranking minority member on the subcommittee on the environment, that it might be a good idea to call him in. This might be part of why Donald Beyer, a Democratic member of the committee from Virginia, thinks it’s time to return science to the science committee.
But actually, the committee’s influence – if not its interests – seems to be expanding. One member, Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, has been named by the president to be head of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency. (The job typically goes to a scientist, but apparently being a member of the House science committee is just as good.) Besides space travel and watching out for asteroids, NASA has been a major force in climate studies; James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has been warning and testifying about climate change since the 1980s.

As a freshman congressman, Bridenstine demanded on the House floor that President Obama apologize for spending money researching climate change. He has declared, wrongly, that temperatures stopped rising a decade ago, and warned against “climate change alarmists.” Earlier this year, Bridenstine suggested that earth sciences studies might be happier in some other agency outside NASA.

With the smoke still rising from Northwest forest fires, Bonamici seeks to be optimistic.

“Recently,” she said hopefully, “Mr. Bridenstine has told me that he thinks that humans are contributing to carbon dioxide, and it’s affecting climate change.”

So possibly prospects for actually addressing the new weather aren’t totally eclipsed.

And, Bonamici suggests, there are other avenues. There is now a 58-member House Climate Solutions Caucus, with equal numbers from both parties.
“It took a while for me to join,” she recalls.

“I had to find a Republican.”

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 10/1/17.

25 Sep

This Dreamer can only be considered an Oregonian

Mariana likes “being busy. I like being organized. I’m good at time management.” She graduated from Portland State in June with a 3.7 GPA. After several internships, she now works for Portland city commissioner Nick Fish.

But when Donald Trump was elected president pledging to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals she found, “I would be doing my homework, and suddenly everything would go scattered. I got headaches. I would have nightmares.”

This is not how we should treat our kids.

Mariana Garcia Medina was brought here when she was three, and has lived nowhere else since then. Now she says, “I’m really proud of being from Tigard,” and nobody eager to proclaim that should be casually cast away.

She remembers being excited when President George W. Bush tried to achieve immigration reform, and then for years couldn’t watch news on the subject at all. When President Barack Obama created DACA in 2012, it meant she could get a driver’s license – a shorter-term driver’s license – and a work permit, meaning she could provide her family a steady income, along with being full-time at Portland State.

And when her grandmother and aunt had a medical emergency in Mexico, Garcia Medina was the only one who could go, under the program Advance Parole (now suspended). She wasn’t entirely certain she’d be allowed back into the United States, but she had faith in her lawyer, and besides, somebody had to go.

In Mexico for the first time since she was three, she quickly discovered something.

“I’ve never felt so foreign in a place,” she remembers. “I was considered a foreigner there, and it was true. I was a foreigner.”

Because she’s an Oregonian, one of more than 11,000 Oregon kids and young adults covered by the DACA program that President Trump just announced he would end in six months. Not all of them are quite like Garcia Medina, but by and large they now fit in Oregon more than in Oaxaca.

Like many proposals out of the Trump administration, the cancelling of DACA was both ringingly dramatic and completely incoherent. Nobody, including its most enthusiastic supporters, has any idea what it means.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, announcing the change, endorsed “proper enforcement of the immigration laws,” presumably meaning that DACA people will no longer be protected from deportation and can no longer get work permits. He also supports the administration proposal to cut legal immigration in half.

President Trump, saying he “loves” and “has a big heart” for the DACA population, later said that it was all a plan to get Congress to protect them, and that if Congress didn’t he would return to the issue himself. Of course, relying on Congress to save you is a little like counting on the Great Pumpkin. Last Wednesday evening, Trump and Democratic congressional leaders said they’d reached an agreement for Congress to protect those covered by DACA, but it wasn’t clear what the agreement might be.

And Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, explained that Congress didn’t have to do anything, because DACA people could just continue to do what they’ve always done: “live in the shadows.”

You can imagine the reassurance.

“It feels like they’re playing us like a football,” says Garcia Medina, “that we’re just being tossed around. There’s always that uncertainty, that fear at the back of your head.”

Other Americans shouldn’t feel reassured either. Immigrants, especially young, working immigrants, are essential ingredients in more than the melting pot.

Americans are living longer and having fewer children, being too busy playing video games and posting to Facebook. In 2005, calculates the Social Security Administration, 12 percent of Americans were over 65; in 2040, the number will be 20 percent. In 2005, there were 3.3 working Americans for every one collecting Social Security; in 2040, there will be only 2.1 workers per check receiver.

Unless each of those workers will be working 50 percent harder, this will be a problem. And just one things keeps it from being even worse.

“Because immigrants tend to be younger and have higher fertility rates than the general population, immigration mitigates the aging of the population,” projects the SSA. “Without immigration the aging trend would be more pronounced.”

In an American population already demographically top-heavy, rapidly turning grayer than cigar ash, to consider throwing out 800,000 young adults, and all the others who might be on an exit list, is not only wrong but massively – and mathematically – self-destructive.

Mariana Garcia Medina is not only an American kid – and an Oregon kid – with a glowing future who knows no other country and has done nothing wrong.

I’m also counting on her to pay for my Social Security.

NOTE:This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 9/17/17.

20 Aug

In 2017, a solar eclipse in a new atmosphere

In Oregon, we don’t typically have major events focused around the sun; too frequently the guest of honor won’t show up, finding that he has another appointment behind some hospitable clouds. But right now, an estimated million people are expected to be streaming into the state, drawn just by the prospect of the sun being blocked.

Clearly, when it comes to obscuring the sun, the moon has a much better public relations person than clouds do.

Monday morning, huge numbers of visitors will be in a belt across the middle of Oregon called the Path of Totality, which we previously thought was a new marijuana shop. While some states will have the darkness just cutting across a border or a turnpike exit, the total eclipse will be traveling the entire width of the state of Oregon, like a Republican primary candidate.

After it leaves Oregon, the eclipse will be traveling almost entirely over red states, which might give the sun and moon a somewhat distorted impression. For the first time in American history, the total eclipse will be visible only in the United States, for which Donald Trump will shortly be claiming credit.

Any time now, President Trump will be asked his thoughts on the eclipse, and will explain that he’s considering all options, including military action.

Or he might say that between the sun and moon, there are faults on both sides, and we need to take a balanced view.

In Oregon, the state is forecasting major gridlock on stretches of Interstate 5, although there are already parts of I-5 that have been motionless since around 2007. The Oregon Department of Transportation is forecasting the greatest traffic event in the history of Oregon, another example of technological capacity not available for earlier eclipses. Traffic problems actually began Wednesday, meaning that by Monday morning, the entire state may be motionless.

Already, Kate Brown is the first governor of Oregon to have an eclipse policy.

Once, total eclipses created concerns about God being angry and the possible end of the world. Today, we’re worried about cell phone overload and insufficient Port-a-Potties.

Progress is always a struggle.

Motel rooms and Airbnb locations are reportedly costing $500 a night, which would be a monthly rate of $15,000, or just slightly more than the price of a Portland two-bedroom apartment. State campgrounds went for prices not seen since the last time Bigfoot held a cookout.

Fortuitously located Oregon wineries are holding large eclipse events, answering the question of whether a massive cosmic phenomenon goes with red or white. (Since we’re talking 10 o’clock in the morning, maybe the answer is beer, although it’s hard to match a mega-event with a microbrew.) The benefit of a winery-based eclipse event – another resource not available before modern astronomy – is that even if western Oregon’s skies are cloudy, the occasion won’t be a total loss.

This being Oregon, we have a number of questions about the eclipse. When will it happen again? Is the eclipse a good preparation for the massive Cascadia earthquake? Do the glasses make us look cool?

And most important, where are we going to eat after it

This is not an insignificant concern. Unlike the rest of the country, we’ve scheduled totality between nine and 11 a.m., so as not to interfere with lunch.

One more bit of advice, to the expected hundreds of thousands of people, from California and around the world, expected to visit Oregon for the eclipse:

Don’t try moving in while it’s dark.

We know everyone who lives here.

Besides, your moving truck will never make it up I-5.

Oregon last saw a total eclipse in 1979, when it was a much more limited occasion. For one thing, it was raining in Portland – being February in Portland – and the whole thing was a matter of the sky going from gray to grayer, which won’t get you on the network news. (Although getting on the network news was a much bigger thing in 1979, before cable TV. This time, the eclipse will get coast-to-coast live coverage and have its own news logo, just like a medium-strength hurricane or a celebrity divorce trial.)

But another difference was that in 1979, the eclipse just involved a few thousand people moving around the country, not millions elbowing each other for camping sites and lining up to take selfies with the sun. (Astrophysicists’ tip: Have a really long selfie stick.) Back then, a cosmic realignment hadn’t yet risen to the level of a media occasion.

Now, experienced eclipse chasers tell us that seeing a total eclipse will change your life, and maybe it will. But it’s another sign of how this time is different.

Once, we thought change and enlightenment came by focusing light on reality.

It’s a sign of where we are now that this time we’re trying darkness.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 8/20/17.

20 Aug

Two Northwest backgrounds unite to defend food stamps

Two stories about growing up in the Pacific Northwest:

When Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley was student body president at David Douglas High School in east Portland, he ran a food drive. Collecting in a low-income neighborhood, he found that every door he knocked on produced a can of something, or a box of spaghetti. Moving his efforts to a more prosperous area, his expectations were high.

But in the new area, “I collected very little food,” Merkley remembers. “People didn’t believe that hard-working families were out there struggling.”
Jen Hamilton, a new volunteer coordinator at the Oregon Food Bank, was a child in a small Eastern Washington town. “When I was little, I understood what hunger was,” she remembers. “Sometimes my mother would say, ‘For the next few weeks, we’ll be eating out of the pantry,’” because there was no money to buy any more food.

Now, the two stories run together.

Hamilton, with a new graduate degree from Oregon Health Sciences University as a dietitian, was just hired by OFB after spending nine months drawing food stamps, which for an able-bodied adult without children carries a work requirement – an obligation she met by volunteering for 20 hours a week at the food bank. She salvaged usable food, packed cherries and helped teach a “Cooking Matters” class – and the food stamps she drew, less than $200 a month, helped her get by.

Now, like many food stamp clients, she’s employed and no longer drawing benefits, but appreciates the help she received at a tough time.
Jen’s story now runs into the daily efforts of Jeff Merkley, who’s trying to defend food stamps against a massive assault coming from several directions. Both the proposed budget from the Trump administration and the document from the House Budget Committee call for deep cuts in the program, and for years a particular target for slashing has been its assistance for able-bodied adults, no matter how hard they’re trying to find work.

“That’s where Republicans have gone for the money,” says Merkley. “The Budget Committee proposal would take 171 million meals from the most vulnerable Oregonians.”

Food stamps also have a direct effect on the local economy; hungry people don’t stockpile them. They tend to spend them at the supermarket immediately, turning them into tuna and macaroni, sending the money along.

Any cuts in food stamps – now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – particularly hits Oregon. For years, the state has made major outreach efforts to get eligible Oregonians signed up for the program, and now has one of the highest participation rates in the country.

Over those years, Oregon’s hunger rate, as calculated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has not coincidentally declined. The program helps
support unemployed able-bodied adults – generally on a short-term basis – as well as the children, elderly and disabled Americans who draw most of the SNAP benefits.

During the Great Recession, when millions of Americans were teetering on the edge of desperation, SNAP covered more people, just the way it was intended. As the economy has recovered in recent years, SNAP’s case load has declined, just the way it was intended.
But not fast enough for the House of Representatives.
That’s where Jeff Merkley’s story comes in. A member of the Senate Budget Committee, like his senior colleague Ron Wyden, Merkley is also the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Agriculture subcommittee, which approves the money for SNAP. Efforts to slash food stamps have come up before, and as Merkley says, “We protected the program on the Senate side.”

This isn’t entirely a Democratic effort; Republican senators from agricultural states often see the benefits of SNAP from the supply side.

Then, especially in the House, there are those who don’t. That’s when Merkley remembers the wealthier neighborhood that yielded less than the poorer neighborhood.

“I think that many Republicans,” says Merkley, “don’t think that there is hunger.”

And Jen Hamilton remember something about a child being hungry in a small Eastern Washington town:

People would help each other.

NOTE: This column appeared on the Oregon Food Bank website, August 2017.

08 Aug

One more dead end for revenue reform suggests a different route

It took 10 years of legislative effort, Mark Hass points out, to get Oregon to a policy of full-day kindergarten.

So, the Beaverton state senator insists, to have another legislative session slip by without revenue reform is no cause for despair.

Still, like a kindergartener who keeps eating the crayons, it’s not exactly encouraging.
For decades, one of the rituals of the opening of the Oregon legislature, along with electing leaders and assigning parking spaces, has been the announcement of the difference between what the state expects to collect and what it would cost to keep doing what it’s been doing. The egislature then has six months, calling on luck, imagination and occasionally skill, to make up the difference – although over the years of the legislature’s maneuvers, Oregon schools have also seen a widening difference between the school programs and class sizes the state used to have and what it manages to finance now.

Not to say fewer crayons.

This past session, Hass, chairman of the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee, and the leadership across the building in the House set out to make revenue reform happen. There were large Democratic majorities, if not quite supermajorities; unhappy memories on all sides of last fall’s multi-multi-million-dollar initiative battle over the business receipts tax Measure 97; and, as usual, a budget shortfall, this time estimated at $1.6 billion.

And, as usual, revenue reform didn’t happen.

There are limited places that more state revenue could come from. Oregon’s personal income tax is already at nosebleed levels, paying for virtually all the state budget – with the help of a vital, let’s-not-talk-about-it pipeline from the state’s jingling video poker machines.

Initiative measures of the 1990s constitutionally cut property taxes without replacing the money, giving Oregon shortfalls ever since.

Sales tax? Wash your mouth out with soap.

That leaves a business tax – and businesses, Hass points out, have gone from covering 18 percent of the state budget in the 1990s to paying 6 percent today.

During the Measure 97 battle last fall, there were hints that if voters defeated its sizable gross receipts tax, there might be interest in a more moderate version. Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, of the House Revenue Committee, points out that in Ohio, a similar tax – at a considerably lower rate than Measure 97 – was enacted by a Republican legislature and a Republican governor.

But when the legislature gathered, all that anyone remembered was the bitterness of the initiative fight, and who won.

“The reason we had so much opposition,” says Hass, “was the hangover from Measure 97.”

Of course, the winter was a time of other weirdness. Smith Warner recalls, “The Trump election threw everything into disarray,” and in the legislature it doesn’t take much to achieve that.

And the legislature did have other things on its mind. It passed a provider tax to bolster the Oregon Health Plan (and keep the federal dollars flowing), and an $8 billion transportation tax and investment package – something that the legislature has been trying to do for years, or even longer than it takes to get across the Interstate Bridge. Crucially, the package managed to get the necessary Republican support.

And the legislature once again managed to close up the budget gap and get out of the building, a tactic involving some cuts, some rearrangements, and a better-than-expected revenue forecast, the legislature’s version of Batman’s utility belt. So the state’s fiscal problem is resolved – until the shortfall forecast before the next legislature.

At the end of the session last month, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, declared, “We fought like hell to get to a long-term budget deal so we could finally stabilize our finances and make meaningful investments in Oregon’s schools. We couldn’t get it done, but we did lay the groundwork for success in 2019” – but it’s not clear just why the prospects would look better then.

Still, the 2017 legislature did manage the major transportation package, which could be an inspiration – and maybe a model.

“In 2015, the legislature fumbled the bill over a transportation tax. So we started a process, a task force holding hearings around the state,” points out Hass.

We could do that again. I’m happy to do it that way.”

That approach still might not work. Revenue reform has a long tradition of not working in Oregon, and there’s a good chance of more initiative measures next November, to redraw the angry lines and pump money into the cash registers of television stations.

But the early launching of an effort seems a minimal requirement for a reform drive that might succeed. Because one thing we’ve learned over a quarter-century is that this problem can’t be solved in the last weeks of a legislative session.

You end up with a strategy written in crayon.

NOTE: This columnn appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 8/2/17.

08 Aug

Oregon dismay at GOP health care bill loud enough to hear in D.C.

BEAVERTON – In a giant jammed gymnasium, stuffed full of Oregonians drawn to a town hall by the prospect of Congress dismantling health care, questioners rarely asked about the actual bill, the one that seemed to be slowly decomposing over the July 4 break.

Opposition was so complete it barely needed to be mentioned.

Of course, questioners would thank Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici for their opposition to the bill, before asking them about something like outdoor policy. And Wyden and Bonamici themselves would bring the subject back to topics like pre-existing conditions, or sections redirecting Medicaid toward a cliff.

The Senate Republican bill, warned Bonamici, would take health coverage from 511,000 Oregonians, a statement that drew a roar of dismay and an urgent waving of green cards given out by the group Indivisible to encourage listeners to show support for the speakers. The same outcry, audible and visible, greeted Wyden’s warning that the bill would throw out Obamacare’s rules on what insurance had to cover.

Since arriving in the Senate two decades ago, Wyden has followed a policy of holding one town hall every year in each of Oregon’s 36 counties. But on this Thursday in early July, he was already holding his 51st town hall of the year, with two more to come before he returned to D.C. at the end of the recess.

And, he insisted in an interview after the rally, the message from town halls in Republican territory like Redmond and Newberg wasn’t greatly different from the message in steadily bluer Beaverton. “I’ve never seen a situation,” Wyden declared, “when the urban and rural parts of Oregon reacted the same way.”

(A part of the feeling may be the calculation that Oregon’s deep-red, mostly east of the Cascades 2nd district, represented by House Republican leadership member Greg Walden, is one of the top districts in the country for insurance gains under Obamacare, with an estimated 64,000 locals gaining coverage. Rural hospitals and health clinics are being particularly kept afloat by the legislation, which may not produce Beaverton-level roars but can make a small-town hall welcoming to Wyden – and somewhat obstreperous for Walden.)

The responses made it hard to remember the summer of 2009, when it seemed Bonamici’s predecessor, Rep. David Wu, would barely escape alive from town halls where he defended his support of Obamacare, and local police were needed to keep irate audiences in their seats. Either global warming has changed Oregonians’ summer attitudes, or after several years in operation, the program has actually gotten more popular.)

It’s a long way from even the most crowded and boisterous Oregon rally to the U.S. Capitol, but Wyden insisted to the crowd that they covered the distance. “Without this outcry,” he told the Beaverton audience, “sometime last month, around two or three in the morning, the Senate would have passed (Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell’s bill.”

It still might happen. Last week, McConnell declared that to try and pass a bill, he would keep the Senate in session two weeks past its scheduled August recess date. That will no doubt mess up Wyden’s town hall schedule, but it was unclear whether it would let McConnell nail down the 50 out of 52 Republican senators he needed.

Last Thursday, hours after McConnell unveiled the newest version of his bill – and right after Wyden joined Minority Leader Charles Schumer and Washington Sen. Patty Murray in a press conference to declare that Democratic opposition was unchanged – the Oregon senator calculated that the situation hadn’t changed.

“The recess,” he reported, “was not kind to Mitch McConnell.”

The message had gotten back, Wyden explained, even though, “I don’t think there was a large number of Republican senators holding open-to-all town meetings.”

McConnell’s new version did not change the sharp cutbacks on Medicaid – a particular problem for Oregon, which has seized expanded Medicaid opportunities – and he added Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s plan to let insurance companies offer plans with minimal coverage, which Wyden assessed would “blow a hole in the system.”

By Thursday afternoon, GOP senators Rand Paul on the right and Susan Collins in the middle had declared they were still not happy, two other Republican senators had proposed their own plan, and Wyden noted that North Dakota’s John Hoeven and Kansas’s Jerry Moran had expressed doubts: “These are not senators who have gone out of their way to break from their party.”

The thing to watch, Wyden warns, is the “$100 billion taxpayer-paid slush fund” in the bill, resources that he says McConnell is brandishing in his talks with senators.

Still, the tide may be going the wrong way. Last week, hospital groups, insurance groups, disease advocacy organizations and elderly advocates became even louder in attacks on the bill. And, although unrelated to health care, Wyden noted that the week’s burst of Russian stories “didn’t bring a lot of authority to the brand.”

Even with the expanded schedule, he concludes, “Two weeks in August is not going to fix this deeply flawed bill.”

And it will still leave time for some more town halls.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 7/16/17.

03 Jul

July 4 has its own timeless traditions, including protest

Like Ashland on the map of the state, the Southern Oregon city’s July 4 parade is on the edge. It’s an all-comers occasion, with marchers including service organizations, folks from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, religious groups, the occasional drug treatment program, trick bicycle riders, classic cars, politicians and, at least one year, a woman who insisted, despite a court order, on roller-skating the parade route topless.

Because it’s in Oregon, the day begins with a run, and because it’s in America, it ends with fireworks.

Right now is a tricky time for any national celebration, with chaos in Washington and fighting in the streets of Portland, and free speech morphing into free screaming. We the people seem as polarized as a car battery, and public opinion researchers who used to ask Americans how they would feel about their children marrying someone of a different race now ask their subjects how they’d feel about their children marrying someone of a different party.

(Short answer: Not good, which suggests either some awkward family dinners or some sharply narrowed dating options.)

But it’s still a time to shoot off fireworks, to mark the place we are and the place we want to be. July 4 – or as any self-respecting 19th century political orator would say, “the Glorious Fourth” – has its own deep roots in both time and localities, blooming above today’s contemporary political unpleasantness. If the last thing you want to hear on this occasion is a speech from our current leaders, it’s not necessary.

Nobody signed the Declaration of Independence with a D or an R after his name. Celebration of independence goes back a long way, not just before political parties but before the United States even had a president. Americans started holding public readings of the Declaration of Independence back when its author was still alive.
Fireworks go back to before Europeans even came across America.

Even though the day comes in the summer, so it doesn’t provide time off from school, July 4 has deeper roots than other holidays, which often hang on cues from politicians or advertisers. Thanksgiving was started by a presidential proclamation – Lincoln didn’t tweet – and has featured one ever since. (The current White House occupant may well issue a Thanksgiving proclamation urging Americans to be thankful for him.) Labor Day, at least in even-numbered years, is an occasion for campaign speeches, not to say back-to-school specials. Presidents’ Day, having lost any connection with Washington’s cherry tree or Lincoln profiles cut out of construction paper, is now mostly a moment for mattress sales.

But as the Ashland grass-roots celebration points out, American places have their own events and meanings for July 4. Portland has a blues festival, and this year the blues might have even deeper significance. St. Paul has a rodeo, a tradition that endures whoever is in office, and transcends any passing arguments about grain-fed or grass-fed livestock. Estacada has a Timber Festival, with a much healthier rendition of log-rolling than typically seen in Washington, D.C. Bend, since the 1930s, has had a Pet Parade (“No rabbits, cats or aggressive dogs”), making it the rare spot where independence from Great Britain is celebrated by llamas. The biggest fireworks show west of the Mississippi explodes out of Fort Vancouver, a fort in operation since 1825, or long before televised Senate hearings. Ulysses S. Grant was once stationed there, although he probably didn’t have a holiday cook-out.

So Oregon has reason to celebrate the Fourth, and ways and means to celebrate the day, regardless of who’s watching the national fireworks show from the White House lawn. It’s also true regardless of who inhabits the state capitol or any city hall, although those folks are more likely to march in local parades – hopefully not behind the llamas.

Around the country, and in Portland particularly, there are newer traditions on July 4 and other holidays: massive expressions of free speech that fill up the streets and lead to considerable police overtime. This is maybe more related to today’s news, although in Portland those kinds of demonstrations have been a tradition for decades, since before the current president ever fired anyone on television.

The Portland holiday tradition definitely needs to cut out the broken windows, fires, stopping freeways and MAX, and throwing things at police and other demonstrators. It’s wrong, and it rightly angers people, and it overcrowds the Multnomah County jail.

But it’s worth remembering, despite any current political conditions – or sometimes especially because of current political conditions – that July 4 is celebrating a seditious uprising, a group of angry Americans getting together to protest about politics, and to sign Thomas Jefferson’s list of complaints.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt told the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1938, after noting the war record of his own 18th century ancestors, “Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

It’s an idea that provokes fireworks.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 7/2/17.

03 Jul

Merkley role in “hell, no” caucus raises national possibilties

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.