When describing a “processing center” at the U.S.-Mexico border he says he visited in June of 2018, Merkley recalled to Daily Kos: “In some of those cells, I saw that people didn’t have room to lie down, they didn’t have mattresses, so they were cold, they were concrete, they were hard… And then you had children who weren’t getting three meals a day or basic hygiene, they weren’t getting the medical care they needed.” That image is always horrifying, but it is especially less than one year later as we collectively face a pandemic.
Question 1: What can progressives do to help reform the filibuster?
JM: Well, a filibuster is a word that means “piracy.” And it is the instrument that is destroying the senate. It is—if you wanna think about what it means in real terms—it means a super majority is required to pass legislation. And we’ve experimented with this in our past. The continental Congress had a super majority and it paralyzed them, and so the founders of, the writers of our constitution, specifically did not put in a super majority for legislation. They put it in only for special things, like approving treaties or overcoming a presidential veto.
In modern times, the tradition of letting everyone speak at length was translated into the fact that you could not shut down debate with a simple majority. That has embraced the super majority control of the senate. What has happened is the powerful in America have used that to blockade legislation for the people.
Now, envision this: The Republicans who were representing the powerful said: “We have an agenda. We want to reduce taxes and give the money to the wealthiest Americans.” And so in 2001, they changed the rules so they could do that by simple majority. So the powerful get to pass their legislation to enrich themselves at everyone’s expense by simple majority. But on health care, housing, education, living wage jobs, the Equality Act, taking on climate chaos and carbon pollution that drives it, requires a super majority. So we’ve tilted the playing field in favor of the powerful over the people.
So every presidential candidate should be asked: You’re talking about reforms in health care, housing, education, jobs, infrastructure, equality. How are you going to get that passed? Are you going to have the guts to help lead the senate to pass an agenda by simple majority for the people, especially given that the Republicans have changed the rules to pass the agenda for the powerful by simple majority?
If they say no, then they don’t really intend on changing the status quo. A status quo which works great if you’re a billionaire or a multimillionaire, but works terribly if you’re a working American. And so each of them needs to be called to accountability. It’s one thing to propose ideas but we’re not going to get them passed unless we have a senate that can act. And that’s what has to happen.
Question 2: What do you think 2020 candidates of all levels should focus on that isn’t getting enough attention?
JM: What isn’t getting enough attention is the corruption of our Constitution. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, dark money. These three things have been driven by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, just a couple weeks ago, threw up their hands and said: “We’re giving a green light for gerrymandering in America, it’s okay if states do this.” That’s outrageous. That’s unequal representation. If we were to end gerrymandering today, there would be an additional 20 votes for the people in the House of Representatives that would make a big difference.
They proceeded to gut the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act instead of defending the fundamental institution at the foundation of our democracy. The result is voter suppression in every style and form: voter suppression against college students, against communities of color, against poor communities, against Indian tribes, and all kinds of strategies.
And the third and worst is the Supreme Court allowing a concentration of power through a court case called Citizens United, which allows billionaires or multibillionaires like the Koch brothers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in campaigns and take control of the U.S. Senate. That is exactly the opposite of the vision that our founders laid out. Jefferson called it the “equal voice principle.” What he meant by that is that power had to be distributed among the voters, not concentrated. If it was concentrated, you got power by and for the powerful. If it was distributed, you could have laws that reflect the will of the people. So we have lost the fundamental vision of America. The Supreme Court, instead of defending the Constitution, is shredding the Constitution, so we have to pass the For The People Act.
Now the House of Representatives has already passed it. It takes on gerrymandering, it takes on voter suppression, it takes on dark money, and it takes on ethics. Sen. Udall and I have been leading this effort in the Senate, and the first thing that needs to happen when we convene a new Congress is to pass this bill in the Senate—the For The People Act—take on this fundamental corruption, because if we fail to do that, we are going to lose on everything else that matters.
Question 3: We need to close the immigrant detention centers. What do you see as the path forward? How to reconcile the Democratic House and Republican Senate?
JM: A year ago [in] June, I went down to the border after listening to Jeff Sessions’ speech called “zero tolerance,” and I said to my team: “I can’t believe that they’re really talking about doing what it sounds like, which is ripping children out of their parents’ arms.” And I remember my team said: “Well, there’s one way to find out: you gotta go down to the border.” So I did. It was June 3 of last year, 2018, and what I discovered in the processing center were these 30 by 30-foot wire cages that boys were being sorted into one cage and girls into another, and fathers and mothers. And I was aghast. I mean, America had not grasped at that point that yes, they really were traumatizing children. The Trump Administration was traumatizing children deliberately as a political strategy to discourage immigration.
There’s absolutely no religious tradition or moral code that allows you to treat children as pawns and hurt them as part of a political strategy. This is evil, this is dark, we have to put an end to it—and it isn’t just that. They were blockading the border to leave children stranded in Mexico, without families or friends or funding. They were leaving children in holding cells that sometimes are referred to as “dog pens” or “ice blocks” because they’re freezing cold. In some of those cells, I saw that people didn’t have room to lie down, they didn’t have mattresses, so they were cold, they were concrete, they were hard, and then you had children who weren’t getting three meals a day or basic hygiene. They weren’t getting medical care they needed.
Six children have died, much of this is the result of the failure to provide immediate medical care when children come into the custody of the United States of America.
And then we have a child prison industry, a for-profit that is running a prison, the largest prison for children in U.S. history in Homestead, Florida. A capacity of 3,200 children, and it gets paid $750 a day to lock up children. So this is horrific, they are supposed to be, a quote “influx facility” to rapidly move children into sponsors’ homes, but they make money keeping children in prison. It’s a fundamental, irresolvable conflict of interest.
We have to shut down this for-profit child prison industry. So all of this requires action, and in the Senate, I fought for us to get a bill that provided funding with accountability to shut down the border blockade, the ICE holding cells, the inhumane conditions, the lack of hygiene, shut down the for-profit industry, get the case works necessary to get the children into sponsors’ homes, and none of that made it into the final bill—or very little of it made it into the final bill. So I introduced a bill this week with the support of, there’s 40 senators in support of it at the moment, co-sponsors of it, and it’s the End the Cruelty to Migrant Children Act. So I encourage everyone: Contact your members of Congress. Tell them this is the least we should do.
This is destroying our soul, the soul of America, the America that celebrates Lady Liberty holding her torch up, holding her touch up to the tired, and the poor, and the tempest-tossed. We need to relight that torch, and that means we treat refugees from abroad fleeing civil war, fleeing famine, fleeing religious persecution, with respect and decency. We don’t treat them as criminals, and we don’t deliberately inflict harm on them, as is happening right now.
This is happening in our America. This is not some dictator in some foreign land. If it was, we’d be protesting it—we’d be writing resolutions against it, we’d be cutting off funding to those governments. It’s our government, with our money, on our soil, that is doing this horrific conduct. We have to end it.
Bonus Question: If you could give advice to your teenage self, what would it be?
JM: I would say to my teenage self: “You’ve got a very few decades of life on this planet—use it to make the world a better place.” I think about it as I sometimes write on pictures to people, or in notes of thank you: Never stop fighting to build a better world. That makes your life worth living, it leaves the world a better place and we have a lot of work to do.
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