By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

A town hall hosted by Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Kurt Schrader drew a crowd of more than 400 people to Claggett Creek Middle School Saturday, Jan. 13.

The congressmen took questions from the standing-room-only attendees and gave updates on their recent work in the halls of the U.S. Congress.

Keizertimes and the Statesman Journal got a chance to speak with both men before the town hall (see related story, Page A1). Keizertimes is presenting the town hall in a question-and-answer format to preserve as much of the legislators’ intent as possible.

Question from Tressen Keller, CCMS eighth grader: How should college debt affect college dreams?

Schrader: The debt students incur these days is criminal. We have worked to at least finance some of the debt. Only 3 percent of federal dollars go to education and that’s in stark contrast to our state where over 50 percent are used for education. If you step up after and work in an area in need of expertise, then your loan should be forgiven. We are working to make sure that your college is a heckuva lot more affordable than it is right now.

Merkley: I will add that we need to do a lot more to fund Pell grants to keep pace with rising tuition. When our students borrow, they should be able to borrow at the same rate the big banks get.

Question: What are the chances of drilling for oil off the Oregon Coast:

Merkley: The answer is none. You probably heard that as soon as it was announced, the Florida governor protested and (Sec. Ryan) Zinke said we’ll let Florida off the hook because he’s Republican. How about we let every state off the hook where the governor protests?

Schrader: The West Coast coalition has been pretty united in that it is a no-go for us.

Question from Richard Walsh, attorney and former Keizer city councilor: How many Democrats are onboard for the Medicare for All plan and why isn’t it part of the (Democratic) platform?

Merkley: Our system is so complicated and we have six different systems overlapping in different ways. Wouldn’t it be great to have a simple, seamless system whereby simply by living in America you have affordable, quality healthcare.

On the Senate side, a lot of senators have stepped up to talk about it and there are those who want to talk about the steps leading to a simpler system down the road. I think it’s important to see how much shift has occurred. There is a tremendous support for that shift. The conversation is going toward that direction and we have to keep pushing.

Schrader: The conversation has shifted dramatically. Healthcare for everybody is where we need to be going. We have to show the Affordable Care Act is working and that more expansion can work.

Question from Judith Mansfield, teacher: I have a lot of concerns for my DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students and tuition for students, and I believe healthcare is a human right. Is there enough will and compassion to counteract and balance what has been going on in the past year and cut it short?

Merkley: Is there enough humanity address what is going on? I hope so. I hope the citizens of this country convey to their senators and representatives just how divisive the hate-mongering has been. Life is short, let’s take our energy and put it into making things better. The Dream Act is something symbolic of that.

It’s totally unfair to be stressing out families who are worried about their kids becoming stateless individuals. Let’s make them full members of our community as they have been for most of their lives.

Schrader: If you would put a clean DACA bill on the floor of the house it would pass. Why is it not happening? It’s bad leadership. Leaders bring people together. There is a lot of compassion in this Congress. Many of them are from the last Congress and they solved a longterm problem to make sure seniors could receive the healthcare they need, helped write a bill that put in place industry standards  to prevent toxins, and they made sure parents and teachers and states had their own say in how kids were educated. It’s not happening because of bad leadership, and hopefully this coming election cycle we will see some changes.

Question: We have three state highways that go through downtown (Salem) and all east-west traffic goes across one point. We need another bridge. We have idling traffic that sits for hours and pollutes like crazy. Will you be able to give us some help to fund this kind of a bridge for us?

Schrader: It’s undeniable that the congestion is horrible. Some accommodation has to be had. We are looking for solid direction from this community and a plan that works its way up through the state transportation process and it becomes a priority. The last transportation bill we passed we made I-205 a national priority and we could make this a project of national significance. That gives access to some funding and grant streams that we wouldn’t normally have.

Question from Michael Hampton, of Keizer: I am concerned about the destruction of environmental regulations under Scott Pruitt. How can we maintain what we had?

Merkley: The administration proposed Michael Dourson (as the EPA’s chief chemical safety nominee). Dourson and his team have spent his entire career saying that, when science says a specific amount (of a chemical) is dangerous, 10 times or 100 times more is not something to worry about. The administration pulled his nomination after the response from citizens. Pruitt is a big challenge because he’s undoing so much from the inside.

Schrader: Elections have consequences and you get the government you vote in. Everyone needs to step up and be present and active in the next cycle. We saw a bunch of Congressional Review Act (votes used to undo regulations promulgated) by the Obama Administration. That might be a way we can make sure the protections we have stay in place.

Question from Anita Navarro, Claggett eighth grader: What does a woman-safe workplace mean to you?

Merkley: It’s a workplace that doesn’t involve leadership by a whole number of individuals that we have heard about in the last few months or people who practice any sort of harassment in the workplace. Women and men deserve a workplace where your participation and your advocacy and salary is completely dependent on your contributions and professional work. That is a message we are hearing a lot and it’s one we need to keep sending until every workplace is free of harassment.

Schrader: Frankly, it’s a conversation that we should have started long ago.