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Sunday Late Night: Questions for Senator Jeff Merkley?

Tomorrow, I’ve been invited to a brief meet-and-greet with Oregon’s junior Senator Jeff Merkley, where I might have a chance to ask some questions. I thought I’d open the floor for any questions you might want asked, you denizens of Sunday Late Night.

Jeff Merkley is fairly well-known outside of Oregon for two things. One is his work with Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) on reforming Senate rules, which got fairly well derailed by leadership of both parties when it looked like it actually might go somewhere. Their efforts forced the Senate leadership to create a magic weeks-long “legislative day” in order to cobble together a substitute reform proposal. Because of his excellent leadership on that issue, liberal commentators see him as a progressive champion. Because the issue got wrestled away from the reformers without much of a fight, though, some progressives were startled at how quickly the issue expired on the Senate floor.

The second issue Jeff Merkley has taken on is the Administration’s housing policy, including the shameful performance in assistance to homeowners under HAMP.

In a letter to the president, Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, said that despite the administration’s efforts, the country’s housing market continues to struggle.

“[F]oreclosure filings continue at a pace of over 300,000 per month, devastating families across our nation,” Merkley wrote.

He focused on the shortcomings of the Obama administration’s Home Affordable Modification Program, which was designed to help mortgage borrowers who meet certain eligibility criteria avoid foreclosure by obtaining loan modifications from participating servicers.

“The goal of HAMP was to prevent 3 to 4 million foreclosures, but to date fewer than 600,000 homeowners have been approved for permanent loan modification,” Merkley wrote.

The stories of homeowners done wrong by their lenders and loan servicers, and the terribly small numbers of homeowners actually assisted, have found a willing listener in Jeff Merkley. He’s telling the stories about those victimized by a system seemingly designed only to help bankers, not borrowers. And his proposal, which restores “cramdown” to let bankruptcy judges treat first mortgaged homes the same way they can treat second vacation homes, is a real step in the direction of helping America’s middle class stay housed.

Under Merkley’s proposal, bankruptcy judges would be able to “cram down” the principal balance on a primary mortgage to the home’s current market value. The document on Merkley’s website says the proposal could be limited to debtors who meet certain eligibility standards, such as those set for participation in HAMP.

Cramdown was last proposed by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois as a proposed amendment to the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, a sweeping package to overhaul the financial regulatory system. The amendment was defeated in December 2009.

Finally, a third thing for which Jeff Merkley should become better known: he took a strong stand on assistance to the Mubarak government, calling on Congress to end assistance if peaceful Egyptian demonstrators were harmed again by their own countrymen:

“In no way can America turn a blind eye to this ruthless assault on ordinary citizens,” Merkley said on the chamber floor. “If we see a repeat of this violence, America must send a very strong message: There will we no further aid to the Mubarak government.”

I guess I’d like to know what other governments, now experiencing turmoil, that aid-withdrawal scenario might apply to. Bahrain?

I don’t know exactly what tomorrow’s meet-and-greet format will be, so I’m not sure how many chances I’ll get to ask questions of the Senator. But if you had a chance to ask a question tomorrow, what would you ask? I’ll try to get the answers and bring them back in a MyFDL post later this week.

Thanks, the floor is yours.

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Teddy Partridge

Teddy Partridge