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Sen. Merkley on #OccupyWallStreet: “I Agree That the System Is Broken”

When I first sat down in Sen. Jeff Merkley’s Washington office and asked about the #OccupyWallStreet protests, he immediately said, “Portland’s starting on Thursday!” I asked him if he’d go down to a protest, and while it was clear he hadn’t thought of it to that point, he said, “It’s worth exploring.”

The sit-in at Zuccotti Park, which has become the talk of the progressive community at the Take Back the American Dream conference this week, is in many ways a direct challenge to government itself, as an inadequate and corrupt tool to solve deep-seeded problems, as much as it is an assault on the oligarchy of corporate and banking interests who in many ways dictate policy coming out of Washington. “I think the movement is a reaction to how quickly the United States responded to the banks when they were in trouble, and how feebly we responded to American workers when they faced troubles of their own,” said Merkley. “They are responding to both problems in the economy and government dysfunction.”

I asked Merkley for his reaction to how the movement is essentially protesting him and his colleagues for their inability to break free of corporate shackles that prevent them from building an economy that works for the other 99%. “I agree that the system is broken,” Merkley said. He was one of the leaders in the effort early this year to change Senate rules and end the de facto 60-vote supermajority threshold for all legislation and appointments. And he also cited the Citizens United ruling as one that has created “a danger to the concept of government by and for the people.”

“There’s been a shift in my thinking as to the importance of reforming the system rather than a single piece of legislation.” He reasoned that ultimately, any effort to identify and solve a pressing problem facing the country that has to be routed through a broken legislative process will fail.

“The first inclination of a (legislative) minority is to show that the majority cannot govern,” Merkley said. “So a super-majority doesn’t bring people together, it doesn’t force bipartisanship, it makes it easier for the minority to achieve their first inclination.”

Merkley saw any pressure that a protest movement could put on Washington to do the people’s business as a positive. “Earlier this year I was talking to a progressive group, and saying that they need to have people in that park across the street from the White House, demanding jobs, reforming the Patriot Act, reforming Citizens United. It’s an important counter-element to the forces we encounter every day.”

If Merkley did choose to attend an #Occupy event, he would be one of the first politicians to do so, if not the first, and I’m not sure he would necessarily be well-received (ed note: not because of anything Merkley believes or what he fights for, but because generically speaking this is a movement that may be wary of politicians whom they blame as powerless to work in the best interests of the people). But I saw that he was completely on board with their core argument, and it is a core argument that the economy is working only for the privileged few, and the politicians elected off the campaign donations of those privileged few are unable and unwilling to do anything about it.

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David Dayen

David Dayen