Oregon’s Senators: A Progress Report

United States Senators serve six-year terms, so they don’t have to campaign as constantly as other elected officials. Originally, they didn’t have to campaign at all, since they were chosen by state legislatures until the U.S. Constitution was amended in 1913.

Campaigning and governing once were complementary skills. Time on the hustings put leaders in touch with the people whose interests they were elected to represent. In modern times, successful campaigns require raising a whole lot of money.

But occasionally senators don’t always have to worry quite as much about that. This year is Oregon’s turn to take a small breather from electoral politics. There will be no races for the U.S. Senate this year. So it’s a good time to assess what each of our Senators is doing for and around the country.

Senior Senator Ron Wyden built a reputation as a bridge-builder, creating unlikely coalitions with Republicans. That stopped happening when the Republicans noticed that bipartisanship made them vulnerable to ultra-conservative challengers.

Wyden is regarded by many as the Saint Jude of the Senate. His willingness to represent lost causes endears him to many. If Senate politics was a basketball game, Wyden came in as a point guard, sharing the ball with others who had a clearer path to the goal.

As bipartisanship in particular and productivity in general have waned in the Senate, Wyden has shifted his focus from a little bit of everything to a whole lot of nothing. He’s gone from trying to make big things possible to trying to prevent the worst things from happening at all.

If he started as a point guard running the offense, he now performs as a post-up defender. He’s become a protector. If you follow Duck basketball, this analogy might help. He used to be a Peyton Prichard. He’s becoming a Kenny Wooten.

Specifically, Wyden has been swatting away repeated attempts to curb our civil liberties. As the ranking minority member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he has staked out a lonely position against the worst abuses of public law 107-56 (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, a.k.a. the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act).

It’s tricky business, exposing secrets held by the government without breaking his own oath to maintain that secrecy. He can’t tell us what he knows, but he can and does use his position to force others to say out loud what may have been only whispered inside the Senate chambers.

Sen. Jeff Merkley juggles a completely different set of balls. As a new member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he has immersed himself in the minutiae of government spending — which is to say, the minutiae of government itself.

Merkley endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016 — the only sitting U.S. Senator to do so. He has become a go-to interview for progressive advocates within the Democratic party. He’s mastered the arcane details of governing, but he’s also gotten good at the storytelling that is necessary to make those dry details come to life.

A good example came last week, when Merkley visited a juvenile detention center near the Mexico border in Texas and asked to be admitted inside. It was all streamed live on Facebook, in a drama reminiscent of filmmaker Michael Moore’s improvised antics.

Those who derided Merkley’s visit as a publicity stunt didn’t want the government’s policies of separating children from their parents to be publicized. They objected to the stunt because it worked.

Merkley often seems to me to be running a shrewd and shadowy campaign to be chosen as the next Democratic presidential running mate. (You heard it here first.) If a centrist candidate is nominated by Democrats in 2020, Merkley’s progressive bona fides will be an attractive addition. If the left backs a fire-breather, Merkley’s calm competence will bring valuable balance to the ticket.

Oregon’s Senators have not yet reached the towering stature of Mark Hatfield, the scheming effectiveness of Bob Packwood, or the principled contrarianism of Wayne Morse. They are showing potential to combine all three.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.