It’s not often that we take the time to discuss national or international issues in this corner. Seems like there’s enough going on in Hermiston and the immediate area to stay busy on a regular basis.

But then, it’s not often that a U.S. senator drops by for coffee. So, when U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley stopped in Hermiston earlier this week for a cup, it was an opportunity to get a different perspective on things.

Merkley, still in his first term in the senate, serves on four committees, including the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. It’s an assignment that’s been taking up a lot of his time lately, in particular an effort to create stronger regulations for Wall Street firms that seem determined to make big bets with our money.

Merkley helped write the Volcker Rule, designed to create a firewall between banks and hedge-fund style trading. It’s scheduled to go into effect in July, but companies such as JP Morgan have been busily lobbying for a loophole in the rule. They claim they don’t need any more regulation because ... well, because they’re doing just fine, thank you. (And by the way, that $2 billion or more that JP Morgan recently lost through the exact type of trades the loophole would continue to allow? Not to worry. Everything is OK. Really. This time they honestly learned their lesson  — and besides, if they need another bailout, they know exactly who to call.)

And that’s exactly what Merkley is hoping to avoid with a strong Volcker Rule: another “too big to fail” meltdown that would require billions more of taxpayer support to keep Wall Street firms afloat. He’s even circulating an Internet petition to be forwarded to Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke that states, “If Wall Street wants to make big bets, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be sticking our homes, businesses and jobs on the roulette wheel.”

It’s obviously a topic that’s close to Merkley’s heart, and while you may not agree with everything he supports, he does have the middle class in mind when he’s tackling this problem. (If you don’t think it affects you, just remember 2008 and the fallout that’s still hitting us every day.) I put myself squarely in his corner on this issue.

But our Wall Street friends are by no means the only thing on Merkley’s mind. Such things as the budget, the economy, employment and energy issues — just to name a few — are also on his plate.

So when given the chance to ask a question or two, I tried to narrow it down by posing one that’s very popular this time of year:

What would you tell our high school and college graduates today?

“If I’m talking to students, the message is a simple one,” Merkley said. “There are always going to be opportunities, and those are going to go to the people who work hard. If you develop your skills and exercise some discipline, you’ll find those opportunities.”

However, Merkley said he had another message for parents of those grads.

“To them, I would say we’re not doing right by our children,” he said. “We could really change the economy and direction in our country, and do it fairly simply, but it’s up to us to take those steps.”

And, yes, he has an idea of what steps need to be taken.

“All we need to do is take the waste from some of our current programs, eliminate other duplicate programs and end the tax loopholes that aren’t necessary, then direct that money where it will have an effect,” Merkley said. “I’d put one-third toward the deficit, one-third toward education and one-third toward infrastructure. Those are the three major areas we need to address, and they are all interconnected.”

Merkley knows his approach — one he calls a “3-3-3” plan for lack of a better term — is simplistic on the surface. He knows the devil would be in the details.

Still, he’s confident it would work.

“Right now, we are the first generation whose kids will be getting a lesser education than their parents,” Merkley said. “We spent the last decade going off course. We engaged two wars we didn’t pay for and simultaneously took our eyes off education and infrastructure. As a result, those two areas have suffered and our deficit expanded.

“Right now, China spends about 10 percent of its budget on infrastructure. Europe spends about five percent. We spend about two percent. It’s very clear our inventory is diminishing, and we need to reverse that trend.”

What’s also clear is the clock is ticking on all of those issues. Before the year is out, Congress must reach a decision on the Bush era tax cuts, and the automatic “sequestration” cuts in the nation’s budget are scheduled to take effect in January. Those cuts, mandated last year when the Super Committee failed to reach a budget agreement, will hit across the board.

“We have time to turn it around,” Merkley said. “Somewhere, we lost our rhythm. We can get it back, but only if we agree to sit down and have a real discussion about these things. What I’d really like to see is a presidential campaign that will actually focus on these issues.”

My guess is his wish won’t come true. Instead of a real discussion, we’ll get months of “decoy” issues. We’ll hear charges, counter-charges, lots of fat and grease and no real meat.

That’s too bad. Whether you agree with Merkley on the issues is immaterial. In this case, he’s 100 percent correct. If we don’t start intelligent, positive discussions about the problems, they won’t get solved — and while we may have time now, that clock won’t tick forever.

Know of something we need to be reporting? A piece of news you’d like to see in the Herald? Drop me a note at nwoelk@hermistonherald.com or call me at 541-564-4533.

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