Touring Barhyte Specialty Foods with cofounder Jan Barhyte.
Fresh from an early morning jog alongside the Umatilla River, Merkley kicks off the day in Pendleton with a meeting at Kinro, an RV window and frame supplier. In the words of plant manager Eric Wiese, the subsidiary of New York-based Drew Industries makes “cheap un-insulated windows” and relocated from California in part because of Oregon’s less stringent overtime laws. “Is there anything that isn’t working, nothing that keeps you up at night?” Merkley asks. Poor attendance on the part of the plant’s 55 employees, most of whom earn just a little over minimum wage, Wiese responds.
None of this seems particularly well suited to Merkley’s legislative priorities. His “America Over a Barrel” plan for oil independence, for example, reflects a larger policy focus on renewable energy and energy efficiency. A week earlier, onsite at Mercer Windows, Merkley praised the company’s “double role” as a domestic manufacturer and energy efficiency innovator and assured David Mercer he was working to advance green product lines such as high-efficiency windows by proposing Home Star and Building Star energy retrofit measures.
But being a senator is nothing if not an intricate dance. Merkley, who likes to wax nostalgic about his working class background (“I’m one of the few senators who has welded things”), is careful to praise Kinro’s 40-hour-a-week jobs along with paid vacation and health care. Located next to Keystone RV, a major manufacturer, Kinro is also helping grow a local supply chain, the senator notes. “I think that’s terrific.”
A member of the Senate Manufacturing Caucus, Merkley has identified several priorities to boost manufacturing: supporting workforce and education, helping businesses access capital, incentivizing domestic manufacturing, and “creating a level playing field” by enforcing fair trade practices by other countries. Some of those efforts have translated into policy. In 2010, Congress passed the Small Business Lending Fund that assists community banks in lending to local businesses, legislation that Merkley introduced. He also introduced the Volcker Rule, part of the 2010 Wall Street reform legislation that protects family and business lending by creating a “firewall” against the high-risk, hedge-fund style investing that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis.
And in 2011 he achieved a small victory when he introduced a bill that would force the U.S. Trade Representative to take action if any member of the World Trade Organization failed to disclose subsidies. In response, the USTR filed the first-ever counter notification against China and India, documenting more than 200 different Chinese subsidies alone. “It’s a fascinating document,” says Merkley, who has made enforcement against China’s “four-tier industrial policy” — low environmental standards, currency manipulation, direct government subsidies, and policies that support theft of intellectual property — a key part of his agenda.
“These strategies have been devastating to American manufacturers,” says Merkley. “But they have not been discussed and are not understood in our country, and they need to be.”