Congressman Peter Welch answers questions from the community at The Works on Main Street in Brattleboro, Thurs­day morning. (Zachary P.
Congressman Peter Welch answers questions from the community at The Works on Main Street in Brattleboro, Thurs­day morning. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Friday February 22, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- If you'd prefer that your current or prospective boss not see your Facebook post from last weekend's party, you've got an ally in U.S. Rep. Peter Welch.

The Vermont Democrat says he will introduce a "Password Protection Act" that would prohibit employers from requiring employees or job applicants to turn over their social-media passwords.

"We have to maintain, in this Internet world, individual rights of privacy as best we can," Welch said Thursday during a stop in Brattleboro. "And what people do on Facebook, they should be able to control. They make their settings."

There is anecdotal evidence of employers asking for Facebook passwords so that they can more-thoroughly investigate job seekers' backgrounds. But it is unclear how prevalent the practice is, with some reports saying those concerns mostly are unfounded.

Welch, while citing a "growing number of reports" of such activity by employers, also acknowledged that most businesses don't request social-media passwords.

He also said he's had no complaints about the practice from his Vermont constituents.

"The problem is, unless there's some protection and you have a rule that applies across the board, then everybody's in peril at any time," Welch said.

"Most of our employers, I think, are respectful of privacy. I agree with that," he added. "But the reason I think it's important to have real clarification -- legal clarification -- is so that individuals who are applying for a job don't fear that they're going to lose their privacy."

Welch said he's trying to prevent "fishing expeditions" into employees' or job applicants' social-media histories. The legislation also would cover other services such as Twitter.

The congressman said social-media users have a responsibility to understand those services and to "act appropriately." But he also wants to protect employees and job applicants from being required to throw open the gates to information they may have assumed was private.

"It's pretty easy in the world of social media for people to make a mistake with respect to how that posting would look to a prospective employer," Welch said. "And let's not let that be the reason they don't get a job. Or, let's not let that be another reason they don't apply for a job."

Welch believes he can attract bipartisan support for the bill, though he acknowledged that the legislation was introduced in the past congressional session and "didn't get taken up."

"I think that it didn't pass last session not because of the merits," he said. "I think it was largely the result of congressional dysfunction. There's a lot that we didn't get done in the last session of Congress."

Welch covered a variety of other topics during his sit-down with reporters at the Vermont Department of Labor's Brattleboro Resource Center:

-- On the topic of congressional dysfunction, Welch said he's seeing some improvement.

"I've seen signs of change. This election made a difference," Welch said. "A lot of my colleagues, including on the Republican side, have come to the conclusion that people are repudiating this confrontational approach to politics."

He cited a few recent examples.

"There's a lot of positive talk on both sides of the aisle on things like immigration. The ‘fiscal cliff,' in fact, was negotiated without turning the lights off in government," Welch said. "So more challenges are ahead, but I'm seeing signs of more folks being willing to try to find common ground and move ahead."

-- One of those challenges, though, is the looming March 1 "sequestration" deadline. That's the name for $84 billion in automatic, across-the-board budget cuts scheduled for that day because lawmakers have been unable to come up with a long-term debt-reduction plan.

Welch said half of the cuts would come in defense, with the remainder being sliced from the domestic discretionary budget. And he does not believe sequestration can be avoided at this point.

"Doubtful. We should (avoid it.) It's a pretty dumb way to do budget activity," Welch said. "But in Congress, the minority in the Senate, using the filibuster, can say ‘no.' And the majority in the House can say ‘no.'"

Welch has lobbied for defense-spending cuts before. But he doesn't think those cuts should happen in this manner.

"'Across the board' means you're not making any distinction between things that are important and things that aren't," he said.

Welch is more concerned about sequestration's impact on domestic programs.

"I think it's awful tough to be doing more of these cuts in the domestic budget, because we've already cut a trillion and a half dollars there," he said. "And it would be very tough on low-income heating assistance here in Vermont, the community action program, education, scientific research -- those are tight budgets that have been cut already."

-- Welch believes a different type of cut -- in financial-assistance paperwork for students -- would be greatly beneficial.

Earlier this week, he announced legislation aimed at cutting the number of questions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

"The application form is pretty demanding," Welch said. "The information requested is legitimate. But of the questions asked -- there's 48 questions asked -- 31 of them can be answered by reference to your tax return."

His bill would allow applicants to sign a waiver so that the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Department of Education can communicate, eliminating the need for families to research and answer many of those FAFSA questions.

"That's where I think that the Democrats have to really be aggressive in taking practical steps to make government more efficient," Welch said. "There are legitimate complaints about regulations at times."

-- Also during his Brattleboro visit, Welch toured the New Chapter Inc., a vitamin and supplement company, and had lunch with seniors at Gibson-Aiken Center.

The congressman's first stop was at the Works Bakery Cafe on Main Street, where he chatted with constituents about issues including the upcoming sequestration, campaign financing and congressional gridlock.

"People are ready for us to work with people we disagree with," Welch said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.