Congressman seeks bipartisan solutions in Washington
BRATTLEBORO -- U.S. Rep. Peter Welch is serving his fourth term in Congress.
But the Democrat still finds himself reaching back to his days as a state legislator when he gets frustrated with Washington gridlock.
Vermont's sole congressman says partisan posturing recently torpedoed efforts to pass a complex, much-needed farm bill. And the former state Senate president pro tempore -- whose wife currently serves in the state House -- says that simply wouldn't have happened in Montpelier.
"At the end of the day (in the state Legislature), people understood that they had a responsibility to the citizens who elected them to focus on problem-solving. And that is eluding us right now in Washington," Welch said Monday during a breakfast speech in Brattleboro.
"I feel this enormous sense of opportunity to bring to Washington the way we do business here in Vermont," he said. "And I see that as essential to the restoration of the strength of this country."
Welch spoke at the Brattleboro Retreat during an event organized by Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce. He also toured the Brooks House property in downtown Brattleboro and participated in a community forum in Bellows Falls before heading north to Springfield.
And, while the Norwich-based representative took questions on a variety of issues, he used most of his speech to lament the "enormous amount of dysfunction" in Congress.
"There's a kind of humility that's missing now in the legislative process," Welch said. "It comes from an inability to give legitimate deference and respect to people you disagree with and find that common ground."
Case in point, Welch said, was the attempt to pass a comprehensive farm bill. The Republican chairman of the House Agriculture Committee worked with the ranking Democrat on that committee to craft an "incredibly complicated legislative package, and they got it out of their committee on a bipartisan vote," Welch said.
But then came criticism from Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, followed by a debate about the legitimacy of the food-stamp program, Welch said.
"That's an ideological battle. It's about making a statement. It's not about making progress," he said. "So it ended up that we lost this vote, and we don't have a farm bill. And you know what? That's not acceptable."
Welch also cited continuing efforts in the GOP-controlled House to repeal the controversial health-care overhaul that has become known as ObamaCare.
"We're still arguing about ObamaCare. We repealed it about 35 times last year in the House, and we're starting to do it again this year," he said.
Welch sees the votes as political grandstanding, and he responds this way:
"Yeah, I want to vote on not going to war in Vietnam. How about it?" Welch said. "I mean, this notion that you replace substantive work with symbolic actions is not doing the job that we need to do."
Welch said he hears a common refrain from Vermonters: "Peter, why don't you guys get together and get something done?" So he said he and others are working to bridge the political divide and find issues that offer some semblance of common ground.
Promoting energy efficiency might be one of those issues, he said.
"The whole debate about climate change and global warming is very contentious in Washington. But we need an energy policy," Welch said, adding that bipartisan support for investment in energy efficiency would "create local jobs and save homeowners and building owners money."
Welch said he has joined a "No Labels" organization consisting of 70 members of Congress who are seeking bipartisan policy solutions.
"The ideological perspective goes from very conservative to very liberal," he said. "But all of us have a common view that, regardless of our ideological preferences, the responsibility of a legislature is to solve problems."
Nonetheless, finding consensus in Washington is no small task. On Monday, Welch laid blame at the feet of conservative, Tea Party-affiliated representatives who pull Boehner away from the political center.
Boehner has "a tough caucus," Welch said. "There is a significant wing in the Republican Party that's a lot different than it has been in the past. The Tea Party wing does not believe fundamentally in institutions. So anything that we can cut and unravel, they think, is good ultimately for the future of the country."
"They actually think institutions are impediments to liberty," he added. "And that's the dangerous part. That's where it's anti-government gone amok. So that's the real hazard we face. And that's the problem that Mr. Boehner has to deal with."
Welch covered several other topics during his morning in Brattleboro, including:
-- He said the nation's economic recovery remains "fragile."
"We're doing better in our economy than we were in ‘09, but we've got a long way to go," Welch said. "Unemployment is down nationally, but part of that reduction in unemployment is because more and more people have gotten out of the labor force altogether."
-- He decried the pending jump in Stafford student loan interest rates, which will rise from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1 absent any congressional action.
Welch said student debt is growing steadily and is a "millstone" for graduates and parents alike. He also said college administrators must be part of the solution.
"We really have to look to our educational leadership to restrain these costs," Welch said.
-- The representative says the push for expanded background checks for gun sales "made sense to me, and I would support it in the House."
He noted, however, that the measure failed to pass the Senate.
-- Welch visited the Brooks House property with members of Mesabi LLC, the corporation that is redeveloping the fire-damaged downtown property.
With Mesabi administrators expecting to soon close on their purchase of the building, Welch said the project represents "local leadership at its best" and noted ongoing support from Brattleboro leaders and Gov. Peter Shumlin.
"You guys are making it happen," Welch told Mesabi principals Drew Richards, Craig Miskovich and Ben Taggard. "It's really pretty impressive. You guys ought to take over Washington. You might get something done."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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