There are two great threats to American democracy today, and neither one is named Trump, said Vermont’s lone congressman, Peter Welch.
“One is [the U.S. Supreme Court decision] Citizens United and the immense amount of money in politics that’s not accountable,” Welch said during an interview at his Burlington office. “And the other is gerrymandering, where you get boutique districts designed for either the extreme right or the extreme left. Those two issues have gotten worse since I’ve been in Congress. Trump just upped the ante.”
Vermonters elected Welch, a Democrat, to the House of Representatives, throwing him into the flaming fires of Washington politics in 2006, back when George W. Bush was president. Liking what they saw, they have sent him back every two years since.
If Vermonters thought Welch would have an easier time after Bush, when Democratic President Barack Obama came into office, then two words should correct that thinking: those words are Mitch and McConnell.
Senate Majority Leader McConnell, R-Ky., is the man who vowed to stonewall every piece of Obama’s legislation that he could get his hands on. He remains Senate Majority Leader. And now there’s Trump. You have to wonder if Vermonters have a collective death wish for Welch.
But Welch, who just turned 70, loves his job and refuses to talk about retiring.
“Congress has been a tremendous opportunity for someone who believes we’ve all got to punch in to do the best to maintain our democracy,” he said. “I just love serving in Congress. And my period in Congress has been [during] extraordinary times for the country.”
An unexpected history
In person, Welch looks like a buttoned-down lawyer, but he has an unexpected history of involvement in social justice issues that some might call radical.
“It’s the culture I grew up in,” said Welch, who was born into a large Irish Catholic family in Springfield, Mass. “When I was a kid we took a trip down south to Florida. I think we were in Georgia when I saw the segregated water fountains and bathrooms. They were quite shocking and I wasn’t prepared for it.
“So when I got involved in community organizing in Chicago, I was working with an organization affiliated with Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The first summer, we took buses and went down to Atlanta for the SCLC convention. We went to the Ebenezer Baptist Church, heard Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, and then Martin Luther King speak. That was quite a stunning experience for this person from Springfield.”
In Vermont, Welch, 70, served as a public defender and as a principal in the small White River Junction law firm of Welch Graham & Manby. He served in the Vermont Senate on two occasions, both times being elected head of the chamber. According to his website, he was the first Democratic president pro tem in the history of the state.
“I say this for a laugh, but there’s a lot of truth in it — I’d been gone so long people forgot why they were mad at me,” Welch said. “So they elected me Senate president a second time. In my job, no matter what you’re doing, people are always mad at you. Whatever you’re doing, you should be doing something else.”
Welch went to Congress after a 2006 campaign that was called “the cleanest in American politics.” He and his Republican opponent, retired Gen. Martha Rainville, vowed not to run negative campaign ads; even under party pressure, they kept that vow.
For a lone congressman from a tiny state, Welch has been in the thick of things ever since he won that fight. He is a Chief Deputy Whip of the House Democratic Caucus and a member of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. He serves on the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
In his Congressional career, Welch has experienced more ups and downs than a roller coaster, but he has retained his principles, remained a firm liberal and, in the spirit of Jim Jeffords and George Aiken, has been a strong supporter of civility, progress, and across-party cooperation in politics.
Keeping it real
In conversation, Welch, who is married to Margaret Cheney, commissioner of the Vermont Public Utility Commission, is earnest, intense, thoughtful, accessible, and friendly. He has a sense of humor so dry it borders on irony.
He may be somewhat lacking in flash, brash, or charisma; the best words to describe him might be “thoroughly decent.” Or, as climate change activist and Middlebury Professor Bill McKibben said, “He is a gentleman in every sense of that word, and people respond to that.”
The issues may change but Welch remains constant — and constantly a Vermonter.
He keeps his promises. For example, he went to D.C. with a mandate to end the Iraq War.
“We became a majority and Nancy Pelosi was Speaker,” Welch said. “That’s when we really started putting pressure on to get us home from Iraq. Not that things are calm over there now by any means, but we don’t have the same number of troops as we did.
“Vermonters paid a high price in Iraq. We had the highest death rate per capita in Iraq and Afghanistan for a period of time. It’s sort of a Vermont tradition — we had the highest death rate per capita during the Civil War as well.”
Within three months of getting to D.C., Welch was on the ground in Iraq with both Republican and Democratic colleagues. Then he went to the White House and met with George Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney.
“It was my chance to advocate for my position directly to the president on the behalf of Vermonters who felt very strongly about it,” Welch said.
Things should have been easier for Welch during the Obama administration, when, for a brief time, Democrats held the White House and a majority in the House and Senate. But that’s when the Republicans shifted the playing field — in what some worry might be a permanent shift.
“In 2010 the Tea Party came to Congress, and from my perspective it was terrible,” Welch said. “We went from a Congress where we were engaged in public policy — and you can debate whether we could have done a better health care bill or a better Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act — to a Congress where the sole objective was summed up by McConnell when he said, ‘My job is to make sure Barack Obama is a one-term president.’
“I found that truly bizarre. When Jim Douglas, a Republican, was governor of Vermont, I remember a lot of my Democratic colleagues wanted us to give him a hard time. They thought that would somehow lead us to the governorship. And I reminded them that the same people who had voted for us voted for him.”
Serious competition should be practiced during the campaign, Welch said. After that, elected officials should get down to the hard work of governance.
“That was not McConnell’s orientation,” Welch said. “But it’s the orientation of Vermonters. McConnell was explicit that his job was to just say no and actively undercut anything Obama was proposing. That’s flat-out wrong. That’s not the job of an elected official.”
Welch’s technique is to build bridges, build alliances, build relationships, and build anything else he hopes will help him serve his state.
“When we were in the majority, when we were doing the climate change bill and I was doing an energy efficiency bill, even though I didn’t ‘need’ Republican votes, I went and saw every Republican member of the Energy and Commerce Committee to ask if they had any suggestions about what to put in my energy efficiency bill,” Welch said. “They appreciated that I stopped by, they gave me ideas, and if they were good ideas I incorporated them in my bill. Even though, in the end, they didn’t vote for it. But it made it a better bill.”
The Democrats were in the minority in Washington when Tropical Storm Irene tore up much of Vermont in 2011.
“We were in real trouble in the House with Irene,” Welch said. “We had a Republican majority, I was a delegation of one, and I wasn’t on one of the jurisdictional committees. I needed Republicans to help me, and a lot of those Republicans I’d been to, unsolicited, and asked them for their input, well they remembered that and said, ‘Let’s see if we can help Peter.’ One of those people was the House Majority Leader at the time, Eric Cantor, R-Va. He helped me the most.”
The laws governing the Federal Emergency Management Agency had to be changed to give Vermont well beyond the maximum amount of financial help allowed by law at the time.
“We needed that because our damages were so great,” Welch said. “We needed legislation. We had a Democratic majority in the Senate at the time; Senator Leahy was on the Appropriations Committee and he was in a solid position to help Vermont. I was in a precarious position. But by the end of the whole process, when it was very contentious and politicized, the Cantor staff was coming up to me on the floor of the House and asking me, “Mr. Welch, do we have everything in the bill that Vermont needs?’ Some of my colleagues couldn’t believe it.”
Finding common ground may be difficult, but it can make things happen the right way for Vermont, and Vermont expects it, Welch said.
“We’re hanging on, but still trying to do things that Vermont needs to get done,” Welch said. “I found some common ground in energy efficiency with a lot of my Republican colleagues. Even if they deny climate change, they can see the benefits of efficiency — because you spend less.”
Common sense is one of the biggest arrows in Welch’s quiver. Right now he’s arguing with the Democrats about offering support to out-of-work coal miners; his position puts him squarely in Republican territory.
“The more we work to address climate change issues and move from a carbon economy to a clean-energy economy, the more we have to reach out and try to help the folks in coal country who are being hammered by the transition,” Welch said.
Two years ago, Welch visited a coal mine in West Virginia with Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va.
“We went down 1,000 feet and four and a half miles in,” Welch said. “I was a little scared — it’s so dark and deep. Then they turned the lights off.”
Welch enjoyed meeting the coal miners, who reminded him of Vermont dairy farmers.
“They are wonderful people,” Welch said. “The only people I’ve ever met who work so hard are Vermont dairy farmers. They’re the salt of the earth and they’re proud of their work. And it’s dangerous work. They’ve suffered a lot, but they kept the lights on for us in Vermont. So yes, we have to move away from the carbon economy. But that doesn’t mean we have to move away from the folks who helped us.”
With that in mind, last year Welch was the lead sponsor on a bill that successfully restored coal miners health care benefits.
“They also lost their pensions,” Welch said. “I had a press conference just the other day, three members from West Virginia, all Republicans, and me, trying to get their pensions back.”
A bad situation
The election of Donald J. Trump as president only amplified the anti-government feeling in Congress typified by McConnell.
“There’s an emerging opposition to the role of government,” Welch said. “There are a lot of Congressmen who basically don’t believe in government. And that’s unique. In the state senate, I served with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, but everyone believed that government should function. They believed there are roles the government should play. We’ve got a lot of people down there now who challenge that. They’re willing to shut the government down. They’re willing to default on the debt.”
Democrats are partially to blame for this situation, Welch said.
“A lot of America has not been doing well economically — and rural America especially,” Welch said. “There really is a divide. People who voted for Trump used to vote for Democrats.
“They saw the banks getting bailed out but they didn’t get help on their mortgages. They saw the 1 percent doing great but their kids either can’t go to school or, when they get out, they’ve got debts equal to the mortgages we had when we were starting out. They feel government policies are not helping them get ahead. It’s partly from trade deals but also from technology that’s taken over jobs.”
There’s a word for a world without government, and that word is anarchy. It would make for a frightening end game, if that’s where the country is going.
“I’m not exaggerating,” Welch said. “A lot of folks think we’ll all be better on our own. Now, some of these folks, if your house was on fire, they would be there to help. As a neighbor they’d be fantastic. But they get skeptical or outright hostile about government. You saw that when those folks wanted to repeal Obamacare and had no replacement.
“Another moment came a few years ago when it came time to raise the debt ceiling and pass a budget, and they were willing to shut government down — and they did! Or they were willing to default on the debt, which they came within an inch of doing. Those are nuclear tactics. Default on the debt and you’ll do enormous damage to the country and our credit rating. It would cost us billions of dollars. This is something really new.”
Brinksmanship, tense negotiations, seeing who’s going to blink first — these are familiar tactics to Welch.
“I worked with Ralph Wright and he wasn’t afraid to be really aggressive,” Welch said. “But most of us have some limits, because we know if we go beyond them we risk doing more harm than the good we claim is justifying our position.Those boundaries are eroding, if not vanishing, under President Trump. The norms, the guardrails, the things that establish reasonable boundaries whether you’re a liberal or conservative? Those guardrails are collapsing.”
With the advent of the Trump Administration. Welch says his job has dramatically changed.
“Now the job is about defending core values like our civil liberties, like respect for all our religions, like respect for women, like respect for our institutions, like fiscal responsibility — which is getting thrown out the window, ironically, by President Trump,” Welch said. “These tax cuts he wants to pass? He says they will be ‘paid for by themselves.’ That’s a fantasy.
“All of these things that have been so important in building our country and are much larger than any individual? These are all under assault in this new administration. I now see much of my job as trying to restore functionality to Congress.”
It’s a big job. What are his plans?
“I believe the way we do business in Vermont is what we have to bring to Washington,” Welch said. “It’s about engaged debate and fierce debate, but its civil debate and mutual respect. Now the big challenge is trying to restore civil engagement in a Congress which is basically turning its back on it.
“So what feels good to me, even in this tough spot, is representing a state where those values are very important. You could have a lot of people from Vermont doing my job, but whether they are Republican or Democrat, we’d be united in saying that we have to be talking to each other. We need mutual respect and we need to be on the level. And that approach ultimately has to prevail in order for us to make progress.”
Given Welch’s talent for bipartisanship, it’s no surprise that he’s already found a way. The Congressional Problem Solvers is a group of House and Senate members who meet regularly to build trust across the aisle. It goes without saying that Welch is a member.
“There are starting to be a lot of us,” Welch said. “We’re 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats. The thing that unites us is the view that at the end of the day, we have to take a step forward. Yelling at each other isn’t the way to make that happen. There are members on both sides who want to make Congress work. A lot of my Republican colleagues are just dismayed at what’s going on.”
In spite of the hyper-partisanship, Welch says he still enjoys his job.
“And I say that fully aware that it’s a very difficult time here. The Trump era, in my view, is quite dangerous. There’s a lack of respect for the institutions. For preparation. For the understanding that a person of power needs a sense of restraint. It’s shocking to me that that person could be elected.
“I see my job as defending our Constitutional rights and getting us back to being a responsible institution. I spend a lot of time in Vermont seeing how folks are really committed to things like climate change and health care reform. My job is to bring that Vermont approach to Washington.”