BRATTLEBORO—Despite a late March snowstorm, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., came to Brattleboro on March 31 to provide an update to constituents about what is happening in Washington in the wake of a new president in the White House and a Congress under Republican control.
One of Welch’s stops was at the Brattleboro Senior Center, to highlight President Donald J. Trump’s policy priorities. The Trump administration’s preliminary budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 would eliminate all funding for senior nutrition programs, including Meals on Wheels.
As volunteers readied the bags of food that would be delivered that day, Welch and Brattleboro Senior Meals executive director Chris McEvoy spoke with reporters about what the Trump budget would do to Brattleboro-area seniors.
According to McEvoy, about 100 meals are provided each weekday in Brattleboro or Guilford. All this is done with a pool of about 60 volunteers. Only two full-time positions and the equivalent of two part-time positions are salaried.
She says 56 percent of funding for Brattleboro’s Meals on Wheels program comes through the Older Americans Act, federal legislation enacted in 1965 to provide social and nutrition services to people 60 and over. That amounts to about $149,000 for the current fiscal year. The rest of the funding comes from donations and grants.
McEvoy said her program saw a slight decrease in funding this year, despite seeing more seniors participating in both the noontime congregate meals at the Senior Center and Meals on Wheels.
“We’re not the only program having problems,” McEvoy said. “Every program in the state is going through this.”
Welch called President’s Trump’s proposed budget “pretty outrageous. It would take $56 billion to $80 billion out of the domestic budget and put it into the military.”
Those cuts include funding for the Older Americans Act, which would receive no federal funding in the Trump budget.
Welch attacked the spending priorities of the Trump administration, saying that the level of federal spending on domestic programs is the lowest it has been since the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s.
“This is really a meat axe approach to dealing with the budget,” he said.
Zeroing out programs such as Meals on Wheels, Welch said, will hurt rural communities the most, which he believes is ironic because rural America provided much of the vote that elected Trump as president.
“Rural America is really under a lot of pressure,” he said. “It’s got real challenges, and our challenge is to maintain the strength of these communities.”
But it’s not just meals programs that are being threatened. Welch cited the ongoing effort by Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act as another example of shortsighted policymaking.
“The idea that you can call this ‘health care reform’ when, at the end of the day, 24 million fewer Americans have health care … how do you call that a health care reform bill? That’s like a health care demolition bill.
“It was really a tax-cut bill. They were going to take $1 trillion from the health care system at the expense of 24 million people and if you make over $250,000 a year, you would get a tax cut. You really can’t have a straight-faced conversation about something like that.”
Welch lauded the efforts of Brattleboro Senior Meals, and said the program was an example of partnership between the federal government and local volunteers to build up communities and take care of people who need help.
“We’re helping older people stay in their homes,” McEvoy said. “The food and companionship we provide is an integral part of healthy aging.”
A meeting at the River Garden
After Welch’s visit to the Senior Center, he held one of his “Congress in Your Community” town hall-style meetings at the River Garden.
Welch characterized governance as, “you identify problems, you ask hard questions, and you come up with solutions,” and said the Republicans aren’t doing that.
“It’s more fun to be with people who are building something up than it is to be with people are tearing something down,” Welch said. “If you’re in politics, you have to want to govern, to listen, to compromise,” and he said he doesn’t see that in most of the current crop of Republicans in Congress.
A big part of governance is the participation of citizens in the process. Referring to the failure of the Republican-authored American Health Care Act, Welch said it got defeated “because people mobilized.”
“[House Speaker Paul] Ryan accomplished in seven weeks what Obama couldn’t do in seven years,” Welch said. “He made the Affordable Care Act popular.”
Welch said he is a co-sponsor of the “Medicare for All” act, a bill which has been introduced in the House annually by Rep John Conyers, D-Mich., for years, and has never garnered significant support. A similar bill to extend Medicare to people under age 65 was recently introduced in the Senate by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Welch said the problem isn’t that the U.S. is afraid to spend money on healthcare — we spend more than most other countries. It is that the U.S. needs a better, more efficient system. He deemed Medicare “a huge triumph,” and “a single-payer success."
Arts, immigration, and war
Brenda Siegel, the founder of Southern Vermont Dance Festival and a local political activist, asked Welch about arts funding. She said supporting the arts makes economic sense because of the non-arts-related money events bring to a town: Patrons visit restaurants and shops before and after the performances.
Welch told the apocryphal story about British Prime Minster Winston Churchill responding to the exchequer when he presented a budget during World War II with zero arts funding. The exchequer claimed the country couldn’t afford the arts during wartime.
According to the story, Welch said, Churchill responded, “Then what are we fighting for?”
Art is about “our soul. It’s more than about money,” Welch said, adding that “a confident nation supports art and ideas, and a “fearful nation” doesn’t.
Another thing that a confident nation doesn’t do, he said, is bar newcomers from its borders.
“It’s terrible, it’s unnecessary, and it’s not making us more secure,” Welch said of Trump’s immigration policies.
An audience member asked Welch “to do what you can” to stop federal agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement from from arresting undocumented immigrants.
Welch said that, in Vermont, undocumented immigrants are working hard in the dairy industry, and they deserve better security.
Regarding foreign policy, another attendee asked what Welch can do to prevent “reckless military action in Syria."
Welch said the problem extends beyond Syria and into other nations in the Mideast and Africa such as Bahrain, Yemen, and Somalia, in addition to the ongoing U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although these actions constitute acts of war, no war has been declared — despite years of missile attacks and covert operations by the Bush and Obama administrations.
According to the Constitution, Welch said, “Congress has to decide if we’re declaring a war,” but “Congress has abdicated its responsibility by not even engaging in the debate.”
He said he’s urging his colleagues to “have an up-or-down debate.” because “the last thing we need is another war in the Middle East."
With a decidedly anti-Trump audience, the subject of impeachment came up. Attendees were concerned about the various conflicts of interest, ethics violations, and national security breeches that have occurred in the first two months of the Trump administration.
“Congress has the responsibility to investigate and let the facts fall where they may,” Welch said.
Although there is not a majority in Congress to push for impeachment, Welch said he is “working every day” to push ahead a better agenda.