BRATTLEBORO—It’s the end of a day of meetings and time to sit down with the press for Congressman Peter Welch, D-Vt.
Such a day is common for the three-term representative. Although he is the heavy favorite to win the November general election, Welch continues to campaign.
“I love the opportunity to represent Vermonters,” said Welch of why he is running for a fourth term.
Vermonters tend to support practical solutions and are “committed to civility,” he said.
Welch has tried to bring that philosophy to Congress, but he said Washington is suffering from political gridlock, fueled by “an ideological battle to be won, rather than practical problems to be solved.”
Welch hopes the November election will transform Congress, and prod more of its members into becoming problem solvers.
“People don’t like Congress and understandably so,” said Welch. “This Congress has been dysfunctional.”
Looking forward to the next Congressional session, Welch has three goals.
He wants to initiate a nationwide energy efficiency program, similar to that of Efficiency Vermont, to retrofit and insulate homes. An efficient house uses less energy on the front end, saving resources and money for homeowners, he said.
Rebuilding crucial public infrastructure also makes Welch’s list. One example of this is the recent upgrade to the rail line between Vernon and St. Albans, mostly paid for with federal economic stimulus money. Higher speeds for freight and passenger service will help the state’s economy, he said.
Finally, Welch wants to expand mortgage refinancing opportunities to more homeowners, even if their homes are worth less than the money owed. Dropping the interest rate on a mortgage to 3 or 3.5 percent saves families money, he said, and frees up money that they can reinvest into the larger economy.
“There’s much to do, but much that can be done,” said Welch.
After Tropical Storm Irene tore through Vermont last August, Welch headed the bipartisan Irene coalition that helped earmark monies for the state through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Although individuals are still slogging through the FEMA bureaucracy, the money is waiting for them, he said.
Welch also collaborated last year with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to help lower debit card fees for merchants. Welch introduced The Electronic Check Parity Act of 2010 because, according to him, merchants were paying the highest swipe fees in the world.
Credit cards are next, he said.
Cable and phone companies, too, charge fees that Welch said he plans to provide more consumer protection against.
Welch discussed his efforts to alleviate some of the pressures on student loan holders.
Last April, he pushed for passage of H.R. 3826 to extend the 3.4 percent interest rate on Stafford loans. Without H.R. 3826, the interest rate would have automatically doubled to 6.8 percent July 1.
According to Welch, the budget blueprint drawn up by Congressman and current Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan would have doubled the rates for federal Stafford loans from 3 percent to 6 percent.
Meanwhile, the government borrows money for student loans at 1 percent, Welch said.
Student loans, and parent loans like PLUS loans, have interest rates that are “way above market rate,” he said.
Welch said he’s in favor of consolidating, or otherwise lowering interest rates, on student loans. People consistently making their student loan payments represent a low risk to lenders, and lowering the loan holders’ interest rates gives them “breathing room.”
Welch said it’s crucial that the country curb the escalating costs of health care, education, and energy — all of which are rising faster than the rate of inflation.
To curb higher education costs, the government can’t “micromanage” colleges. But, Welch said a trend in education has been to raise tuition in step with additions to federal and state financial aid. If institutions offer additional financial aid, they shouldn’t then raise their tuition by a similar amount.
Welch said the average Vermonter graduates with $30,000 in student loans, the sixth highest debt load nationwide.
But, to slow the rate of tuition increases, Welch said the institutions need to buy in. Welch has introduced legislation to “restrain tuition growth.” Part of the legislation creates a committee that includes administrators from colleges and universities to develop cost controls.
The federal debt is unsustainable, Welch said, but the process of lowering that debt requires that all expenditures be on the table. In Welch’s mind, controlling health care costs and military spending, two huge parts of the federal budget, must be considered.
Additionally, Welch said Washington needs to return to an economic agenda and policies that benefit the middle class.
Welch reported that Vermonters tell him they worry about making ends meet, paying for college, health care, protecting the environment, and whether kids will have better lives than their parents.
The American Dream is alive and well for Welch. Still, he feels every generation faces the challenge of renewing the dream.
“America is at its strongest when the middle class is at its best,” said Welch.
Welch favors a return to the Clinton-era income tax rate of 39 percent for people earning more than $250,000 per year.
The wealthy have done well, he said. But the country has a large national debt that needs to be paid down. According to Welch, returning to the Clinton tax rate would raise $800 billion in revenue over 10 years.
Republicans in Congress wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, since it was enacted in 2010. It’s their right, Welch said, but he questioned whether they needed to hold 33 votes over the past two years to do so.
The Congress must be accountable to voters, said Welch. It can’t justify not voting on important legislation, such as the ongoing delay by Republicans in passing the federal Farm Bill.
Welch, who heads the House Agricultural Committee, said he hopes the House will pass the Farm Bill during the lame duck session.
The stalling of the Farm Bill, which the government must vote on every five years, represents for Welch “a serious case of Congressional irresponsibility.”
According to Welch, even the most conservative members of Congress are hearing from their constituents to get things accomplished for a change.
Despite the political infighting, Welch said Democrats and Republicans have potential areas of common ground.
Welch believes climate change exists. He reports that some of his GOP counterparts feel it’s a hoax and won’t support renewable energy. But, both sides agree that less is more. Using less energy, whether solar or oil, lowers costs and saves voters money.
On foreign policy, Welch said Congress needs to re-examine the use of drones on ethical, practical, and legal grounds.
Initially, the government could justify the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Welch said, but drone strikes come with their own set of collateral consequences.
Questioning the use of drones becomes more “acute” the further away the country moves from the initial threats, he said.
Once the war in Afghanistan crossed into nation-building it was a “grave mistake,” said Welch, who said he wants troops out of Afghanistan sooner rather than later.
Protecting citizens’ privacy also concerns the Congressman who, in the next session, plans to co-sponsor a law prohibiting law enforcement from tracking individuals through their cell phones without a warrant. He also said he hopes to halt the amount of access corporations have to private citizens’ personal information.
But at the heart of Welch’s political focus is the development of economic policies that help the middle class. He said he can’t do that without keeping his ear to the ground.
“I am so on the ground,” said Welch in response to GOP opponent Mark Donka’s claim that the incumbent is too removed from the worries of every-day Vermonters.
Welch said he returns to the state every weekend. He has held 50 “Congress in Your Community’ meetings, and met with more than 100 businesses in two years.
“They [voters] give me an earful,” said Welch.
But listening is his job. “It’s all listening, all the time,” he said. “It’s all about Vermonters. It’s all about them.”