BRATTLEBORO—“I’m smiling because I’m home,” U.S. Rep. Peter Welch said during a small-business roundtable on Monday. “Congress is kind of a fact-free zone these days.”
Vermont’s lone, at-large Congressman touted the Vermont tradition of working from common ground and the wisdom of local decision-making during a visit to Brattleboro.
Welch met with local business owners at the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., held a “Congress in Your Community” public meeting at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, and wrapped up his visit with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Brattleboro Memorial Hospital’s new front entrance for the hospital and its Emergency Department.
If Welch sounded exasperated with the partisan divide in Congress, he also often seemed hopeful that “problem solvers” could still get things done.
“[Congress is] quite worrisome,” he continued. “I’m kidding about it because it’s a survival skill.”
Although Congress has strained under multiple pressures triggered by the recession of 2008, “Long-term structural issues” also exist, he said, noting a transportation bill and a farm bill have yet to pass. Meanwhile, the House voted last week to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, for the 40th time.
Welch recalled from his days serving in the Vermont Legislature that elected officials from along the political spectrum always had one common motivation: to make Vermont better.
In his opinion, while Vermonters traditionally debate, they also find common ground and solutions. But he also said the divide in Congress comes from a segment of the body believing that if it sticks to ideology like glue, solutions will arise.
Those same members of Congress also feel budget cuts should take precedence over everything else. Although he said prudent spending is crucial, Welch added the disagreement is often over social welfare programs.
In Congress, Welch co-chairs a group, called “No Labels,” composed of about 70 members from liberal to conservative. What they have in common, he said, is that they view themselves not as ideologues, but rather problem solvers.
Congress must focus on acting as a functional institution and enact laws that allow local communities to accomplish their work.
“Real leadership is coming from our local leadership and the states,” Welch said.
Local public-private partnership, such as is rebuilding the fire-ravaged Brooks House, represents a community recognizing a need and putting federal support where it does the most good, he said.
The Brooks House received $800,000 in Community Development Block Grant (CBDG) funds, coming from a pool of federal monies allotted to states. In Vermont, local communities apply for block grants. A governor-appointed committee decides which projects receive funds.
Unfortunately, Welch said, such funding mechanisms are “under assault” in House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s, R-Va., proposed budget.
The local business owners meeting with Welch represented a wide range of manufacturers. Some produce natural foods and other conventional products; others manufacture robots that inspect nuclear reactors.
The business owners described for Welch their difficulties in finding qualified employees and banks’ reluctance to extend capital. Many said they hoped local youth would realize gearing their education toward engineering and manufacturing could translate into getting jobs in their hometown.
Welch continued discussing the D.C. dysfunctional divide during his “Congress in Your Community” meeting.
He said that Congress often operates with an all-or-nothing ideology, but it’s supposed to be meeting a “fundamental obligation” to decide policy on behalf of the American people.
When asked about cuts to food stamps, which was part of the original farm bill, Welch said the bill passed in committee. Although he said he did not support some of the Agricultural Committee’s cuts to food stamps, he explained he was prepared to pass the bill because it contained necessary support for farmers and low-income families.
Cantor, however, proposed an amendment when the farm bill came to the House floor, requiring that for an applicant to qualify for food stamps, he or she had to first pass a drug test and enroll in a non-existent work program, Welch said.
He explained that in the amendment, should a state’s food stamp expenses decrease, because people didn’t pass a drug test or couldn’t enroll in a work program that didn’t exist, then the states could use the money instead to lower the tax rate.
“Drug tests?” said Welch. “The millionaires receiving commodity checks don’t have to pass drug tests. What is that all about?” he asked the audience rhetorically. “That’s [simply] telling your base you can be meaner than anyone else in town.”
When asked who holds “road-blockers” accountable — the questioner named House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as an example — Welch pointed to the 2010 redistricting as causing some of Congress’ present woes.
The redistricting gerrymandered districts so candidates only have to appeal to a narrow segment of voters to keep their seats. As Vermont’s sole Congressional representative, Welch said he represents all Green Mountain State voters.
Still, Welch tries to remind himself that all the members of Congress serve because voters voted.
“There’s a kind of respect we owe one another,” he said.
Welch pointed to his efforts to reduce the National Security Agency’s spying capabilities as an example of his reaching out to Republicans who also support limited government.
“We need security, but there is also a thing called the Constitution,” said Welch.
Welch also discussed the coalition of 30 Democrats and 25 Republicans who joined together after Tropical Storm Irene to help Vermont secure federal disaster aid.
“You’ve got to spend time talking to the people you disagree with to understand where they’re coming from,” Welch said.
Welch agreed with an audience member who said corporate tax breaks and other benefits large corporations receive rarely pass “the straight-face test.”
“The middle class has never been as threatened as it has been in the last 20 to 30 years. Hang in there,” Welch advised.
He also said it’s vital that Vermont maintain its commitment to community: that, whether or not Vermonters realize it, their tradition of debate, finding common ground, and agreeing on solutions helps maintain democracy.
“Don’t underestimate that,” he said.