Ready to govern, but waiting for government
U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., gives her first floor speech on Jan. 11.

Ready to govern, but waiting for government

Balint reflects on her first days in the U.S. House of Representatives and the turbulent leadership change in the lower chamber

Was it just a couple of months ago, for the very first time, that Vermont decided to send a woman to the U.S. Congress?

She was one of our own, a Brattleboro resident, a former Vermont Senate president pro tem, an idealistic, gay, married, mother-of-two, progressive woman who thought she was elected to fight for mental health, reproductive rights and housing for her constituents — which now, because she is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, encompasses the entire United States.

“I’m committed to making sure we pass progressive, bold, and meaningful legislation that addresses the priorities of Vermonters in the 118th Congress,” U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., said in a recent fundraising newsletter. “Join me as I take on the status quo and fight for working people during my first term.”

Hold that optimism!

Balint went to Washington, found a rare, no-frills inexpensive apartment within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol, and walked right into a goon show.

The words she used to describe it?

“Surreal” and “a wild, wild ride.”

* * *

Historians will have a field day with the 118th House of Representatives, which is being held hostage by a tiny majority of right-wing extremists who want to destroy the government and who show no sign of wanting to govern in any capacity.

In a week during which the nation watched, most of us horrified, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., accepted an agonizing series of extremist compromises in order to gain the power of the speakership. He made concessions that embarrassed even many of his fellow Republicans.

For a week, one chamber of Congress was not able to function.

Then, finally, early on the morning of Jan. 7, just after McCarthy won election for House Speaker on the 15th ballot, Balint and the rest of the Congress were sworn in.

But it is still up in the air whether the House will form committees and do any useful work as it spitefully tries to eliminate Medicare, Social Security, and any remaining part of the New Deal — including the tattered, desperately needed social safety net that still remains for most Americans.

* * *

When asked about her first week as a congresswoman, Balint pulled no punches.

“What you saw on C-SPAN and on other outlets that were covering it was a lot of chaos and confusion,” she told The Commons. “It was days and days of roll call votes. And for those folks who watch the Legislature in Vermont, the roll call vote in the Vermont Senate does not take long at all, right? Maybe 10 minutes.”

“In Congress, every roll call vote in the House takes an hour,” Balint continued. “So you could just always hear the groans coming from around the room when we were going back to another roll call vote knowing that nothing had changed, that it was going to be the same intractable issues, hour after hour.

“And it is very disheartening to watch the extent to which the Republicans are now beholden to this extreme faction within their party,” she said.

Like the rest of the Democratic caucus, Balint voted for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York to be speaker and to replace former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Jeffries is the first African American congressional party leader in U.S. history. He lost the vote every time because the Republicans have a small majority.

After every vote, with new and repressive compromises being made every inch along the way, a half-hour break allowed for vote counting and authenticating.

She would spend time talking to her colleagues about what they thought might happen, Balint said.

“I would talk to a couple of moderate Republicans about their feelings about it,” she said. “I think this session is not going to be about what the Democrats do in opposition to the extremists.

“The moderate Republicans’ real task will be to find both backbone and a sense of solidarity among themselves,” Balint continued. “And be more vocal about it. Because they will openly tell us how disgusted they are with what has happened. They will come and talk to our leadership and say, ’You know, we don’t want to be voting on these extreme anti-abortion bills.’”

“And yet they have got to, because right now, it just feels like the extreme wing of the party is running roughshod over Congress,” she said.

* * *

What do the extremists want? Does Balint have a feel for that?

“They don’t actually want to govern,” she said. “They think government is the problem.”

Balint asserts that Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), and other U.S. representatives far to the right are “not interested in actually having a functioning government.

“So for them, chaos is a winner,” she said. “And that is so deeply troubling for all the people who rely on government to function so they get their Social Security benefits so that they get the tax credit for their children, so they know they are able to make ends meet at the end of the day.”

One thing Balint has noticed: that “these are people who are so deeply cynical about government itself.

“And right now, McCarthy has made deals with so many of them so he could remain in power, that he’s essentially embroiled in a faction that does not want government to work,” she said. “So that that’s a problem. That’s a real problem.”

Strategic-minded Vermonters were emailing and texting Balint, saying she should cross the aisle and vote for McCarthy before he gave away the store.

She declined.

“In conversations with the Republicans, one of the things that they were really clear on was that this was their fight and they wanted to have it,” Balint said. “Some of them said it would even weaken his position more if we were to vote in support of him.”

“Besides, Hakeem Jeffries is is a much better candidate to lead the House,” she added. “I know him. I trust him. And so I was not going to vote for someone who I didn’t believe in and against someone seeking leadership for the right reasons. I just couldn’t do it.”

* * *

McCarthy’s actions in 2021 stick in Balint’s mind.

“I can’t get out of my mind the fact that he condemned Trump’s actions on Jan. 6,” Balint said. “Remember, he said, ‘[I’ve had it] with this guy.’ He was heard on a GOP conference call, saying that.

“And within a few short days, he had done an 180 and was down at Mar-a-Lago,” she said of McCarthy’s complete abandonment of his original intent to hold Trump accountable for the attack on the Capitol.

“Fundamentally, you have no idea what he stands for,” she said. “And that is deeply disturbing for somebody who is taking control of the chamber and his own caucus members. It is not clear that McCarthy actually stands for anything except his own personal career goals.”

Balint said she has not yet had much interaction with McCarthy.

“I’ve never talked to him individually,” she said. “I’m hoping at some point in the next few weeks to be able to have a short conversation with him about the goals that I have for Vermont, in terms of mental health care and housing. Those are not partisan issues. Or at least they shouldn’t be.

“But my impression, based on what I saw on the floor, was that he was willing to make deals with anyone regardless of the outcome, in order for him to retain his leadership position, and that is unsavory at best,” Balint said.

* * *

So how do her first few weeks as a congresswoman feel to Balint?

“It’s surreal in moments, absolutely” she said. “It’s troubling. But the optimistic part for me is knowing that I can talk to people across the aisle. I know that they’re not beholden to the extremists. They’re not delusional. They just don’t know what to do. They feel paralyzed because they’re afraid of those elements in their own base.

“So this will be my challenge, and the challenge of my caucus, to continue to try to cultivate relationships with the people who are not extremists,” Balint continued. “And to fight back hard against the others who are really extreme in their views.”

Her colleagues give her reason for optimism, Balint said.

“We truly are such a representation of the country as a whole,” she said. “There’s a lot of diversity in this incoming Congress, and Vermonters need me to be working on issues like mental health and housing. I’ve got to find those partners wherever I can.”

Being a progressive and a woman, many thought Balint would be a perfect junior member of “the Squad” — originally Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aka “AOC”) of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. These four Democrats have since been joined by others.

At noon one day, Balint gave her first speech on the floor of the House of Representatives — an historic moment for her — and delivered her fervent support for the need to protect women’s reproductive rights.

“Reproductive rights is something that’s obviously incredibly important to Vermonters,” Balint said. “We had an overwhelming support of a constitutional amendment here in Vermont.

“And after I gave my speech, two people — one being Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the other being Ayanna Pressley — pulled me aside to say, ‘You just did a really great job.’ That’s just incredible to me.”

Balint is a member of the Progressive Caucus. She said this edition of Congress is essentially a very progressive one.

She also said “The Squad” was more a media construct than a reality.

“I’ve gotten a chance to get to know all of them,” Balint said. “They’re very different people. And they interact in the caucus in in different ways. They’re different personalities. They are not the kind of tight unit that the press portrays them to be. They make decisions day-to-day based on the interests of their constituents. They’re often in alignment, but not always.”

* * *

Balint has already attracted mentors. She mentioned Raskin first.

“Jamie Raskin has been a wonderful mentor to me,” she said. “We talk often.”

She described Raskin, a former professor of Constitutional law who will serve as the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, as “someone that Vermonters will know from the January 6 Commission and the impeachment proceedings.”

“He is an incredibly smart person, and a very kind person,” she said, and his guidance “means the world to me.”

Balint also mentioned Pressley and, especially, David Cicilline, D-R.I.

“He’s been a strong mentor to me,” she said. “He and I got to know each other through the Equality Caucus. He’s a gay man. And he is my go-to person on the floor about what’s happening behind the scenes, things that I don’t necessarily see.”

“I’m taking my mentorship wherever I can,” Balint said. “There’s going to be many times I will be voting in alignment with folks within the Progressive Caucus. But I’m sure there are going to be issues down the road, ones that I can’t anticipate right now, when I may not vote with the Progressive Caucus.”

* * *

Setting up house in the House is a complicated matter.

Balint’s total staff right now numbers 14, and she intends to hire two more once committees have been assigned. Congressional staff salaries are paid from what is called the Members’ Representational Allowance. The MRA may be used for official expenses like staff, travel, mail, office equipment, district office rental, stationery, and other office supplies.

Balint said she talks frequently with Katherine Clark, D-Mass., who is the House Minority Whip — the third-most-powerful member of the Democratic Party leadership in that chamber and the highest-ranking woman.

“I enjoy getting her perspective on mundane issues, like how to manage all the incoming texts, how to manage the incoming calls, talking about policy,’ she said. “I have found the leadership team to be really open to talking with rank-and-file members, even freshmen.”

Balint said the newcomers also mentor one another.

“We have a variety of text threads that we’re on, communicating on how we’re setting up our offices,” Balint said.

“And we’re lifting each other up,” she added. “If one of us has an especially good interview with a newspaper or [a news] outlet, or if somebody is feeling like they need some support. I feel like we are, as a class, understanding that this is going to be a really hard two years and we need to be encouraging each other along.”

Balint has also spent some time with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

“She was so gracious,” Balint said. “She gave me about an hour of her time a few weeks ago to talk about policy. She said I should never forget that I am in a position to change millions of people’s lives. ‘Don’t ever take it for granted,’ she said. ‘Use it wisely.’”

“And she said, ‘You have got to use all of the tools at your disposal,’” Balint continued. “‘You’re in Congress, and you must make sure that you’re getting it right for your constituents.’”

* * *

If and when committee seats are granted and the 118th session of the House of Representatives gets down to work, Balint wants to work on mental health and housing.

“One of the things that I heard on the campaign — in every corner of Vermont, whether it was families, whether it was first responders or teachers — everyone is talking about the increase in the number of cases of anxiety and depression,” she said.

“Our first responders are saying they don’t have the training to deal with the issues they see when they’re called out for an emergency,” Balint pointed out.

“So even in the minority, we’re looking to see where we can get some bipartisan support for mental health support,” she said. “In talking with my colleagues within the caucus, I have a lot of people that want to do some work on that issue.

“So I’ll start building those relationships across the aisle as well, because it’s not a partisan issue,” Balint said. “Or at least it shouldn’t be.

“With housing and mental health, I feel like we can get something done, even in such a divided Congress,” she said.

* * *

Ordinarily, Congress works in committees to research and draft laws. With this Congress, it is not even certain that there will be committees.

“We just keep hearing, ‘In a couple of weeks, in a couple of weeks,’” she said. “My understanding is that Hakeem Jeffries, our leader, needs to sit down and hammer out the ratios of Democrats to Republicans within each committee. So they agree on the ratios first, based on essentially where the Republicans would like to put their people. And then we’ll know what slots are available, that are left to us.

“I was hoping to be either on Financial Services, which deals with housing, or the [Agriculture] Committee,” she explained. “But Republicans get to choose the ratio, so there may not be a seat left for me.”

“We’re just in limbo. I’m hoping, before the beginning of February to know, but we don’t have a timeline right now,” Balint said.

Warren told Balint something that has become her talisman.

“She said to me, ‘Don’t ever forget that once you’re in partnership with other Congresspeople, you’re actually representing America as a whole,” Balint said. “‘You have a responsibility to make life better for as many Americans as you possibly can.’”

“And I was grateful to her for sort of laying it out like that,” she said.

“It was right at the beginning of my starting in Congress, and I’m gonna hold that conversation with me as a touchstone,” Balint observed. “Because it’s an incredible responsibility. And I want to do a good job.”

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