BRATTLEBORO — Most people don't get six weeks of summer vacation, but as a member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vermont, does.
Unfortunately for Balint, of Brattleboro, her time away from the Capitol coincided with a major natural disaster in Vermont, four big indictments in four major cities for former president Donald Trump, and a looming budget crisis when she returns to Washington.
It was keeping her busy almost around the clock, but she managed to find time last week for an emotional Aug. 16 interview with The Commons.
Balint is often asked by her constituents how she deals with the anger and cruelty represented at every turn by extremist Republicans in Congress right now.
"People stop me and say, 'How do you do the job?'" Balint said. "I'm able to do it because of my colleagues. Some of them are just so inspiring to me that it gives me hope."
Balint had made news even before Congress recessed for the summer.
At the end of July, Balint introduced a censure of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, in the House of Representatives for fanning "the flames of racism, antisemitism, LGBTQ hate speech, Islamophobia, anti-Asian hate, xenophobia, and other forms of hatred."
According to the U.S. House website, "Censure registers the House's deep disapproval of Member misconduct that, nevertheless, does not meet the threshold for expulsion."
Balint, whose trademark way of describing herself is "Scrappy Little Dyke," embodies two of the constituencies Taylor Greene finds hateful, as she also identifies as Jewish.
"Essentially, the censure is a message to her," Balint said. "But will that really land? No, right? Because we've seen that there is no bottom there."
Balint launched the censure after Taylor Greene brought embarrassing nude pictures - what Balint called "pure pornography" - of President Joseph Biden's son, Hunter Biden, into a House Committee on Oversight and Accountability meeting.
Balint sits on that committee and was devastated.
"I had a conversation with [ranking Democrat on the committee Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland] about that, and how it was just so far beyond any kind of decorum," Balint said.
"I was also back here in Vermont, meeting with people who'd lost everything in the floods," she said. "And it was the moment to shine a light on this, which is preventing us from doing the work that we were sent there to do."
Balint insists that since Taylor Greene appears to be essentially impervious to shame, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy might be more of a target.
"It's actually much more embarrassing for him," Balint said. "He has said publicly, 'I will never leave this woman. I will always stand by her.' And so this is also about explaining who is running the train here in the Republican conference - and it's extremists."
Taylor Greene has already envisioned herself as Donald Trump's running mate in the next presidential election. Balint says that her Republican colleague has been seen on the phone with Trump, mapping out strategy, while Congress is still in session.
"Remember during that 15 rounds of votes when McCarthy was selling his office to become speaker?" Balint said. "You had cameras in the House chamber focusing in on the fact that Marjorie Taylor Greene had Trump on the phone. They could zero in and see who she was talking to in real time. It's astounding."
Balint began the session on the Oversight and Judiciary committees. She resigned from the Oversight committee at the end of June, because she had also been assigned to the Budget Committee, and representatives can only serve on two committees.
"I wanted to stay on Oversight," Balint said. "It is seen as a plum committee assignment, and so is Judiciary."
She called her hiatus from the Oversight Committee "a formality."
"I'm actually working behind the scenes to get me back on there," she said. "Jamie Raskin didn't want me to go. But they were trying to give it to somebody else who wanted to move to a better committee. What they didn't know is that the person didn't want to be on Oversight."
Consequently, there's still an open seat.
"I don't know if I'll be able to get back on, but I'd very much like to," Balint said. "Working with Jamie Raskin is really exciting. He's so good at what he does. I feel like I learned a lot from him."
In the meantime, "I'm accruing seniority on Budget and Judiciary. I'm not allowed to accrue seniority on a third committee. That's why I resigned."
Balint said she is "astounded every day" by what she has been seeing in the House.
"Truly, it's not just that there is no bottom," Balint said. "It's that there are a significant number of people within the Republican conference who know that this is off the rails. They know that it is beyond the pale. And they will not do anything. That is more terrifying to me."
Talking about the Republicans' constant attack on the trans community almost brought Balint to tears.
"It's disgusting," Balint said. "I want to tell you about this experience I had in Judiciary, where the extremists decided they needed to have a hearing solely on the horrors of the trans community. And they brought to the committee witnesses who were just so hateful, and so hurtful."
To counter, the Democrats brought as witnesses a trans man with a prominent position at a national organization supporting trans rights and also a mother of a trans child.
"She was a Republican," Balint said. "She was an evangelical Christian. She was a phenomenal witness because she essentially was saying, 'Do you have any idea what it feels like to me and my child to have you here, telling me that I'm a groomer, that I'm a pedophile? You don't care about my own kid, and all I'm trying to do is do right.' She was phenomenal."
Balint congratulated the witness on her bravery after the testimony.
"I said, 'I know you're going to be attacked on social media,'" Balint said. "I said, 'You were so brave to come and put a face to this, because we need people speaking from the heart on the other side, to point out just how cruel the Republicans are being.'"
The attacks on gays and trans people are constant, Balint said.
"They have decided that the trans community in this country is at the root of all that is wrong with the American family," Balint said. "But it's perverse, what they're doing. And it doesn't make it on the news, as much as I wish, so people could just see the cruelty.
"Maybe it would move some people - people who maybe don't understand the issue, but at least we can say, 'This is what happens when you demonize people and dehumanize people.'"
Many Republicans are acting out of fear, Balint suggested.
"We all know that Trump has no qualms about attacking private citizens," Balint said. "The more moderate Republicans will tell us privately, 'Well, if you want me to stick my neck out, then I'm gonna lose my seat. And you're gonna get somebody worse.' That's what they always say."
The answer to that, of course, is that since they always vote with the Republican extremists, what could something worse even look like?
"They're saying, 'This is a terrible thing, I'm wringing my hands,'" Balint said. "But in the end, if you vote for it, then what's the difference?"
Balint remembered a moment a few weeks ago when a co-chair of the Equality Caucus, the caucus that supports LGBTQ+ rights in Congress, was in an appropriations markup with people that he has served with for years.
"He said, 'These people on this committee know me. They know my husband. We have friendly relationships,'" Balint said. "But, he said they were supporting outrageous anti-gay, anti-trans riders to the appropriations bill. They knew they were wrong."
Balint said the co-chair told her, "'I knew they knew because they wouldn't look at me. They were ashamed that they were voting with their conference, but they didn't have the courage to stand up to it.'"
There is no hope for this session of Congress, Balint said. The Republican moderates who would normally work across the aisle on legislation are afraid.
This, she said, does not bode well for the session when it returns from vacation, because members need to pass several major appropriations bills to keep the government running.
"The extremists have already threatened to crash the government," Balint said. "They are really interested in another government shutdown. They feel like that's a winning strategy for them. So it's much worse than anyone has ever seen."
Balint blames the mainstream media for some of the problems.
"When I introduced the censure, I sat down with a reporter from The New York Times," Balint said. "And he said, 'Don't you worry that it's just tit for tat?' And I said, 'Did you read the censure? Look at all of the instances on which this woman is completely and totally beyond the pale. Have you ever seen it this bad? You've covered Congress for somewhere between 30 and 40 years. Have you ever seen it this bad?'
"He said, 'Well, no. This is next level.'
"I said, 'So when are you going to start talking about it that way?' Because we're all normalizing it. And a big fear that I have is it's all being normalized, because there's so much of it all the time."
Flood relief for Vermont
The entire Vermont Congressional delegation - which means Sens. Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch, along with Balint - are hard at work covering the state and trying to funnel federal money to help the many people who lost their jobs, their businesses, their farms, or their homes during the recent flooding.
"This has been a concern of all three of us," Balint said. "The problem, actually, is the way that FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] is categorizing the emergency. Anything that didn't happen in a 36-hour period is disqualified. But of course it's all related, because the water table is so high from all the other rain. So it's very disconcerting.
"There were sections of Vermont that were absolutely devastated a week or two later. Mudslides. Rock slides in Middlebury. And they may not qualify for any FEMA support. We don't know yet."
It may take a separate declaration of disaster to bring in a second round of FEMA money. Balint said the Congressional delegation is working with Gov. Phil Scott on that issue.
"We're talking to him," Balint said. "I've never seen a summer so wet that lichen, mold, and moss are growing on my wood fence. It looks like I'm in England."
Another concern of Balint's is Vermont's agricultural sector, which has been struggling long before the flooding because an early May frost killed much of the state's fruit crop.
"I'm very concerned about our agricultural lands," Balint said. "The flood hit when you had our farmers already suffering from that freeze in May."
The thought of goiing back to Congress "when we've got something like 11 days to pass all of these funding bills" is "very concerning."
"I was reading yesterday about what's happening on the farm bill, and you've got the chair of the committee basically saying we've got to get a bipartisan deal. This is going to impact billions of people across the country.
"And you've got this extreme right flank saying, 'No, we're gonna go after SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often called "food stamps" and branded as 3SquaresVT in the state] benefits again. We haven't beat up on the poor enough. We got to do it some more.'"
Although the weather has not been kind to Vermont this summer, nothing compares to the devastation and loss of life that recently happened on Maui. At least 114 people have been confirmed dead as of this week, and officials say an estimated 1,000 more are still unaccounted for.
"One of my good friends in Congress right now is [Democrat] Jill Tokuda, who represents Hawaii," Balint said. "And so we've been texting this morning. She is saying they had no idea of the extent to which people were not able to get out."
"Now," she said, "it's becoming clearer."
"So obviously, climate change is very real," Balint said. "As if we didn't know that already."
A leadership role
Balint appears to be following in the footsteps of her predecessor, Peter Welch, in taking a leadership position in the House.
"Peter has such a great reputation within the caucus as being someone who could work well anyone," Balint said. "He was always trying to find ways to collaborate - not just within the caucus, but across the caucus."
She said it helps that she came in with "a lot of goodwill that people felt towards Vermont generally."
"And I feel like I learned from Peter and Bernie," Balint continued. "They've been great about working with me on how to navigate certain things. Our teams are working really well together."
After clearing the censure with the Democratic leadership, introducing the resolution, and attracting some media attention, Balint moved on to other things. The Democratic leadership is holding the censure in reserve.
But it is clear that Balint is already strategizing for the next election; she has the courage to step into a leadership role to protect the things she believes in.
"I am in a relatively safe seat in terms of being a Democrat," Balint said. "Whether it's me or somebody else, a Democrat is probably going to be in this seat. We don't want to lose more seats."
So she's trying to figure out strategy.
"It's a much bigger playing field now for me, and I want to be effective," she said. "I want to shine a light on things. But I don't want to put some of my colleagues at risk who are not going to sail to reelection."
If Congress is to do anything about the U.S. Supreme Court's strikedown of Roe v. Wade, if it is to protect LGBTQ+ rights, if it is to take the heat off the trans population, or even if it is to stop the Republicans from defunding FEMA, then the Democrats need more seats in the House, she said.
"I'm learning," Balint said. "I'm seven months into the job, and I'm trying to be effective and not have some unforced errors. I want to take leadership roles in a way that I don't become a caricature."
She said that she wishes that "people could just see the fishbowl that is Congress. You're sitting on the floor, and of course, the C-SPAN cameras are going all the time. Watch people on the floor - who they talk to and how they talk and how they position. A lot of it is about where the cameras are."
Then, when the legislators leave the House floor, they are met with gangs of television cameras and reporters.
"And if you've done something on the floor that was meant to catch the eye of CNN or MSNBC or Fox News, you're going to have a scrum of reporters literally falling down the steps following you across the street," Balint said. "It's absurd, and what I've realized is that very, very few times is it actually [about] anything substantive."
And so the question: "How do you cut through that?"
"That's my challenge," she said.
The extremist Republicans are making it impossible to govern, Balint said.
"They were saying, 'We want a speaker who never compromises with the Democrats,'" Balint said. "And so how are you going to pass anything?"
Balint said she has little time for reflection in D.C.
"You feel like you're carried on these waves of fear and anger," Balint said. "And before you know it, you could become the thing that you don't want to be."
Sometimes, she said, "I just shake my head when I watch these little scrums following people. What is it that we're doing here? You've got me on a morning when I'm just feeling sad that I don't have more time to reflect."
Balint says she doesn't want to become bitter.
"I don't want to become someone who dehumanizes," she said. "It's hard, but I want to be a thoughtful leader."
This News item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.