After a year of chaos and dysfunction in the U.S. House, Rep. Becca Balint of Brattleboro remains determined to do whatever can to help Vermonters in the second year of her first term in Congress.
Randolph T. Holhut/Commons file photo
After a year of chaos and dysfunction in the U.S. House, Rep. Becca Balint of Brattleboro remains determined to do whatever can to help Vermonters in the second year of her first term in Congress.

A second year in Washington

Becca Balint returns to a House chamber riven by dysfunction — and a historic lack of lawmaking — but says she is still focused and determined to help Vermonters

Through no fault of her own, Rep. Becca Balint's second year in Congress is starting to look a lot like her first year in office: mad, chaotic, wasteful, cynical and insane.

In the beginning, the Vermont Democrat idealistically went down to Washington ready to work on legislation to help solve her constituents' most pressing problems: housing, mental health, a broken health care system, equal rights, LGBTQIA rights, and then some.

But with a slim Republican majority in the House of Representatives more interested in trying to shut down the government than in across-the-aisle compromises that fix problems, Balint put her much of her energy into the only thing she could accomplish: constituent service.

Balint and her staff of 16 have spent the year delivering help for Vermonters who have sought assistance from her office.

"We've been able to resolve over 1,200 constituent cases, and we've brought back to Vermont over $200,000 through programs we support," Balint said.

"One of the things that I want Vermonters to understand about the work that we do in D.C., even when it's so dysfunctional, is that both the D.C. staff and the Vermont staff essentially work as problem solvers, as troubleshooters, and sometimes as the folks who can hand-hold between agencies," she explained.

This translates into help for people having problems with Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, or other government systems.

This year, Balint's office also helped a lot of people affected by flooding.

"Certainly we took a lot of calls about recovery from the flood," Balint said. "That took up, as it should [have], a lot of our energy in the summer, helping Vermonters get connected with the agencies that can help them."

Passports were another big concern for Vermonters. "There was a huge passport backlog," Balint said.

She noted that one member of her team, Aileen Lachs, previously worked with now-retired Sen. Patrick Leahy and brought a great deal of experience working with issues related to immigration, migration, refugee status and issues related to passports. Balint said Lachs, her director of constituent services, has "really been a gem in our office."

The staffs of the two senators from Vermont, independent Bernie Sanders and Democrat Peter Welch, work closely with Balint's team.

"We're all at-large in the state, but they have much bigger staff in the Senate than in the House," Balint said. "But oftentimes, if we have an issue that could use the attention of the staff from the three offices, one of the senators' offices will take the lead because they know they'd have more work capacity."

Balint is proud that she kept her promise to visit all the counties in Vermont during her first year in office.

"That's really, really important to me," she said. "I made a commitment last January that we were going to visit all 14 counties within the first year. And we did that."

The time with Vermonters is so valuable to Balint "because you've got to get out of the D.C. bubble," she said. "You have to hear directly from people how their lives are going and how the communities are feeling. And I miss them when I'm not there."

That part of her job is going very well.

"I'm really pleased, not just with the work that we have done meeting the needs of Vermonters, but I'm really proud that so many Vermonters tell me when I'm back in the state, 'Hey, I called your office. People were were respectful. They were kind. They worked on my problem. They got right back to me,'" Balint said. "That's the kind of constituent services that I think is really important for a congressional office to do."

Staying busy

In the House, Balint has been busy. She co-sponsored more than 230 bills and introduced 12 of her own.

Naturally, given the political prerogatives of the House of Representatives right now, none of this legislation went anywhere.

"It's horrible," Balint said. "It truly has been a year, in this Republican-led House, just careening from one emergency to another. And, as someone who is very focused on getting work done for my people back home, that's been really frustrating."

During Balint's first weeks in office in 2023, she had to sit through 15 votes while the Republicans tried to elect a Speaker of the House. They eventually settled on Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who lasted only until October. After being voted out as Speaker, he resigned and left the House entirely.

The Republicans next installed as Speaker Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., who just made a deal with the Democrats on spending numbers for the 2024 budget. If passed, the deal will prevent a partial shutdown of the government at the end of the week. In messaging House Republicans, Johnson's office said the spending will be set at $1.59 trillion for fiscal year 2024 - the level set in last year's bipartisan debt ceiling deal.

Now Johnson is under threat of removal from far-right members of his own party for helping to negotiate such a deal.

"I want to put it in context for folks," Balint said. "This has been one of the least productive Congresses in recent history. We were only able to get 20 bills signed into law. And the next least productive House got between 70 and 73 laws. So we're not even close. The level of chaos and dysfunction here is amazing.

"I've heard it from my colleagues who've been here longer. They are saying they've never seen anything like this. Between two speaker fights, the default crisis, and the government shutdown crisis, it really has just been one emergency to another, which has left very little time to actually do the work that we were all sent here to do."

Profiting from chaos?

Does Balint think that the voters who sent these representatives to Congress really want them to waste taxpayer money by trying to shut down the government?

"There is certainly a core group of MAGA Republicans who want to shut things down," Balint said. "They don't actually want to do anything. And for them, causing chaos is actually a win."

How would that work?

"They've said as much in the last two months as we head into an election year," Balint said. "If the economy's bad, if things at the border are bad, if inflation is bad, if there is a perception that Congress is not getting its work done, they see that as a win for them. They will ride that dysfunction to electoral victory. That's really how cynical so many of them are."

That kind of approach to government may be hard for Vermonters to understand, Balint said.

"Why would you go through all of the work of running for office, serving here in D.C., and not be focused on actually trying to make life better for people?" Balint said. "And the fact is that we sit, day in and day out, on the floor of the House of Representatives, voting on issues related to 'cultural wars' or their 'anti-woke' agenda, which we hear about all the time."

The weekly committee hearings are often centered around conspiracy theories, or what Balint called "hateful testimony."

"These people have not been willing to govern," she said.

The solution, from Balint's perspective, is for Democrats to win control of the chamber in the upcoming election.

"If Democrats can flip the House in 2024, we can actually get work done, work that Americans - and, most specifically, Vermonters - need," Balint said. "We need investments in health care. We need investments in shoring up Vermont for the next climate emergency. We have a workforce crisis. We have a housing crisis. We have so many things that require our attention."

Balint vowed to "do everything that I can to make sure that we're able to flip the House, because until then, we're going to be stuck in this morass for the perceivable future. And that's not good for the country."

For many of the most radical Republicans, democracy itself is the problem, Balint said.

"They don't believe in democracy," she said. "Many of them do believe in the strength of the autocrat. So we have incredibly high stakes."

The kind of behavior being practiced by MAGA Republicans is turning people off government, Balint said.

"I heard this from my teenage son the other day," she said. "He said, 'Mom, you know, every election feels like this is the most serious election of your lifetime.' And even though it's true, I'm worried that people are becoming so inured to that sentiment that, unfortunately, they check out. They don't want to feel so bad and be so worried all the time."

This makes it essential to shore up people's belief in government, Balint said.

"Actually, government can be a force for good," Balint said. "Look at what [former Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi was able to get done with a very slim majority. The biggest infrastructure investments since Eisenhower. Making sure we were bringing down prescription drug prices on some drugs."

Democrats, she said, "want to continue to build on that."

"Look at the Inflation Reduction Act that was rolled out," Balint continued. "And all kinds of green energy and resiliency projects across the country to make sure that we can meet this moment of climate change. We know it's possible, even with a slim majority, to get work done."

Balint cited a rather angry floor speech given by conservative Republican Rep. Chip Roy of Texas on Nov. 15 of last year.

"I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing that I can go campaign on and say we did. One! Come and explain to me one meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done," Roy implored.

"So you've got somebody within the caucus, who is by no means a moderate, saying the quiet part out loud: 'We squandered our leadership. We squandered our majority,'" Balint said.

"And now they just have a one-vote majority to pass a bill," she continued. "I didn't think it could get more dysfunctional, but it's going to be very difficult for Speaker Johnson to pass the wish list of his extremists, because he doesn't have the votes."

Ukraine, and the border

Balint believes Congress should find a way to support the Ukrainians in their fight for freedom against Russia.

"We've been waiting months now for a deal for Ukraine," she said. "It is very frustrating to me that we have invested so much time and resources and we're still holding back."

Russian President Vladimir Putin - "the autocrat," Balint said - is not looking just at Ukraine and won't stop there.

"He's going to take a victory there and then see what else he can pull into his orbit," she said, frustrated that the Republicans are trying to fund Ukraine on the condition that it be linked to funding security for the U.S.'s southern border.

"But it's disingenuous, because the Biden administration has already offered billions of dollars to help shore up the dysfunction at the border, and Republicans have flatly refused to negotiate with the president for that funding," she said.

Immigration reform needs to be comprehensive in and of itself, not tied to a war on another continent, Balint said.

"The freedom fighters in the Ukraine have been working so hard for years to beat back Russia," Balint said, and Johnson is "holding them hostage" for "demonizing asylum seekers."

"That's what's going on here," Balint said. "Because the president has said he understands that we need more border security, that we need more people working at the border. And they have turned that down. Because, again, it goes back to what I was saying before, if if there is dysfunction at the border, that's a win for them."

At this point in U.S. history, with a shrinking workforce and a low birth rate, more people, including immigrants, are needed more than ever.

In Windham County, the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. has been integrating Afghanistan refugees into the workforce with great success.

"This whole anti-immigration thing is insane," Balint said. "If Vermont is having trouble finding workers, then other states must be having the same problem."

That has proved true, she said, pointing to the "huge workforce shortage" across New England.

"In every single hearing in which immigration comes up, in any single floor debate on this issue, I pivot back to the fact that we need workers for every industry," Balint said. "Across Vermont, from the coffee shop down the corner to assisted living homes to home health aides, all of it, we need workers."

She called the Republicans' handling of workforce issues "another very cynical ploy."

"They know that if we don't have the labor that we need, then the economy is not going to be clicking along," Balint said. "People who want to come and work should have a legal pathway to do that. Migrants certainly are an asset to our agricultural community in Vermont, and across the nation. But we need talented migrants and immigrants at every level in every industry. We need to provide legal pathways to citizenship."

War in the Middle East

The attack on Israel by the terrorist group Hamas and the retaliation against the people of Gaza by the Israeli government is an especially difficult issue for Balint, who identifies as Jewish and has had family members who were affected by the Holocaust.

Not all Jews support the current Israeli government, and Balint has nuanced views.

"I believe that Israel has the right to defend itself as a sovereign nation and as an ally," she said. "I want to make sure that they have Iron Dome [an Israeli mobile all-weather air defense system] capability."

Balint, like many other Jews, also wants a two-state solution: one for Israel and one for Palestine.

"I'm going to have to review any package that comes before me concerning aid to Gaza and also support for Israel," she said. "I'm going to have to look at that really carefully, because if it's just about Israel without any support for rebuilding Gaza, then I'm not going to be supportive."

She said we need to make sure that "our American dollars are not being used to kill thousands of innocent men, women and children in Gaza."

Balint said that based on "listening to Vermonters over the break," she will look "really, really carefully" at proposals for further United States military aid to Israel, to "make sure that that money is spent responsibly."

"We need to know they're not going to be given a blank check," she said.

Balint feels Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu has done a dangerous disservice to Israel with his actions toward the Palestinians.

"Much like President Trump, I think a lot of the decisions that Netanyahu makes right now [are] about saving his ass," Balint said.

The antisemitism unleashed by Israel's bombing of the Palestinians has personally affected Balint.

"It's been horrible," she said. "Antisemitic hate crimes are up dramatically. And I've personally been called a 'fascist pig genocidal murderer.'"

But it's clear to Balint that "most Vermonters care deeply about making sure that there is a safe and secure Israel, but also making sure there is a two-state solution."

"And unfortunately, right now, we're not even able to have a substantive conversation about building an Israeli post-war government, or determining who's going to govern Gaza afterwards, or negotiating long-term peace and security for both Palestinians and Israelis," she continued.

"Right now we're stuck in horrible antisemitism. It's making it very difficult to to have substantive conversations," she said.

Balint talked about a recent rally in Montpelier.

"I think it would be interesting for your readers to hear this," she said. "I was at the rally, and a number of people stayed to speak with me afterwards. A woman came up to me and said, 'Can I have a word with you privately?' So we moved away from the press and the folks on my team.

"She said, 'I want you to hear it from me directly.' She said, 'About this suffering in Gaza, I want to make sure that we are doing everything that we can to minimize death there.'

"She said, 'I want you to know, as a Jew in Vermont, I have never had to censor myself so much.' She said, 'I sit through meetings when I cannot speak from the heart about my experiences. I also didn't want my co-workers, who are here at this rally, to hear what I'm going to say to you.'

"And then she said, 'I do want a safe and secure Israel. And I feel like a lot of the voices that are getting listened to right now are people who want to dismantle Israel. They don't want a two-state solution.' And she said, 'I don't feel comfortable talking about that.'"

The woman made Balint feel sad, she said.

"We are a small state and we need to be able to have hard conversations," Balint said. "I do worry about the amount of antisemitism in the state right now. And I know that some of the most important work that I can do going forward is to continue to hold space for complexity and nuance. These are not easy issues.

"But, bottom line, if you are holding all Jewish people responsible for the actions of the Israeli government, that is antisemitism," Balint said. "If you're attacking people coming out of a synagogue because of the actions of the Israeli government, because these people are Jewish, how are they responsible?"

'Concrete things'

This upcoming year will be a tough one on so many fronts, but Balint said she has her priorities in line.

"One of my top issues is the work that we need to do on the mental health crisis," she said.

"And the issue regarding the housing crisis. They go hand in hand. We're going to be rolling out a big housing bill in the next month or so, and I want to continue to work with my colleagues across the aisle to try to find some wins on the mental health crisis."

She said she will continue fighting to address the shortage of health-care providers for mental health care.

The rural mail delivery system is another priority, she said.

"I know a lot of seniors care deeply about reliable postal service throughout the state. It really matters for folks who are relying on the mail for prescription drugs," she said.

"So my staff and I are really trying to work on concrete things," Balint said.

This News item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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