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Congressional Corner With Peter Welch

Congressman Peter Welch

Vermont is starting to reopen from the coronavirus pandemic.

In today’s Congressional Corner, Vermont Representative Peter Welch speaks with WAMC’s Alan Chartock.

This conversation was recorded on May 20.

Alan Chartock: We are in the Congressional Corner with Congressman Peter Welch. We are delighted that you're here. You are one of my favorite guys and you always tell the truth as I see it. So, let's start. How's Vermont doing in the coronavirus? Is it better or worse off and other states? What can you tell us?

Representative Peter Welch: Well, Vermont has been doing quite well. Our cases have really flattened and it was a very aggressive, very early response by Governor Scott, and I think significant compliance by our businesses and by our citizens. So we've had very fortunate numbers and dramatic decline. And I think that Governor Scott is really following the approach that public health experts have laid out, follow the facts, use the data, follow the recommended guidelines. So we're starting in that slow process of reopening. Now having said that, we're all really cautious because this virus has got a fierce will of its own, and it does what it wants to do when it wants to do it. The things that we've done, I think, have been extremely helpful, but I think all of us are knocking on wood. We've got to make maintain vigilance and hope for the best.

You know, Peter, I'm wondering about the news reports that we're hearing now that Florida and Georgia may not have been playing it all straight with the facts about how many cases they had in terms of their move to reopen things. You know, is there a congressional role here?

Well, there is, I mean, a huge congressional role, in fact, I mean, there's two parts to this. Okay. One is the public health issue. And then the other is the economic issue. And on the economic issue, congress has to play the major role. There's collateral consequences from the social distancing and in fact, businesses have closed down. It's been devastating. And we'll probably talk about this, but the trillions of dollars in relief has to come from congress. But there's a public health role where congress has a significant role as a partner to the states. The governors have to make those decisions about social distancing in the closing down of things in their own state. But the federal government has to have money to the states for testing for contact tracing. That is where you have a public health workforce, that if I test positive, I'm asked who did I have contact with, and then those folks are contacted and tested. And then third, the federal government has to help with the isolation where if I test positive, I'm separated in quarantine. And then the final thing, but actually this is first, the federal government should be managing in acquiring all of the personal protective equipment, the N 95 mask, the respirators, that should be a federal centralized function. That's what has happened in the past. And President Trump just simply won't do the public health part of this. He's acting as though the virus will take care of itself. It’ll burn itself out, it'll go away. It'll be a miracle.

And while we're on the subject of President Trump, he's telling us that we should take a drug that has been unproven and in fact, has been suggested to be a potential life taker. You know, what do you make of it?

Well, it's truly bizarre is what I make of it. I mean, if you're president of the United States, that doesn't mean you're an epidemiologist. It doesn't mean you're a pharmacist. It doesn't mean you know medicine. And the advantage of being the president of the United States is you have at your fingertips access to people who are the most expert in their fields, that you’re president doesn't make you the most important expert in every field, nuclear physics or prescription medication. But the President seems to think he is. That's essentially what's going on. And it's a wishful thinking approach to trying to deal with this coronavirus. I mean, the bottom line here is the president, he has a concern all of us have; we want to get the economy open. But you can't just wishful think your way through the reality that this virus is deadly, highly contagious, and requires a concerted public health response. And the president won't accept the mantle of leadership that is part of being the president of the United States.

Sure, an awful lot of people are buying that drug. We know it and yet, and yet he pursues it, and they're buying it because they believe he walks on water. There is a percentage of the United States who believe that, it's unbelievable.

Well, it's true, but you know, just human nature, you know, we're terrified by this. I mean, all of us are afraid we might get it. Most of us are really afraid somebody we love is going to get it. And if there is someone offering us hope that, hey, this is a cure, this is a preventive, then it's hard not to bite at that. And obviously, when you're the president of the United States, and you're saying that, that comes with a lot of authority, and if there's a lot of folks and there are, there's a lot of folks who voted for President Trump for other reasons, but they actually put their trust in him. So he says it, that's enough for them. And he has no business saying that. What he has business doing is consulting with the experts and having the public health folks that he can put out there like Dr. Fauci giving us advice on what are the proper things for us to do

His own public health experts in fact, are telling us not to take it. That's something that's fascinated me.

Well, it is and they're all having to walk that fine line. I mean, remember the Doctor Fauci is highly respected. He's been through this before. His life has been dedicated to dealing with pandemics. And he's got immense credibility. And he's worked, obviously, through Republican and Democratic administrations, and all of the approaches on dealing with a pandemic say put the medical people upfront to explain what's going on. And you've got to have really a single point of view on this. It's not in where the President is undercutting people like Dr. Fauci because he gets impatient. That sets us back. And a lot of these public health experts, it's like everyone else around President Trump, they have to just be very, very careful where they try to tell us the truth but they don't offend the president

Or he might fire them like he's been firing inspector generals. What do you make of that?

It’s really, really outrageous. I mean, it's a cause of worry. You know, Senator Grassley is a very conservative Republican and is appalled by this. You know, he has been a champion of the Whistleblower Protection Act, and he's been a champion of inspectors general who are there to have a critical eye, not a disruptive eye, but a critical eye on what's going on in these departments like Intelligence or the Health and Human Services, or the State Department, their whole point is to make certain that power is not corrupting in those organizations, and that they're independent. It gives them their power. And of course, what President Trump has done is he's destroyed the independence of the independent prosecutor, firing them because, you know, it looks like in this most recent case, the Saudi arms deal that the President was claiming had to be done as an emergency and they were using these weapons to slaughter families in Yemen, if he raised questions about whether that was any kind of legitimate emergency. So it's just the autocratic approach that the President takes to his executive authority and very anti-democratic and very dangerous.

We only got a couple of minutes, but I wanted to ask you Bennington College now says it plans to reopen after moving classes online during the pandemic. What should other colleges do during this whole thing? Have you thought about that at all?

Well, I've thought about it, but I hope they can open. I mean, I hope business can get back to normal as soon as possible. The question with colleges is incredibly important. I mean, if they can't open, obviously, there's a significant economic impact. A lot of our institutions are on the ropes. But what I know is that each of the colleges, you know, UVM is going through this now, Bennington is going through it, Middlebury. They all are. They're going to make their decision on the basis of the data and the public health information. So yes, they're going to open. But I know that they're all acknowledging that, depending on what the health situation is, they're going to have to take that into account. The other thing that's a real challenge is that they've got to do that consistent with whatever the social distancing policies are at that point. So this is a huge undertaking. But my hope, my hope, certainly is that they're all able to do it in a way that's healthy and safe. For the faculty, the students, and the staff.

It's great to talk to Congressman Peter Welch. Peter, you know, you're one of my favorite guys to talk to. And I say that because, you knowno fooling around. You just go for it and say what you think. I appreciate that very much. Come back the next time. I got lots more to ask you.

Great. Thanks, Alan.

Dr. Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the University at Albany. He hosts the weekly Capitol Connection series, heard on public radio stations around New York. The program, for almost 12 years, highlighted interviews with Governor Mario Cuomo and now continues with conversations with state political leaders. Dr. Chartock also appears each week on The Media Project and The Roundtable and offers commentary on Morning Edition, weekdays at 7:40 a.m.
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