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Congressional Corner With Peter Welch

Congressman Peter Welch

Vermont’s Congressional delegation has a long personal history.

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

This conversation was recorded on May 20.

Aan Chartock: Here I am in the Congressional Corner with Congressman Peter Welch, one of my favorite people, a guy who is the only congressman from all over Vermont. Hey, you got two United States senators and one congressman. How does that go? Hey, Peter, how often do you meet with both of those senators? What's going on?

Representative Peter Welch: Well, you know, we get together actually randomly, quite a bit, you know, we'll be at an event in Vermont or be at an event in Washington, and the three of us would get together again, oftentimes, because we'll be at the same event and we'll take a little time and visit. We all get along. We're really quite friendly. We've all known each other for years and years. In fact, the first campaign that I ever worked in, in Vermont was for Senator Leahy, when he originally got elected in 1974.  I was a Windsor County volunteer, and I've known Bernie since he got elected mayor that year. He got elected when I got elected to the State Senate back in the 80s. And he and I have worked together closely from the time he was mayor. I supported him when he ran in both presidential elections. And so you know, we all love Vermont and we enjoy the opportunity to work together and try by working together to pack a bigger punch for our state.

Now, Bernie is a superstar because of his presence in national politics, Senator Leahy is of course, beloved in Vermont, with entirely different styles. So my question to you about Bernie is has he changed since he became a superstar?

No, he has not. He's really the same Bernie that I have known since he ran for mayor. You know, he's always had a very focused on the politics of improving the lives of the working class. That's really where he’s been. And the breadth of that commitment as expanded, you know, climate change, single payer health care. But he's always been grounded in trying to stand up for a working class people. And what I think has happened with Bernie is that his message has been the same and the country, particularly the party has caught up with this message. It’s why he did so well, I think in the past two presidential races.

Now, how does Phil Scott, the governor fit into this entire paradigm?

Well, he is doing I think, by all accounts, a really good job in the responsibility he has to protect the health and he's an old style Vermont Republican, where he's fiscally conservative and really socially liberal. And he is not ideological about things. And obviously this big test for him is this response to the COVID pandemic. And his approach on this is similar to a couple of the moderate Republicans around the country like Larry Hogan in Maryland, and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. And all of them are doing it, I would say the opposite of President Trump. What's the data? What's the public health guidance? Make the decision about what to do, when to do it, and how to do it on the basis of the evidence. So that's really, I think, the central test for Governor Scott. But he out of that tradition in Vermont that has had a different kind of Republican.

He and Charlie Baker, they both have to watch out a little bit don't they, for being critical of Trump.

Yeah, they do because the President has a lot of authority that can make life difficult for not just the governor but it can make it difficult for the state. So he does have to be careful.

Let me talk to you a little bit about Vermont and broadband. I get a lot of mail. We have now discovered, of course, that with the schools close everything else, having broadband is really a critical need, not only for adults who are running businesses and other things, but for children, you know, in terms of taking their lessons and being in touch. Do you got any thoughts on that?

We have to have broadband and we have to make a decision now. Just like in the 1930s, our country made a decision to extend electricity to the most distant farm on the longest dirt road. It's absolutely essential. It's a necessity. And as you mentioned, it really does come home with this COVID crisis. You can't work at home unless you have high speed internet. Your kids can’t go to school, let alone do their homework unless you have high speed internet, and of course with tele health, which has been tremendous asset for us in this COVID time, you have to have high speed internet. So, my view, the country has to make a decision in Washington that we are going to get high speed internet out to every part of America. And the one upside here is that this is a growing concern among many of my Republican colleagues who represent very rural areas, and they see and they see the folks that they represent having the same challenges that we have here in Vermont, with like places up in the Northeast Kingdom, where people, parents have to drive and sit outside a hotspot like a school with their kids to try to do their homework. So we put money in the Heroes Act for more broadband, but my view is that we've got to make a major commitment, has to be part of a big infrastructure program. And we've got to get the entire country wired.

Why would the senate be against that? Sounds so reasonable?

It mystifies me because we all need it. You know, to some extent, there's got to be some flexibility here. The big carriers, you know, have dominated and this is the private market kind of philosophy that some of the senate think has to dominate, even at the expense of rural America. All these big providers, AT&T, Verizon, you know, the business model is much better for them when they're deploying the high speed internet in an urban dense area. They don't particularly make as much money as they'd like to. But there are other models that work that are nonprofit or they’re cooperatives. I mean, that's what we did for rural electrification. We created a system of cooperatives where the cooperatives were committed to the people in their territorial unit. And that was rural. And they found ways to get it done. And I think we've got to be much more flexibility in deployment with broadband just like we were with electricity.

Okay, last question here. A lot of New York City residents come to Vermont, for good reason. It's a beautiful state to go for vacation or for second homes. Now, how do you make sure that the virus doesn't make a comeback with all of these people coming up?

Well, there's got to be some cooperation. You know, the governor's has been very welcoming, but also cautious. Initially, when you come in, we need folks to be willing to quarantine in their home so that they're not unwitting spreaders. So that we really do need some cooperation from people who are visiting because even with their best of intentions with this disease, and its communicability when you're not even feeling symptoms, you can be a spreader without having any idea that you're sick. So that's the quarantine period. And then to follow the same guidance on mask and social distancing, that all Vermonters are following, then it can work. But it really does require a lot of personal responsibility to make certain that each of us, including visitors are doing everything we can to avoid the being a spreader of the disease.

So there are so many more that I want to talk to you about. But we really have a minute now. So let me ask you this. Is your job as a congressman made harder because of gathering in the House of Representatives?

It’s really hard.

Please go ahead.

It's impossible. You know, the fact is that the night before, I came home a couple of times ago on March 14. And it was the day before we kind of went into lockdown here in Vermont. But we had on the floor, at one in the morning when we were voting on that first COVID package, about 400 members of Congress and probably 100 staff, 500 people together. And I mean, talk about a situation where if anybody is a carrier, it can spread rapidly.

And some were, obviously.

And some were. And then you know, the other thing that's really bad is that each one of us goes to, we go to 435 different parts of the country when we go home. So if any of us pick it up, we then carry it in become potential vectors of the virus elsewhere. So now when I went back to vote on a $2 trillion package, there were strict social distancing rules, we voted in waves, so members whose names were A to C voted, and then D to F, and so on. And you really can't get together in committee rooms without being in violation of social distancing. So one of the things we did is authorized remote voting that would only be used in very Emergency Situations like 9/11. Or like when, because of health reasons, we literally can't be together. So I think we're probably going to be doing some remote voting for a period of time, this spring and summer.

Peter Welch, always great to talk to you. You are a terrific guy. Thank you so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

Thank you.

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.