NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Vermont Congressman Peter Welch says he hopes to return to a gridlocked Congress for a fourth term to help push for practical solutions to the nation’s woes.
"Get something done"
Welch, a Democrat first elected in 2006, said Vermonters remain concerned about a Congress paralyzed by hyper-partisanship.
"The question that I get asked the most is, ‘Peter, why don’t you guys get together and get something done?’ That really is the dominant question, and it’s different, really, than when I ran in 2006," he said.
Then, there was "a lot of consternation with Bush and the war in Iraq," according to Welch. Now, it’s frustration that Republicans and Democrats cannot find any middle ground, he said. "What I find from talking with Vermonters is that they really look with dismay at Washington, that we’re not making practical progress in solving problems," he said.
Welch faces a challenge from Republican Mark Donka, a longtime law enforcement officer. Donka, according to his website, hopes to restore smaller government and protect religious, political and economic liberties if elected.
Although Welch enjoys a huge disparity in funding and name recognition, he said he considers Donka a serious challenger, despite not knowing much about him. "I’m a bit in the dark as to what his positions are other than that he’d prefer to be in the job," Welch said in a recent interview with the Banner.
It is very clear what problems remain in Washington, Welch said. A "just say no" Republican party has continued to place middle-class Americans in the middle of an ideological struggle, he said. The GOP nearly allowed interest on federal student loans to rise, stalled on raising the debt limit and has held firm against a balanced approach to debt reduction, Welch said.
"That pressure on the middle class gets repeated on a lot of other issues -- like the price of gasoline, like small businesses getting hammered with transaction fees by the big credit card companies, like general energy costs. So, what I’m seeing is that Vermonters want some practical problem-solving. That, of course, has been my approach, and it’s been successful in some areas," he said.
Welch has been able to cross the divide and secure support from some Republicans on key issues, including Irene recovery funding and energy efficiency. Welch said he hopes to continue reaching out to Republicans to create good policy in his next term, and show members of both parties how legislation can be passed.
"The opportunity that I have is that I am elected and I am Vermont’s voice in Congress. As one member of Congress, I can, by my actions, by the way I behave and my temperament, be a voice for doing what ultimately we know we have to do and that’s get together to solve the problems. We have got a ways to go because the Tea Party majority in the House is the dominant wing of the (Republican) party," he said. "What I can do as a member of Congress is get up every day and try to be a force for the constructive engagement that’s required."
Congress will have to address the nation’s debt, Welch said. The GOP version prepared by Wisconsin. Rep. Paul Ryan, now the party’s nominee for vice president, makes extreme cuts in programs "that are quite important to middle-class Americans," Welch said. It would hurt low- and middle-income Americans while still raising the debt because of tax breaks and increases in defense spending, he said.
"It tells you that (Ryan) is about something else, and that is unraveling the things that are essential for government," Welch said.
Welch said he will continue to seek a balanced approach to the federal budget and lowering the nation’s debt.
"My approach is that we’ve got to put everything on the table. Democrats have got to be willing to work on the spending side, Republicans have to be willing to work on the revenue side. If we come together on an approach that way we can get to wear we need to be," he said.
Both parties will have to compromise, Welch said. He said he is hoping the GOP will give ground on defense spending. "Spending has to be sustainable. I happen to think the Pentagon spending increases have been unsustainable and unnecessary. That’s an area where we really should be making cuts," he said.
Congress will also have to look at entitlement programs in order to lower the debt and balance the federal budget. Welch said Social Security should be handled separately, however, because it has its own funding system.
Welch said he favors ending a payroll tax deduction sought by President Barack Obama, because it means less money is being paid into the program.
"That’s been a nice tax cut for folks, but it really means that we have to borrow from the general fund to pay for it. We’ve got to maintain the integrity of the funding system for Social Security in order to make certain that we can maintain Social Security benefits for people who need it," Welch said.
Instead, Welch said the cap on income that is taxed for Social Security -- currently about $106,000 -- should be raised. "It’s all a trade-off. The thing that I think is important is to preserve our retirement age. People working hard work, there’s a limit on how much you can pound your body. I think the cap is where there is really room for revenue to sustain Social Security," he said.
Welch has sponsored and ushered through the House legislation on energy efficiency. Yet, fossil fuels must be part of the mix as the nation and world increase use of renewable sources. That means domestic drilling and production in the short-term, he said, while Congress works to boost the use of renewables.
"More exploitation of our own reserves is part of the solution. I mean, I’d like us to be getting entirely clean and green energy. Wouldn’t we all? But, it’s not as though we can just turn the switch. So, that which is produced domestically is part of the solution, at least the transition," he said. "Whether we like it or we don’t, the energy demands of this country are going to mean that oil and gas will be part of the energy mix for some time to come. Those of us who are strong advocates of green energy can’t have wishful thinking be our policy guide. We’ve got to have policies to help implement and develop the expansion of green energy. In the meantime, we’ve got to keep the economy going."
On foreign policy, Welch said the U.S. must show "some restraint along with strength." The president and Congress should first question if Americans are at risk before action anywhere, he said.
"We’re at a transition point because of all the upheaval in the Middle East," he said.
The U.S. should have already ended the mission in Afghanistan, Welch said.
"In Afghanistan it’s over. I mean, there is no way in the world that we’re going to be successful in building a nation to our liking there. The nation building strategy was the wrong strategy. The contradictions are now blatant, when our soldiers are training their soldiers and their soldiers are shooting ours," he said. "We got rid of Osama bin Laden. We got rid of the safe haven. But then we overreached with nation building. That was not a realistic mission for the United States."