Politically Thinking: Welch travels across party lines

Last week, while Congress was in recess, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., joined eight House colleagues on a trip to France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. This trip was not a junket, but a working visit with officials of the host governments and U.S. diplomats and military personnel stationed in those countries.
What was unusual about this trip is that Welch was the only Democrat in the delegation. The other eight members were all Republicans, including senior House members Eric Cantor, R-Va., the Majority Leader; Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; and Kay Granger, R-Texas, the chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations.
Welch went on this trip for two reasons. The first was to learn more about key foreign policy issues. All the countries visited intersect with American interests. France is one of the most important players in the ongoing European debt crisis, a crisis which could adversely affect the American economy. France is also leading European efforts to tighten sanctions on Iran’s oil sector.
The government of Qatar has been pursuing a more vigorous foreign policy since the start of last year’s “Arab spring.” The emir of Qatar recently advocated sending Arab troops to Syria to intervene in the ongoing political crisis in that country. Qatar also hosts one of the largest American bases in the Middle East.
In Saudi Arabia, Welch and his congressional colleagues met with the oil minister and other senior officials. Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pledged to provide additional oil to world markets should sanctions on Iran result in a loss of Iranian supply and an increase in crude oil prices.
Turkey is emerging as an increasingly important regional power in the eastern Mediterranean, with key relationships with Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Moderate Islamists in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt look to Turkey, a democratic system with an Islamist governing party, as an example of political development in the region. Although criticized for increasingly authoritarian tendencies at home, the Turkish government has also spoken out vigorously against Syria’s President Assad, and has said his regime has no future.
So Welch certainly learned a lot about American foreign policy in a critical area of the world on this trip. But the second reason for Welch’s taking the trip was the opportunity it gave him, outside the fishbowl of Washington, to have private conversations with eight Republican colleagues, including Majority Leader Cantor, one of the most important Republicans in Congress.
One of the hallmarks of Welch’s tenure in Congress has been his effort to reach across party lines and establish personal relationships with Republican as well as Democratic House members. While these bridge-building efforts are most unlikely to result in either side’s changing their views on important issues, especially ideologically charged budget issues, they can open up informal channels of communication in an institution where partisan polarization has resulted in dysfunctional decision-making.
Over the course of a week-long trip to Europe and the Middle East, the members of the congressional delegation would have spent a lot of time on airplanes. There would have been many opportunities for the members to talk informally with one another about domestic issues, as well as the foreign policy issues that were the focus of the trip. Informal conversations can have positive effects on policy, an example being Welch’s using his contacts on both sides of the aisle to ease the passage through the Republican House of legislation needed to reimburse Vermont for costs arising from Tropical Storm Irene.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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