Rep. Peter Welch talks Ebola, ISIS, dysfunction in Congress

MIDDLEBURY — Peter Welch is running in more ways than one. The four-term Democrat took some time out before a jog in the Middlebury area last week to discuss some foreign and domestic issues during his run for another two years as Vermont’s lone representative in the U.S. House.
Welch is running for re-election against Republican Mark Donka, Liberty Union Party candidate Matthew Andrews and independents Cris Ericson and Jerry Trudell. Welch currently serves on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Congress has been carefully monitoring some critical developments on the international front, Welch noted, including the alarming spread of the Ebola virus and the strengthening of the Middle East terrorist group known as ISIS or the Islamic State.
Ebola made a recent appearance in the U.S., culminating in the death of patient Thomas Eric Duncan in a Dallas hospital. Some of the victim’s family members and neighbors are now being monitored for symptoms.
“(Ebola) is a very serious disease that must be stopped at its source,” Welch said. “And it’s become a political football. It’s another way to indict the president, as if in some way he created the Ebola virus. That gets in the way of taking concerted action.”
The incident in Texas, Welch said, adds to people’s legitimate apprehension about whether they’re safe.
“The mess that happened in Texas with the response creates a lack of confidence in our institutions to be able to deal with it,” Welch said. “It’s a cocktail of genuine public health risk that is serious, with institutional sluggishness in responding, and a lot of political opportunism. And that’s a dangerous cocktail.”
Welch said on this past Tuesday that he thought the Ebola crisis was “starting to settle down.” He feels confident most health care facilities in the U.S. have been put on their guard in wake of the recent crisis in Texas.
“There is a realization that as far away from Liberia as we are, it’s not hard for somebody to show up in an ER who might be infected,” Welch said. “I get a sense that our health care folks are stepping up to be alert.”
President Barack Obama, Welch believes, has made the right decision to “be all-in at the source” of the virus. That means greater vigilance and care in and around Liberia, according to Welch.
“(Liberia) has no infrastructure,” Welch said. “There’s a lot of aspects to an infrastructure situation there that is ideal for the spread of a very contagious disease. The more that disease spreads, the more threatening it is to the rest of the world.”
He praised the U.S. military, and various non-governmental organizations — like Doctors Without Borders, among others — for helping set up treatment facilities in Liberia in an effort to contain the virus.
While he believes most of the Ebola efforts should be targeted at Liberia, he said extra vigilance throughout the world is also needed.
“People leaving and coming in should be screened; that’s very important,” Welch said. “Closing the (U.S.) borders is not really an option, but extra vigilance is absolutely essential.”
At the same time, Welch is asking his colleagues to divorce Ebola from the political realm.
Like other federal officials, Welch is concerned about the rise of the terrorist group ISIS and its growing influence in Syria.
“There’s a collective revulsion at the barbarity of ISIS; it is unspeakable in its brutality,” Welch said. “They have been exiled from al Qaeda; that should give you an idea of how bad they are.”
He said the U.S. and its allies should make sure ISIS has no safe haven, and that the group is unable to wreak havoc in America and elsewhere. Welch is particularly concerned about cases of Americans and Western Europeans joining ISIS with the intent of committing terrorist acts in their own countries.
“I’m supportive of counter-terrorism strikes, whether it’s air power or special forces, that deny the safe haven,” Welch said. “And obviously, there has to be good vigilance and intelligence about folks who went from here to there and want to come back.”
Welch added he has been “impressed with the president’s restraint” in dealing with ISIS.
“One of the challenges a president faces is when there is something hideous that happens in the world, like the beheadings of those young men … the pressure in Congress is immense for the president to ‘do something,’” Welch said, citing specifically military action.
“The problem is, the military action ends up not being as definitive as the advocates for it want us to believe,” Welch added. “The notion that the United States can put an occupation force, with boots on the ground, and possibly solve (the Sunni-Shia) divide, is wishful thinking.”
Welch was also asked if there were any possibility of some federal assistance for a proposed $32.6 million Mount Abraham Union High School renovation project that will be decided by Bristol-area voters on Nov. 4.
“The days of earmarks are long gone,” Welch said. “Anybody who goes through that with the expectation that there will be federal money to mitigate that cost, I think had better check. The building of a local school, (to someone) in Washington, D.C., (that) is quintessentially a local matter.”
But Welch said he is hearing growing concerns from Vermonters about the “affordability” of their state.
“The economy is supposedly back, unemployment is down, but every day Vermonters who are punching a clock or getting a salary — their wages are where they were 10 years ago,” Welch said. “And the costs have gone way up. I am hearing a lot of concerns from Vermonters about the property tax burden.”
Welch listed two of his major legislative priorities going forward: strengthening the middle class, and making the U.S. Congress more productive and less dysfunctional.
“We should have a long-term transportation bill to rebuild our infrastructure, and we should pay for it through a sustainable funding source,” Welch said. He cited corporate tax reform, corporate profits and/or the gas tax as funding sources he could support.
“That’s not popular, but potholes don’t fix themselves,” Welch said.
He is also advocating middle class families should be able to refinance their student loans at the same low rates available to the government.
“That would put money back into the pockets of parents and students,” he said.
Welch concluded by saying he is pleased to have been a member of what he said was one of the most productive Congresses in history (2008-2009), but is disappointed to have been a member during what he believes has been one of the least productive sessions (2013-2014).
“We are operating at stall speed and not making decisions that are absolutely essential to people back home so they can be successful in doing their work,” Welch said. “Right now, it’s just an ideological standoff.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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