Rep. Welch gears up for Democratic House
ST. ALBANS — Vermont Congressman Peter Welch believes there are issues on which Republicans and Democrats can work together in the upcoming Congress.
Although ballots are still being tallied in some states, the Democrats will take a majority in the House of Representatives in the next Congress, to be seated in January, having taken 37 formerly Republican seats with a handful still to be determined as of late last week.
“We want to do things and reach out to Republicans,” said Welch, explaining that outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan, who retired rather than seek re-election, had a policy of passing legislation with only Republican votes.
It was a policy Welch said empowered the most extreme members of the party, effectively giving them veto power over legislation. A group of Tea Party Republicans, known as the Freedom Caucus, “was an impediment even to many of my Republican colleagues,” Welch said.
Ryan’s approach is not one Welch wants, or expects, the Democrats to emulate.
Among the issues where Welch believed cooperation is possible are: prescription drug prices, infrastructure, broadband expansion and energy efficiency.
“I want us to focus on doing things that will be good for everybody, regardless of who they voted for,” Welch said.
Dairy legislation is also a possibility.
“I think we’re in such a crisis that we’ve got to have significant change such as a supply management program,” Welch said.
The last time Congress considered a supply management system, in 2012, Welch said the votes were there to pass it.
However, then-Speaker John Boehner — a recipient of campaign donations from dairy processors — wouldn’t allow a vote.
But before the House can get down to business, Welch believes it must get its own house in order.
Power has become too concentrated in the Speaker’s office, in his view, and Welch wants to see power returned to committees, where discussions and hearings over legislation allow people to be heard and differences to be resolved.
Both the Republican bill to rescind the Affordable Care Act (ACA), more commonly known as Obamacare, and the tax bill passed earlier this year were written entirely in the speaker’s office, Welch said.
Prior to the passage of the ACA, the commerce committee, on which Welch sits, held 14 months of hearings and heard from 400 witnesses, Welch said. For the repeal bill, they were locked in a room with the completed bill for 27 hours with no public hearings or witnesses.
“That’s a sham process,” Welch said.
There is widespread agreement among both Republicans and Democrats on the need to address the nation’s infrastructure deficiencies from roads and bridges to water and wastewater, as well as broadband in rural areas, according to Welch. The holdup has always been an inability to find common ground on a funding mechanism.
However, he believes a dedicated funding system not used for anything else could get bipartisan support.
Asked about protection of voting rights, Welch said he expects it to be one of the first issues addressed by the House. “Our democracy has been successful the more we have people participating,” he said.
He added that voting rights is not an issue on which he expects a lot of bipartisan agreement.
With Democrats taking over the House, much of the discussion has focused on investigations. Welch currently sits on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, although it is not certain he will have that position in the next Congress.
Asked about what he sees as investigative priorities, Welch said, “The emphasis should be on oversight.”
Congress has a Constitutional duty to oversee operations of the executive branch, noted Welch. That includes keeping agencies accountable and eliminating waste, fraud and abuse.
Over the last two years, the House has not fulfilled that duty, in his view. However, Welch added, “I do not want us to turn it into the revenge committee.”
The focus should be on how agencies are running and protecting taxpayer money, Welch said.
He also sees a role for Congress in investigating corporations, particularly pharmaceutical companies. Welch would like to see investigations into prescription drug pricing and what role the companies played in promoting use of prescription opioids.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, will be chairing the oversight committee in the next Congress. He has suggested his committee will look into potential violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution. The clause bars those holding public office from receiving gifts or emoluments from any foreign government.
Possible violations of the clause, including financial benefits flowing to members of the Trump family as a result of Donald Trump’s presidency, are a “big question,” Welch said.
Welch also currently sits on the energy and commerce committee, where he would like to focus on efforts to reduce carbon emissions.