MIDDLEBURY — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch on Thursday reiterated his support of President Barack Obama’s newly proposed gun control initiatives, lamented Congress’s inability to pass a comprehensive farm bill and said friction between the major parties is as bad as he has seen it in his six years in Washington.
The Vermont Democrat, during an interview with the Addison Independent, discussed these and other issues, including the nation’s financial woes.
Obama last week outlined a series of gun control measures, including universal background checks for gun sales, limiting the size of firearm magazines to 10 rounds and banning assault weapons. He also advocated for expanding law enforcement in the streets and in schools.
“These mass killings, especially in Newtown (Conn.) with little children getting slaughtered … it is just horrifying to everyone,” Welch said. “It has affected the debate and the discussion. The president is taking the lead in advocating for what I would call ‘common sense steps’ that are quite respectful of the Second Amendment but would address, at least partially, some of the issues.”
Welch said he particularly favors the requirement of background checks, lower-capacity ammunition magazines and preventing the sale of assault weapons that were clearly intended for military use but that have been slightly modified for the civilian market.
He said Vermont gun owners could bring a lot to the firearms debate in Washington.
“In Vermont, we have a different (gun) culture, and that deserves respect,” Welch said. “We have a culture of responsible use. It’s mom and dad training their kids about responsible gun ownership and also it’s the use of guns for target shooting and for hunting and it’s an opportunity to learn about and appreciate nature, wildlife and the natural environment. There is a whole family element to the firearm culture in this state, and that is to be respected. We have been very fortunate to have not suffered the kind of mass gun violence that has afflicted other parts of the country.”
Welch was candid in his disgust with the failure of Congress last year to reauthorize a comprehensive, five-year farm bill. Instead, lawmakers extended for nine months the existing law, including provisions of the Milk Income Loss Contract program. MILC, as it is known, pays a subsidy to dairy farmers when the price of milk goes below a certain threshold. Welch believes Congress missed a prime opportunity to take a more comprehensive approach through the farm bill, which among other things included a dairy stabilization plan.
“This is an indication of two alarming things,” Welch said of the failure to pass a farm bill. “It is a disregard for rural America. This is the first time that a farm bill reauthorization didn’t get passed. I find that quite ominous, with respect to congressional treatment of the concerns of rural America. Second, it is an indication of dysfunction. Our job is to pass a farm bill, and we didn’t even vote on a bill. The Senate passed a bill; the House Agriculture Committee on which I served passed a bill on a bipartisan vote, and it didn’t even get to the floor for a vote, and there is no excuse for it.”
Welch believes there were enough votes in the House to pass the measure, but he said the chamber’s Republican leadership did not allow the measure to come up for a referendum.
The lack of a vote unfortunately means that Congress will have to start back at square one this year in developing the farm bill for a new vote, according to Welch.
FEDERAL DEBT CEILING
Vermont’s lone congressman also weighed in on the federal debt ceiling controversy.
“Our country is the only country other than Denmark that has a debt ceiling,” he said. “It has become a mechanism for members of Congress to lecture others about fiscal responsibility to basically hide and conceal their own irresponsibility. Raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with allowing Congress to spend more money; it is all about giving us the authority to pay the bills that have already been incurred.”
He stressed that both major parties have had a history of “grandstanding” on the debt ceiling issue.
“The out-of-power party has always used the debt ceiling as an opportunity to indict the economic policies of the incumbent president,” Welch said. “But now, we have gone from the grandstanding to default. And the consequences of default are catastrophic.”
With that in mind, Welch has introduced legislation calling for restoring a rule that would adjust the debt ceiling, up or down, depending on the budget that Congress has approved.
“What happens now, on Jan. 1, is that Congress votes to spend the money and on Dec. 30 they get high and mighty and say, ‘We won’t raise the debt ceiling to pay for it,’” Welch said. “This is very dangerous. This tactic — now used by the Republicans and perhaps tomorrow by the Democrats — will do immense collateral damage to the economy.”
He specifically cited damage to the nation’s credit rating.
Agreeing on anything in Congress is quite a chore these days due to the fractured nature of the chamber and the fact that members simply don’t network much outside of the committee rooms, Welch said.
“It’s become a fact-free zone,” Welch said. “Everyone makes up their own facts or believes whatever they want to believe. It means that common ground that could be found, you don’t have the time to actually do it.”
Welch said he and others are trying to work more with colleagues on the other side of the political aisle to find common ground on issues like energy and housing, to at least make incremental steps toward successful legislation.
“You’re seeing a lot of the grassroots membership gravitating toward trying to find a way to work together to get out of this mold of just the party-line doctrinaire deal that is getting us nowhere,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.