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Two-year farm bill marathon ends in a sprint

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Posted on February 3, 2014 |
By Zach Despart



Welch2507.jpg
REP. PETER WELCH, right, and press aide Ryan Nickel rush down a corridor beneath the Capitol this past Thursday so Welch can reach the House Chamber in time to vote for the farm bill. Independent photo/Zach Despart

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congressman Peter Welch is not among the taller members of the U.S. House of Representatives, but the Vermont Democrat can hoof it. I’ve got about five inches on him, but I’m struggling to keep up as we wind through the tunnels and alleys somewhere beneath the Longworth House Office Building.

Welch is on his way to the House chamber, where the clerk has ordered a vote on the farm bill — a massive piece of legislation that has lingered in Congress for almost two years. Welch plans to vote in favor of the bill, which sets the nation’s entire farm and food policy — that is, if he can make it within the 15-minute voting window.

The three of us — myself, the Congressman and press aide Ryan Nickel — hustle through a nondescript corridor that Welch tells me leads to the Capitol. He quickens his gait to a half-jog, weaving past staffers, fellow members and school groups. Hundreds of framed paintings line one wall of the seemingly endless hallway, which like most subterranean passageways is drab and mostly concrete.

The Congressman stops on a dime to point out one of them, which was done by a Vermonter.

“You should take a picture of it,” he says to me. Nickel gently reminds him that there are only a few minutes left on the vote. Welch seems unconcerned.

At the end of the hallway is the subway, one of three rails that connect the Capitol to the House and Senate legislative office buildings. The three of us squeeze into a car with other members who are late to the vote. The ride is only about 30 seconds, and takes us to another series of tunnels.

Nickel tells me we’re now underneath the House side of the Capitol, though the featureless, narrow hallways we enter look very much like the featureless, narrow hallways we’d previously walked through.

Welch navigates the labyrinth expertly, making lefts and rights without warning. From what I could discern, there are no signs to guide anyone anywhere, and I made a point to stay on the Congressman’s heels, convinced that if we became separated I’d spend most of the afternoon finding my way out of the place.

After some more twists and turns Welch squeezes into a members-only elevator with a dozen of his colleagues that will take him to the House floor. Nickel whisks me down another hallway to a different elevator, which we take to the gallery.

We walk past a group of sailors waiting in line, and Nickel signs me in with the gallery clerk as a guest of the Congressman. I’m allowed inside after I surrender my camera, phone, recorder and notebook.

Looking down from the gallery I see the chamber is full. An hour earlier, as Welch delivered a floor speech in support of the bill, only a handful of members sat in the rows of seats. Now, most Representatives are present, milling about while the vote is completed.

The roll call is projected onto the wall directly across from me. Next to each name, listed in alphabetical order, is a green “Y” or a red “N,” indicating how a particular member voted. Next to Welch’s name there is nothing, and I wonder if he’s missed it. The timer on the wall reads 0:00. Yet, the tally continues to climb. Then, a green “Y” appears next to Welch’s name.

I try to find him on the floor, sort of a Where’s Waldo of men with receding hairlines and dark suits. I spot him amid the throng of legislators, leaning against the desk in the well of the chamber, his forehead glinting in the light from sweat. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, converses with other members close by, but Welch seems content to catch his breath.

The clerk of the House bangs the gavel, but members seem to pay him no mind. Over the din he reads the yeas and nays, but the members on the floor already know — the motion has passed.

I catch up with Welch after the vote — he says the vote was closer than he expected, but that is of little consequence. After years of negotiation, the House has adopted a new farm bill.

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