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How Becca Balint is conducting her first business as Vermont's Congresswoman

Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., second from left, stands for a class photo with other newly elected members of Congress on the East Front of the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Patrick Semansky/AP
Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., second from left, stands for a class photo with other newly elected members of Congress on the East Front of the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Congresswoman Becca Balint was sworn in on the the early morning hours of Saturday, Jan. 7, following a tumultuous week on Capitol Hill. The first woman and first openly gay person to represent Vermont, Balint says she knows it's going to be an uphill battle in Congress this year, but she’s ready to get to work on her priorities

Vermont Edition host Connor Cyrus spoke with Rep. Balint about her first week in Congress and how she's looking forward to building relationships across the aisle.

Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Connor Cyrus: What stands out from your swearing in?

Congresswoman Becca Balint: There was a lot of chaos and confusion. What was so disheartening was just seeing the extent to which the extreme wing of the party was literally holding us all hostage, so that they could get concessions from their candidate for speaker. And so, by the time we finally got sworn in early Saturday morning, I was, of course, incredibly proud to be representing Vermont. My daughter was sitting there with me in the chamber. But it was really difficult to feel the kind of elation I wanted to feel because we knew what was going to be coming based on having seen all the chaos for that whole week. We knew there was going to be more to come, so it was mixed emotions, for sure.

How are you feeling today about it?

I'm feeling really good today. I have a really strong group of freshmen legislators who are coming in with me. We're a tight knit group and we run the gamut within the Democratic caucus. We're all very focused on getting work done. We are getting to know each other's priority issues. For me, mental health and housing are two issues that I'm committed to making progress on, even in the minority, and it feels really good that I've got colleagues already that are interested in helping me to succeed on those fronts.

I will tell you, it is challenging, though, to stay positive when the first few bills that this GOP have brought to the floor are trying to make it possible for a national ban on abortion. Of course, that's something Vermonters care deeply about, and that's disheartening.

One of the other bills that they put on the floor would make it easier for the wealthy, essentially, to cheat on their taxes because they're gutting the IRS. It's also going to impact the programs that we put in place in the Inflation Reduction Act. It's going to be a session of extremes and us trying to push back on the extremes. There are mainstream Republicans who are trying to find their voice to push back against the extremism. So far, we haven't we haven't seen that, but we know that they are disheartened about the path that their party is taking right now.

You are the first woman to go to Congress from Vermont and first outwardly queer person, so making history in several ways. Being the first comes with a lot of responsibility and maybe even pressure. Are you feeling that pressure? How are you using this historic moment to further your agenda?

That's such a great question. Of course, I feel pressure but I feel pressure being a representative period for the state of Vermont. We only get one, I'm it. I want to make sure I do a great job on behalf of my constituents. I want to work closely with our senior and junior senators to make sure that we're delivering for Vermont, but certainly, as the first woman and as the first queer person, I especially want to be someone that Vermonters can can be proud of.

What's exciting about this class I'm coming in with, we are the strongest class with a great group of women, people of color, Latinos, Latinas, and I am not alone in coming in as a queer legislator. There are three of us in this freshman class and we always talk with each other about how we are truly a mosaic of America in this freshman class. I'm excited that I have other people within my class that I can rely on who also are feeling equal pressure and because they are the first in their their home districts.

The Republican leadership introduced a number of rule changes after electing Speaker McCarthy, which you have been very critical, especially on Twitter, where you said, quote, The GOP rules package obstructs progress on your priorities around addressing the mental health crisis and the housing shortage. What specifically do you take issue with?

Oh, so many things, Connor. One thing I would like Vermonters to know, because I know it can be very difficult to follow all the details, you've essentially got a rules package that makes it incredibly difficult for us to add any kind of amendment to any of their legislation. Fundamentally, they have restricted the rules so much that we are not able to have any substantive say on things once they're to the floor. How do we put our our mark on it? It's an extremist agenda.

I want to make sure that people understand one of the concessions that McCarthy had to make to his extreme wing of the party was that they were going to have a subcommittee to essentially investigate our own government. The work that will be done in that subcommittee will be a fishing expedition on our FBI, the people who were here on the ground on Jan. 6, trying to to protect the Capitol, and there is no good that's going to come out of that subcommittee. Frankly, it's a sham. It is a GOP platform.

I want to get to the work of the people, and that is going to be very difficult. We have to bring together the more moderates in the party to say, you have mental health struggles in your communities, you have law enforcement that also needs supports around mental health, you have a housing crisis across the country. We have got to pull people together because they know that the path that the GOP is going down right now is not what Americans want, and specifically on reproductive rights.

Listeners may recall that former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi changed the house rules to better achieve her goals. Isn't it only right that Republicans have the chance to do the same?

Absolutely. That is the role of the majority. The problem is that when you have rules that are so restrictive, and are clearly designed for McCarthy to be able to win this very tight speaker's race —so far, we haven't seen them be able to hold together in the way that the Democrats were under under Pelosi. There's not going to be a lot of room for us to be in any kind of negotiation, given this rules package.

Now, you've pledged to work across the aisle. Does that even seem possible right now, given that there seems to be such divisiveness and you've taken such a strong stance with the Democrats in the Democratic caucus?

Yes, there's always an opportunity. I am continuing, during the breaks on the floor, to talk to my colleagues, both of my party and the Republican party. As I said, we know that there are mainstream Republicans or moderate Republicans that are not happy with the direction that their leadership is going in. I'm going to continue to cultivate those relationships and hopefully find an avenue for some bipartisan work on these these issues that I care so deeply about.

When you talk about forming these relationships, are there any that people in Vermont might be surprised to hear?

One that surprised me was I had an opportunity to talk with Congressman Joe Wilson, which many Vermonters will know as the person who called President Obama a liar on the floor of the House.

We had a good conversation, and he is a human being, he is a person. I am not going to be someone who is going to be dehumanizing my political opponents. So we chatted for a bit, I walked away, and my colleague said, "I wanted you to see how that was a moment of his career. It is not the totality of his career." Although I am still deeply offended he did that to a sitting president, I can see how he's mellowed over the years, and he understands that in order to get work done, you have to cultivate relationships.

Now, as we look to the future, do you have a sense of what roles you're going to have in the House leadership or committees?

We are still waiting for our committee assignments. I have requested either to be on financial services, so I continue to work do the work on housing and consumer protections, or on agriculture, of course, very important for us in our rural state.

We don't believe that we will hear for another few weeks about committee assignments so that's up in the air. I am the vice chair for the Progressive Caucus, and that basically means getting our new members training. Some of them have never been in the legislature before, so I'm working closely with those new members to talk about how do we as individual Congress people, especially coming in new, how can we be effective. I am also part of the New England Whip team for the whip's office, Katherine Clark from Massachusetts.

What I'm really focused on right now is getting good at being a congressperson. I'm eager to see what committee I will end up on and I'm right now I'm learning new protocols and procedures. That's equally as important as some of the more sexy things.

I do want to ask about cryptocurrency. Listeners may remember leading up to the August primary, an executive at cryptocurrency exchange FTX donated more than a million dollars to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a political action committee, which then spent almost all of that donation on political ads supporting your candidacy. Now the leader of that company, billionaire, Sam Bankman-Fried, stands accused of widespread fraud in the billions of dollars.

Now, to be clear, Bankman-Fried did not donate to your campaign directly, but does this kind of historic fraud that enabled such political donations create urgency or need for regulations of cryptocurrency exchange?

My position on cryptocurrency has been clear from the beginning. I think it needs incredibly strong regulation, now more than ever. It's critically important. This is the Wild West. A lot of people have lost money in the in these fraudulent investments. If I'm in a position on the financial services committee to do something about it, or it sounds like it might be regulated under AG as a commodity, which I'm still trying to wrap my head around. Either way, Vermonters can count on the fact that I'm going to be pushing hard for the strictest regulations for this industry.

I'd also want to ask about President Biden. You're aware by now of the discovery of classified documents in Biden's private office. How do you reflect on what's happening with him? And do you think that compares to what happened with former President Donald Trump?

We're still learning the details, but obviously, regardless of party, people need to be incredibly careful about classified documents. If there was mishandling or wrongdoing that needs to be dealt with within the government. I certainly don't think that there should be different rules depending on party. Again, I'm still learning the details, but it's not something that any of us feel comfortable with.

Broadcast on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Connor Cyrus was co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition from 2021-2023.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.