Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Sen. Peter Welch is approaching legislating as Vermont's junior senator

A man in a dark navy blue suit (Sen. Peter Welch) is sworn in next to a woman in a red blazer (Welch's wife Maragaret Cheney) and another woman (Kamala Harris) in a dark black suit.
Jacquelyn Martin
Sen. Peter Welch is sworn in next to his wife, Margaret Cheney, in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington by Vice President Kamala Harris.

Host Connor Cyrus is in conversation with Sen. Peter Welch, and asks him about settling into his new role in the Senate, and how he'll address priorities from opioids, to the 2023 farm bill, to addressing climate change.

This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Connor Cyrus: Sen. Welch, we'll get to what's going on in the Senate in just a little bit, but before we do, I want to ask you about being sworn in on Jan. 3. The fact that you'd be replacing Sen. Patrick Leahy, your friend and longtime colleague, was, of course, no surprise. But on that day, Sen. Leahy officially left office after 48 years in the Senate, and you took his place in that chamber. How did that actually feel with taking over that role?

Sen. Peter Welch: Well, pretty overwhelming, very much in a personal sense. You know, the first campaign I worked on in Vermont was in 1974, when I was a volunteer at the beginning of Patrick Leahy's career. And I've known Patrick and [his wife] Marcelle the entire time he's been in the Senate, and served with him when I was in the House.

It is just the incredible contribution he's made. And then, fast forward 48 years later, and Patrick himself was so gracious, and in walked me down the Senate aisle, so that I could take the oath of office to replace the person whose first campaign I worked on 48 years ago.

So it's such a wild experience of how things kind of come full circle, I guess, at times?

Well, it is. And of course, you know, nobody can replace Sen. Leahy, chair of the Appropriations Committee. He's provided such extraordinary service to the state and to the nation. But my goal is to adhere to his good advice: keep your word, work cooperatively with others, and stand up for democracy. And I believe that I'm in a position to to try to carry on that tradition that we've been so fortunate to have here in Vermont.

Now, your colleagues in the House had quite a different time being sworn in, taking an historic 15 votes before Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy was elected House Speaker. And his taking over that role came with a slew of rule changes for the House. Given your long tenure in that chamber, what do you make of the turbulent time and these rule changes?

It's pretty ominous for how the House will operate in the next two years. Essentially, what happens in that razor-thin Republican margin, a faction of the Republicans — the most extreme wing of the Republican Party — extracted enormous concessions. And what they foreshadow was their intention to use what I think are very extreme tactics — like shutting government down, like having our nation default on its obligations — and use them as tactics to try to get their way to do things like reduce social security benefits [or] to cut Medicare benefits. So, this foretells that we're gonna have some significant battles ahead.

Now, you tweeted on Sunday a list of "what's in and what's out in 2023." And, at the top of your list, above supporting dairy farmers and above insulin price caps, you list green energy investments. What specifically would you want to see accomplished over the next year to say, yes, I as Senator achieved success on that issue in 2023?

Well, it's about implementation right now. You know, in inflation Reduction Act, we had over $500 billion that is going to be allocated to climate change initiatives. And, my view is that the administration, with Congress really doing oversight, we have to make certain that that money is deployed in a very effective way.

I'm going to give an example. These incentives are resulting in a $2 billion solar installation factory being built in [the state of] Georgia. And that's 2,500 jobs. So, our focus now has to be to make certain that that money that we allocated for infrastructure and for climate is well-utilized. If we're effective, then we can begin that transition, and people will see — including folks like Marjorie Taylor Greene, in Georgia, of all people — that this really works.

Last week, you met with dairy farmers in St. Albans to discuss the needs of Vermont's dairy farmers. Many of those needs will be addressed and a massive piece of legislation known as the Farm Bill, which is updated every five years. What do you see as the biggest priorities for the farm bill this year to meet the needs of Vermont's farmers and agriculture industry?

Number one, we have to make certain that local agriculture in Vermont, and around the country, is given a priority much more so than it has been at the at the to the benefit of corporate agriculture. We have local agriculture — dairy is a big part of it, of course, here in Vermont — that's good for the local environment.

Second, we have to make our agricultural sector, our farmers, partners in our effort to reduce carbon emissions. And the only way we're going to do that is by helping them — with money, too — to have agricultural have practices that reduce carbon emissions.

And third, nutrition is an extraordinarily important part of the Farm Bill. I was in St. Albans and saw their food program in it's so beneficial to the kids, their future, their ability to learn. So those are the three big elements: sustainability, environmental protection, and nutrition.

What are you hearing as what farmers need from you as you represent them in the Senate and in DC?

Stability is the big thing. You know, they are in a very tough industry where there are wild price swings. And that's especially tough on small farmers. So the dairy Margin Protection Program that has provided some price stability has been very, very important and a mainstay. So price stability, so that they can count on the ability to pay their bills, is what they're saying is the most important.

The farm bill also includes provisions around supplemental food programs like SNAP, sometimes called Food Stamps. Nationally, we're seeing record high inflation. And, according to a study from the University of Vermont and the University of Maine, two in five Vermonters are struggling to put enough food on the table. What needs to happen in the Farm Bill, to make sure that Vermonters and other Americans in need, can get the food that they need?

Well, there's two things. One, is about appropriations and money that's allocated to the nutrition programs. And Vermont has a very good, solid food program, but we've got to make certain that we continue to fund it.

Second, the Farm to School programs have been extremely beneficial. It means that kids are eating locally produced food, and it means local farmers are getting a financial benefit. And I saw the example of that up in St. Albans. So, those Farm to School programs, in my view, they should be expanded because it's good for kids and their nutrition needs. And it's good for our local farmers.

Are there enough local farmers to keep up with the demand of expanding these programs?

Well, the more there's a market for local farmers, the more local farmers we're going to have.

What I'm seeing is young people would love to be able to go into agriculture. And the cost of land is tough, and we've got to work on that, but they need a local market in order to be able to have confidence that can sell their products.

The House has already passed a number of bills that will come to the Senate, including efforts to cut billions and the funding, the last Congress pledged to expand like the IRS and its workforce. That bill is coming to the Senate. What do you make of it?

It's dead on arrival. Why you would not allow the IRS to have the people that it needs? These are public servants to answer your call, where's my tax return? Or, answer this question about my taxes? People can't get their phone calls answered. And that's because we've been defunding the IRS.

Secondly, we're losing about $400 billion from tax compliance owed by very, very wealthy Americans. And the reason? We don't have auditors to take a look at their taxes. So, I think it's very important that we have a an IRS that has the capacity to answer citizen questions, and also to audit the taxes that have skated by from folks who are billionaires.

Last week, we had Rep. Becca Balint on our show. And we asked her about declassified documents that President Biden has turned over that were found in his possession as a private citizen, and we know what's happening with Donald Trump with a similar thing, with classified documents being found at his office at a private residence. What do you make of that, and how do you talk about this to the American people?

Well, here's what's similar: classified documents, in each case, were in places they shouldn't have been. That's where the similarities end.

A special prosecutor has been appointed both in the Biden case in in the Trump case, so they'll be able to give us a full report. What we also know, of course, is the Biden administration self-reported, and of course, Trump resisted and has stood in the way of the investigation. But, I do believe it's right to have a special prosecutor in each case, and let's get that report, and then we can all come to our own conclusions.

Lastly, I want to talk about your priorities when it comes to fighting the opioid epidemic. This is something you've been fighting to help Vermonters for years. Some might remember the "Wheels and Weights recovery program" which used congressional funds that you had brought to the state, and according to health care professionals, kept patients in treatment longer.

Looking at this session and beyond, how are you going to continue to help Vermonters fight this opioid epidemic?

Well, there's so much heartache for families and individuals because of the opioid epidemic in Vermont, and around the country. And this is an area where there's been consistent bipartisan cooperation in the Congress. I will continue to work with my colleagues. Our job in DC, primarily, is to get funds and resources back to our health care providers.

And the hard work, yhe really hard work is done right here in Vermont, with our providers working with folks who are ready to try to address the incredibly powerful addiction that comes with opioid dependence. So, I'll continue to work with my colleagues and continue to support from providers in those Vermonters who are trying to get rid of this incredible addiction that's so tough on families.

Broadcast live on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 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.