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Vermont Sen. Peter Welch answers your questions

Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., the newest member of the Senate Senate Judiciary Committee, speaks during debate over judicial appointments, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, May 11, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
This hour, Sen. Peter Welch talks with Vermont Edition about his first few months in the U.S. Senate, including as a new member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Longtime Congressman Peter Welch, who was sworn in as Vermont's newest U.S. senator in January, joined Vermont Edition on Thursday to discuss his recent work on expanding broadband access, his calls for a stronger code of ethics for the U.S. Supreme Court and what it has been like transitioning from the House to the Senate.

Welch, a Democrat, serves on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee as well as the Commerce, Rules and Agriculture committees.

Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak spoke with Welch and shared Vermonters' questions. Highlights of their conversation are below.

On the debt ceiling negotiations and how a default would affect Vermont

Sen. Peter Welch: The debt ceiling is artificial, and, frankly, something that, as you pointed out, becomes a political game. It's very, very dangerous. If we are having a discussion about paying our bills, as opposed to defaulting on our bills, that would be very much like a family who has a mortgage that is sitting around the table one morning and deciding, ‘hey, you know what, let's not pay the mortgage.’ That ends very badly.

... Defaulting on our debt is catastrophic, it literally means the full faith and credit of the United States is compromised. ... It will mean we have higher interest rates here, which is very, very bad for small business, it puts in jeopardy our ability to pay pensions, to pay Social Security, to do all the functions that the citizens of Vermont and of the United States have every right to expect will be done on time and in full.

So playing with the debt ceiling, where you're literally threatening that we’ll default, I believe would be catastrophic to the well being of all Americans or businesses and the reputation of our country.

Mikaela Lefrak: But how likely is it really that the U.S. would default? I mean, we've never intentionally defaulted before, correct?

That's correct. And I'm worried about it in a way that I wasn't in 2011. But what's happened is that –

– that's when negotiators came within 72 hours of the default deadline before making a deal back in 2011.

That's right, thank you for that. And also it cost us $80 billion, that was to the taxpayers. But in the past, you analyzed this correctly, the government, both parties understood they had to raise the debt ceiling and not default. But the minority party would frequently grandstand. And that was true of Republicans and Democrats, it uses an opportunity, basically, to attack the fiscal policies of the incumbent party. That was one thing.

Now what you're seeing, especially in the House, in that incredible epic 15-vote ordeal that Speaker McCarthy had to go through in order to get to be get to be speaker, is that they're kind of weaponizing the default threat. And what I see as different here is that there is a very extreme position among the Freedom Caucus element within the House, which is very, very significant, where they're ready. And I worked with many of these people last year. They're of the view that default is not necessarily a bad thing. And I think it's a catastrophic thing. And that's why I have more apprehension at this point. And as you know, the negotiations are underway as we speak between the speaker and President Biden. So we can't default. That is a catastrophic outcome.

On ethics for Supreme Court justices

You're a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which helps oversee the federal court system. And you have been vocally pushing for an official code of ethics for the court's nine justices. And this push, in part, comes out of the revelation that Justice Clarence Thomas accepted lavish gifts without disclosing them. If Chief Justice John Roberts does not step forward to create an ethics code for the court himself, would you, Senator, support Congress imposing such rules on the court? And does Congress really have the authority to do that?

The Supreme Court is a vitally important institution in our democracy. It's separate and equal. The Congress has no authority and should never get involved in interfering with the decisions or the framing of decisions that the court makes. On the other hand, the Congress, just as the Vermont Legislature, is involved in the budget of the court, it can be involved in where the space of the court is, it can be involved in where the jurisdiction of the court is. So there are functions that the legislature does, both with respect to the judiciary and also with respect to the – with the executive, that are separate but equal and consistent with that. Decision-making is with the court.

But the court is very disappointing to me in three respects. Number one, it’s gotten politicized. We saw that when Sen. McConnell and the Republican Senate refused to let President Obama's nominee even have a hearing, I think that started the erosion of public confidence that it was an on the level review process.

Second, there's a number of judicial opinions that are just way outside the norm of what people want. ... The most obvious is Dobbs. And that's where it first time in history that I'm aware of the Supreme Court literally took away they rescinded a constitutional right in this case, when the women had enjoyed to make their own choices since the 1973 decision. They overturned a law that the New York State Legislature had passed to protect people against handgun violence. They passed a law that took away from Congress the ability to regulate campaign finance spending – that was the Citizens United case. So those are out of step and really interfering, in my view with the legislative function.

And then finally, the ethics situation right now is a shambles. All of our judges in the federal system, 850 of them, every single one of them, is subject to a strict code of ethics that is transparent. That applies to the executive branch, it applies to the legislative branch. And the stories about these extraordinarily lavish gifts, private yacht cruises, private planes, with no sense of responsibility on the part of the nine justices on the Supreme Court, I think is really upsetting the public, and it's certainly upsetting me.

More from NPR: Justice Thomas gifts scandal highlights 'double standard' for ethics in government

So it's absolutely best if the court does this themselves, because once it gets into Congress, I do believe we have the authority, but it then becomes very partisan. And on the Judiciary Committee, where we would have to be doing it. It's an 11-10 majority. And that's one of the senators, of course, is Sen. Feinstein. So for the wellbeing of our constitutional system, I really, really urge Justice Roberts to step ahead, take responsibility and do what is required of every other judge in the federal system. But as a last resort, Congress would have authority.

Now, when asked about this issue earlier this month, on another trip you made to Vermont, you stopped short of calling for Justice Clarence Thomas's resignation. Why is that?

Well, this is well beyond any individual judge. You know, the stories are about the gifts that Justice Thomas received. We don't know what they were. We don't know what the circumstances were. And there's no indication that there's a quid pro quo. … So it's really, in my view, an issue about transparency and a code of ethics that applies to every single judge, including the nine who are on the Supreme Court. It's not about an individual.

On expanding broadband

You've been tapped as the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy. What is one of your priorities that you want to push forward in that position?

Well, the biggest one is broadband in rural America, and we've been making progress on that. You know, before COVID, when I was a part of the rural broadband caucus — equal number of Republicans and Democrats, something I founded — we were trying to make a case to our urban counterparts that we didn't have, they were talking about 5G, I was telling them, we had no G in many parts of our rural America…. After COVID, it became apparent that all of us need broadband, for kids to do their homework, for parents to be able to do work, to have a medical appointment. So we got significant funds. They've been deployed here in Vermont, we've got our community union districts that are up and operating. But we've got to keep the pressure on both on continuing to have funds and secondly, for practical implementation at the local level.

The biggest policy question that I'm pushing forward, my Reconnect America bill, with Republican Sen. Marshall from Kansas, is that as we build the infrastructure for broadband in rural America, it has to be future-proofed so that we don't get left behind in five or 10 years when there are technological improvements. We want broadband that is state of the art for rural America, not just "good enough."

On the transition between House and Senate

You've gone from the House, where you were a party leader with seniority, to being a freshman in the Senate. What has the transition been like? What's the biggest difference between working in the House versus the Senate?

Well, I think it suits me, you know, it's a lot smaller. There's, there's 100. And what I find is that the personal relationships that you have in the Senate are very, very helpful in trying to get cooperation to accomplish things. And already, you know, you work on bill by bill with different senators, but I'm on a bill that involves fentanyl in drugs with Sen. Cruz, not somebody that I'm aligned with. I'm on another bill with Sen. Rick Scott, another with Indiana Sen. Braun. And I find that where there is an alignment of interest on something that I care about, because Vermonters care about it, and another senator, Republican or Democrat, there's a much quicker capacity to get to a cooperative agreement and try to work together to get some legislation done. And you have more jurisdiction.

Also, Sen. Leahy, I just want to thank him because he was incredibly important in our state — 48 years, just really extraordinary. But he went out of his way to introduce me to some of the senators that I didn't know and to speak on my behalf. So thanks to him, I think in significant degree, I feel like I was able to hit the ground running in the Senate.

Broadcast at noon Thursday, May 25, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions for Sen. Welch? Send us a message.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Tedra joined Vermont Public as a producer for Vermont Edition in January 2022 and now serves as the Managing Editor and Senior Producer. Before moving to Vermont, she was a journalist in New York City for 20 years. She has a master’s degree in journalism from New York University.