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Vermont's U.S. Rep. Becca Balint explains her focus on mental health legislation

A photo of a woman at a microphone
Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
Associated Press
Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., at a news conference on Nov. 13, 2022. Balint is running for reelection to Congress.

Vermont’s sole representative to Congress, Becca Balint, wants to help natural disaster survivors connect with mental health support. She recently introduced a bill in Congress, the MEND Act, that would deploy mental health crisis units to areas after an emergency. It would also fund research on mental health, substance use disorder and alcohol use following a disaster.

Balint spoke with Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak from Washington to discuss the MEND Act, her views on House Speaker Mike Johnson, issues with partisanship on Capitol Hill and more.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Just this morning, as you've no doubt heard, former Gov. Howard Dean announced he is not running for governor. Our current Gov. Phil Scott is running for reelection for a fifth term. How do you feel about Dean not running?

I was really intrigued by the last part of his press conference in which he said he was not interested in running a scorched earth campaign. And I think that tracks with everything that I have heard from my constituents, which is, they are exhausted by the intense partisanship. They really want us to be focused on the issues. And so I think that, you know, he made his calculation based on what he felt was best for Vermonters. And I think that it's a really important time for all of us to think about, how do we move forward as a state in our communities when we disagree on issues and not attack each other personally?

The only other candidate in the gubernatorial field so far is Democrat Esther Charlestin, a former school administrator from Middlebury. No other prominent Democrats have emerged in this election so far, and the filing deadlines less than two weeks away. Dean certainly would have been the highest profile candidate that the Democrats have run against Gov. Scott in a long time. As a Democratic leader in our state, do you think that your party is doing enough to challenge Scott?

I have to tell you, Mikaela, I am so focused on my work in Congress right now. I've got my hands full. And I know that Esther is a great candidate, and I hope people will really take a look at her campaign.

Let's talk about some of that work that you're doing on Capitol Hill for Vermont. Just last week, you introduced a bill called the Mental Health Emergency Needs in Disasters Act, the MEND Act. What would this bill accomplish?

This bill has three components. It is a bill that designs a program so that mobile mental health crisis units can be deployed after an emergency — and not just natural disasters like we experienced here with flooding, but also in the instance of having a mass shooting or some other catastrophic man-made disaster in your area. This is a real need that we see in congressional districts that have experienced these disasters. The current FEMA programs really only deliver short term interventions. And we want to train up people to be able to meet the needs of constituents long term, because we know that disasters are an incredible time of upheaval, certainly during the emergency itself, but of course in the months and years afterward. So the first part is deploying these mental health crisis units.

The second component of the bill is having a SAMSA disaster fund grant program. And so this is based on a recovery program that was put into place after Hurricanes Fiona and Ian. What we want to do is make it more flexible so that when you have a disaster, you have the folks on the ground being able to speak directly about what the specific needs are for that community. What we've heard from talking with folks after the horrific flooding in Vermont is that local folks need to be able to have input on how best to spend grant money.

And then the third component of the bill is ongoing research on mental health, substance use disorder and alcohol use following a disaster, because we have seen that when you have a disaster, people are trying to cope in any way that they can. We see increases in alcohol use, in substance use, following a catastrophe. We want to make sure that we are gathering the data that will help us again tailor our programs to address these needs in real time.

Talk to us more about where the impetus for this bill comes from — because of course, there must be such close ties to to the summer flooding of last year.

What I've noticed, in talking with my colleagues in Congress, is that each of us is going through a disaster of some kind. For some of my colleagues, it's been horrific gun violence. [Or] when I talked to my my friends in Hawaii who underwent that terrible fire last summer, and all the displacement that happened. What's clear is we're in the midst of a mental health crisis across the country. It's not particular to Vermont. But there's a real need for us to think differently about how we get resources out to communities. The Surgeon General of the United States has also said that our crisis of loneliness and disconnection has reached epidemic proportions. So this has been one of the two main things that I've been focused on — one being the mental health crisis in this country, the other being the housing crisis, and how these two interplay.

Whenever I travel around Vermont, it doesn't matter if I'm talking to people at a school or at a business, or people who work for a nonprofit in a community, it always comes back to the mental health crisis that people are experiencing right now. It was increasing before the pandemic and the pandemic accelerated it. And we still haven't really been able to get our hands around how we deal with all of the levers that need to be moved in order to really address the needs of Americans when it comes to the mental health crisis. So I'm really trying to do my part with the bills that I'm introducing this Congress.

Does the MEND Act have bipartisan support?

It does have bipartisan support — the co-sponsor is Republican. And this is very important to me. Again, when I talk to Democrats and Republicans about this issue in particular, everyone says they're seeing it in their districts. So I am continuing to do the work that Vermonters desperately want me to do, which is to put aside the partisan divide when it comes to doing critical work that we need to get done. And this is, I believe, a top priority for a lot of people in Congress. So I'm hoping that we will get some more traction. I'm also a member of the bipartisan mental health caucus that deals specifically with rural areas, and we spoke in our last meeting about mental health and also about the housing crisis and the interplay there. So, continuing to do that work and finding more and more sponsors. I'm excited that right out of the gate we had a Republican who was willing and excited to co-sponsor with me.

Speaking of bipartisanship, it can be a rare word to hear when we're talking about the House of Representatives. I want to get your take on the ongoing debate over the House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana. A group of hard right Republicans led by Marjorie Taylor Greene tried to oust Johnson from his position as House Speaker earlier this month. You were part of a bipartisan group to block that ouster. Why did you vote to table this measure?

Yeah, I really appreciate the question. There's a couple of reasons, Mikaela. First and foremost, I just want to remind Vermonters it took us 15 rounds at the beginning of the session to vote for speaker because the Republicans had so much infighting, then partway through the session, they removed their speaker. Part of the rules that Republicans put in place was that one individual person within their conference would call for the removal of the speaker. And that kind of rule is is really not manageable — to have one person who has maybe a bone to pick with the speaker be able to upend the work that we do in Congress and call for the removal of the speaker. I wanted to give people that background.

Now, Marjorie Taylor Greene has one purpose and one purpose only. She is not there to do the work for her constituents or for America. She's a conflict entrepreneur. I've served on committee with her. It's constantly about creating chaos. And I did strongly feel that this vote was, once again, Marjorie Taylor Greene, without having the support of her conference, without having a core group of people willing to do the work to find another viable speaker candidate, just causing chaos. And so I voted to table the motion to remove the speaker, because we have important work to do. We can't lose another three or four weeks or whatever it's going to take to find another speaker.

And also, I wanted it to be a very strong rebuke of her and her actions. This kind of behavior in Congress is not allowing us to get the critical work done that we need to do. She is an apologist, and an enabler, for the dysfunction. I just could not give her more power, and that is why I voted to table.

Now that being said, I was shocked and dismayed to see that the Speaker of the House traveled to stand with the former president [Donald Trump] at his criminal trial in New York. That's not the role for the Speaker of the House of Representatives. He should be in D.C. doing his work. They actually rescheduled some committee hearings so that he and others could be there. You know, it's outrageous, and it is going to be a very different kind of vote if this comes up again from the Republican conference to remove him. It will be much more difficult for me to block the removal given that he has not shown that he puts his constituents or the country ahead of one individual person — that being the former president. We are not elected to Congress to serve any master. This is very, very disturbing for me and and members of the House of Representatives on both sides of the aisle.

Question from a caller in Plainfield: I am always interested in knowing what our legislators are thinking about the corruption inherent in the Electoral College ... and just some thoughts on the future of democracy.

I really appreciate you bringing this up. It's something that disturbs so many voters today and it's one of the reasons why they do feel more and more cynical about the democracy as a whole. ... In the last few presidential elections, you don't know if the person who wins the most votes nationwide will become the president. The more I talk to voters about the Electoral College, the more they feel like it is not what the country needs. It was designed at a time, honestly, to prevent the direct will of the people from being heard. And so like you, I share those concerns. I also am deeply concerned about ongoing gerrymandering, and how that corrupts the political process, and in getting big money out of politics.

I've gotta tell you, Mikaela, I've done a deep dive in the last few months on cynicism and how it is impacting our government and faith in the democracy itself. And an overwhelming majority of Americans hate the partisanship, hate the bickering, hate the screaming at each other about policy differences. They want us to get back to a place where we can have disagreements on policy but not dehumanize each other. I know this is true in Vermont. I've heard it from Vermont, but it's borne out by national data as well. So the way that we are delivering news, the way that we are consuming news, is not reflective of how most people are feeling right now. They want to get back to a time when we can have honest conversations about how policy impacts people without the dehumanizing rhetoric. And I've been trying my level best since being in Congress to not participate in that, and will continue to do so.

On this topic of dehumanizing debates — it's something we hear a lot about happening on Capitol Hill, but it's also something happening on the ground in states across the country, including in Vermont. I'm thinking particularly of the very heated debates over the war in Gaza. I'm curious what you and your fellow representatives to Congress, Senators Welch and Sanders, see as your role in humanizing a very inhumane situation and helping to bring people together on a conversation that is so difficult and divisive.

Yes, it's difficult and divisive. It's painful. It's painful to watch the suffering, and I hear that from Vermonters the suffering in Gaza is horrific. What happened to Israeli civilians on October 7 was unspeakable. Both things are horrible. Vermonters want the war to end, and they don't always know how to help us bring that about. The two senators and I talk about this quite a bit, and there has been rhetoric that's been used to dehumanize people who have a difference of opinion.

And again, it's not particular to to that issue. I've certainly seen that a lot. This Congress — when it comes to the LGBTQ community, I sit on Judiciary, I have to hear some horrible rhetoric about my community, day in and day out. And every single time, whether it's talking with a constituent who is animated about what's happening in the Middle East or somebody who is very upset about something else, I always try to say out loud that we are talking about human beings and that when we are when we are screaming at each other with rhetoric that dehumanizes, it doesn't allow us to find a path forward to get to what we say we want, which is alleviating suffering.

I'll give you an example. The other day, I was walking to Judiciary and someone was following me down the hall in Congress and had her phone in my face recording me. I wasn't sure exactly what they wanted to talk about, but they wanted to talk about my votes related to Israel and Gaza. They're essentially chasing me down the hall, the phone in my face. And I stopped and I said, first of all, could you put the phone away? I am very happy to have a conversation with you, I want to hear what you have to say, I want to tell you what's on my mind. To their credit, they did put the phone away, and I said, do you know my record? Do you know what I voted on? And they didn't. I said, so, I'm just curious what you're trying to achieve here? What's your ask? Do you have an actual ask of me around policy? Because I'm very happy to listen. They said, no, we don't have an ask, and I said, so why are you following me down the hall with the phone in my face? Are you trying to convince me of something? And they said, no, we're not trying to convince you. We're trying to get a clip of you that we can then post on social media. I appreciate the honesty, but this is the problem— that I have to be able to listen to people who have a difference of opinion, truly sit and listen and have them listen to me and wrestle with these issues. It's very difficult to do it in that kind of dynamic and I'm trying to do it better one conversation at a time.

Can I say one thing before I go? A lot of Vermonters ask me, how often do I get home to Vermont? My kids are still in school in Vermont, so I come home every single weekend. And a lot of people don't know that. And every third or fourth week, we are in district and have a Vermont week. And you know, I tried to get — as much as I can — around the state outside of my home county. So just wanted to let people know that I spent a lot of time on the plane.

Broadcast live on Monday, May 20, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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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.