St. Albans Messenger: Welch vows to defend civil liberties
By Michelle Monroe
ST. ALBANS — On Tuesday, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., heard from Vermonters concerned about the fates of Medicare, Obamacare, and the Veteran’s Administration in a Trump Administration.
Welch hosted a statewide town hall via phone seeking information from constituents on their priorities and how they would like him to approach working with a Republican Congress and administration. In addition to concerns about changes to programs benefiting thousands of Vermonters, callers also spoke about the importance of defending civil rights.
Throughout the call, Welch spoke of the Democrats loss of working class support, and what needs to be done to regain it.
A caller named Sandy from Waterbury said she and her husband are “very concerned about our Medicare program.”
Both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Rep. Tom Price, President-Elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Dept. of Health and Human Services, have support the phasing out of Medicare, the government health care program for seniors. Price has said Congress should end Medicare in its current form within the next six to eight months. The most common proposal, one already approved by the Republican House in 2011, would replace Medicare with subsidies to help seniors purchase insurance rather than the current system in which the government pays for the majority of seniors’ health care, although there are some copays and deductibles.
Welch said he would oppose such a move. “I’m going to defend Medicare,” said Welch. “Medicare works. It’s efficient. It’s pretty straightforward.”
“That’s a tremendous program that has made all the difference for seniors,” said Welch, who has supported expanding Medicare to cover more people.
Welch is joined in his opposition to Republican plans by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. In response to a question from the Messenger, Leahy condemned Ryan’s plan for Medicare privatization, stating, “Speaker Ryan’s plan wouldn’t work and would leave millions of older Americans without health insurance… Instead of guaranteeing universal coverage, seniors would be given subsidies or vouchers to buy insurance on their own. Unfortunately, this would leave large numbers of seniors unable to afford adequate insurance coverage, recreating the very same problems that Medicare tackled and solved when it was launched more than 50 years ago.”
Leahy also noted that the Affordable Care Act (ACA), colloquially known as Obamacare, has “extended the solvency of Medicare and strengthened the program.”
Trump has vowed to repeal the ACA, which Price also supports. Asked about those efforts, Welch said he would oppose them.
Welch noted that the ACA has insured 22 million Americans who did not previously have health care and that 26,000 Vermonters use the state’s health care exchange to purchase insurance. In addition, reforms preventing insurance companies from denying people coverage if they have preexisting conditions or drop- ping coverage for those with chronic diseases have been very popular.
“I’m absolutely going to resist the repeal, because that would just create chaos and real harm,” said Welch.
However, Welch said he was willing to work with Republicans on proposals to reduce health care costs.
Asked for an example, he cited prescription drug prices. Welch is a sponsor of a bill to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices. “Price negotiation would save us billions of dollars,” said Welch.
He is also interested in cracking down on drug companies that pay other companies not to bring out generic versions of drugs when the patents expire and in preventing companies from taking advantage of the monopoly power granted to them by patents to raise prices to unaffordable levels.
John, a veteran from Bennington, voiced concern that Trump is listening to a group called Concerned Veterans of America, which he said is funded by the Koch brothers and advocates for the privatization of the Veteran’s Administration (VA). “It would be the worst mistake they ever made in their life if they privatized the VA,” said John.
“There’s too much ideology in politics and too little practical knowledge about what works,” Welch said, adding that the ideology of the free market has been taken to an extreme. Privatization, he explained, would change the incentives, creating an incentive to make money, most likely by reducing the quality of the care veterans receive.
While he would oppose the privatization of the VA, the most effective opposition would be veterans themselves, in Welch’s view.
Appointees and civil liberties Multiple callers expressed concern about Trump’s appointees to cabinet and White House positions. Judy, a school board member, said she was concerned about the appointment of Betsy Devos, to head the Dept. of Education. Welch said, he, too, was concerned given Devos’s “lifelong commitment” to private school vouchers. Vouchers allow parents to pay for private schools with public funds, taking students and money out of public schools. That approach benefits wealthier families with the resources to transport their kids to private schools while leaving the children of working families in public schools that then have fewer resources, in Welch’s view.
“We need to have a public education system that is accountable and successful,” said Welch. Marta from Norwich asked about Steve Bannon, who Trump has named a senior advisor. “I’m very worried about the appointment of Steven Banon... who even Glenn Back was appalled at,” she said, calling Bannon a known racist
Welch agreed that the appointment of Bannon is disturbing, calling his views on African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and others “extremely objectionable.” Welch said he joined with other members of Congress in sending a letter to Trump expressing his concerns, but Bannon’s appointment does not require Congressional approval.
Karen, a physician from Williston, said she was concerned Trump was appointing people who wanted to roll back civil rights.
“You speak for a lot of Vermonters,” Welch replied. Speaking of Trump’s campaign announcement, Welch said, “He started by calling Mexicans rapists. He put them all in a category as criminals.”
Trump has nominated Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general, which would place him in charge of enforcing federal civil rights laws. Welch said of Sessions, “his past indicates he is hostile to civil rights for African Americans.”
Welch also called Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims unconstitutional.
Citing former Vermont Senators Matthew Lyon who was imprisoned for his opposition to the Sedition Act, and reelected while in prison, and Ralph Flanders who opposed McCarthyism, Welch said he, too, would fight to protect civil and Constitutional rights.
“My job, very much, is to be in the Vermont tradition of Vermonters you’ve sent to Washington to defend civil liberties. I’ll do that,” said Welch. Losing the working class When asked about clean energy and energy efficiency, Welch said he believed it was possible to win Republican support for those things because both create jobs and businesses. However, he also said it was important to address the dislocation being created in coal country. Speaking of a visit to West Virginia coalmines with a House colleague, Welch said the area had gone from eight high schools to three.
”Think about how that hollows out a community,” he said. While people there supported Trump, they also supported Sanders, said Welch. In the industrial mid-West, now known as “the rust belt,” Trump won more votes than Clinton among union workers who have traditionally been the backbone of the Democratic Party, Welch said. To win back those voters -- who are not just white, Welch noted – Democrats will have to address inequality “the massive inequality, the political, the cultural and the economic inequality.” “He won votes from constituencies, working class people, that the Democratic Party has always served. What it says to us is: They trusted him more than they trusted us,” said Welch