Congressional delegation says gas, home prices to be addressed

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(Host) How much do lawmakers in Washington really know and understand about the changing economic circumstances of people in Vermont?

Congress is talking a lot about real-world problems like rising gas prices and falling home values; but what effect will legislative wrangling have in the here-and-now?

Elizabeth Wynne Johnson has this report from Capitol Hill:

(Johnson) Every week freshman Congressman Peter Welch likes to hold what he calls ‘Congress in Community’ – for a little one-on-one with Vermonters.

(Welch) "I stand outside the grocery store, country store, hardware store. Last year people were talking about the war, this year it’s about gas prices. And the thing they’re absolutely anxious about is next winter and how they’re going to pay for home heating fuel."

(Johnson) Vermont has the enviable status of being one of the states with the fewest home foreclosures. But high oil and gas prices are fueling a sense of insecurity that’s spreading among working, middle-class people. How bad is it? Senator Bernie Sanders got a snapshot when he invited people to email him.

(Sanders) "People in my state seeing their kids become ill- these are working people! – because they can’t keep their house warm enough, and their kids are getting sick. So I think the degree of economic pain that was expressed in these emails just was to me overwhelming. And to be honest with you, it’s hard to read them all; you read five at a time, you take a deep breath and you come back the next day."

(Johnson) His takeaway: the middle class is in a lot worse shape than most people perceive. ‘People’ in this case includes Congress.

(Sanders) "Well, what they end with- some of them end with, ‘does anybody in Washington care?’ Do you understand what people are going through? And I think there’s just a real frustration that the President and Congress are not reacting to the terrible needs that people have."

(Johnson) Unfortunately, Washington is ill-equipped to provide economic deliverance overnight. Just ask Utah Republican Senator Robert Bennett what Congress can really do to shore up the financial circumstances of Americans now.

(Bennett) "Do you want an honest answer? Nothing. Let’s be honest about it."

(Johnson) Deep in the cool marble halls of the Capitol, Republicans and Democrats have dug in their respective heels for a protracted standoff. Most Republicans want to boost domestic supply by drilling off-shore and in protected areas in the west. Most Democrats counter that oil companies are reluctant to exploit existing leases because uncorking supply would draw down profits. In the midst of pitched battle, Senator Sanders extracted a promise from leadership that LIHEAP – the low-income heating assistance program – would get renewed attention after the July recess.
For his part, Peter Welch says not acting is not an option.

(Welch)  "We have to do the short-term things because people have to heat their homes. But we really have to get going- it’s long overdue, to change our policy on energy."

(Johnson) Welch has added energy-saving tips to his website. And he supports a crackdown on oil speculators. Experts testified on the Hill that stricter limits on trading in oil futures could drive down prices quickly. But even Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, says reigning in speculators will only go so far.

(McCaskill) "Excessive speculation is bad. But there has to be some speculation in an open market or you don’t have any liquidity, and that hurts my farmers, that hurts all the companies that have to buy fuel… So you have to have some speculation."

(Johnson) Following the July 4th recess, Congress returns to unfinished business on energy policy and mortgage crisis relief. Still, in an election year, comprehensive reform is a lot tougher than political point-scoring.

From Capitol News Connection, I’m Elizabeth Wynne Johnson for VPR News.

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