Peter Welch has been Vermont’s lone Congressman for the past six years. And he’s been railing against partisan bickering for just about as long. "Congress has an approval rating of about 10 percent. And that’s deserved." Debating his Republican challenger Mark Donka on VPR on Wednesday, Welch said voters are right to be angry. "And it’s because too much of congressional fighting is about ideological battles rather than constructive problem-solving."
But Welch says that’s not how he operates. He credits his productive working relationship with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for the successful passage of FEMA funding after Tropical Storm Irene. And he points to legislation on student loan funding and energy efficiency that he worked with Republicans to pass. "What we need," he says, "are members of Congress who have, in my view, a Vermont approach to things: practical problem-solving, cooperation, working together."
Welch is being challenged for his seat this year by Republican Mark Donka, a law enforcement officer who retired from the Hartford police Department after 18 years and now works for the Woodstock police department. Donka served on the select board in Hartford, but this is his first run for a major office.
His is a long-shot bid, but he says if elected he would find a way to bypass the party-line stand-offs on crucial issues like the budget. He promises to introduce a bill establishing a bi-partisan commission to reduce excess government spending.
"Anyone on the commission could not be sitting in Congress or the Senate; they could not be elected." Donka envisions a commission that would read through the budget, line-by-line, looking for cuts and efficiencies. "And part of the bill would also include that when they came back with this waste or redundancy or anywhere where we could cut, Congress would have to enact 75 percent of those cuts."
But Donka’s calls his proposal a bi-partisan bill but hopes to enact it with a not very bi-partisan strategy. "I’m a Republican and right now it’s a Republican Congress."
Donka and Welch agree that the tax code needs to be reformed. Donka says he’d like to see a two-tiered tax rate and a focus on closing tax loopholes. Welch says the emphasis should be on rebalancing the tax code to avoid wealthy citizens paying a lower effective tax rate than middle and lower-class Americans.
Peter Welch expressed frustration that the renewal of the Farm Bill stalled after being passed out of the House Agriculture Committee, which he serves on. He opposes the more than $16 billion in cuts to the food benefit program that were included in the House version of the bill but says if the bill came to the floor he would vote yes and then hope that the cuts were revised downward when the House and Senate versions were reconciled.
Donka thinks the food stamp program should be separate from the farm bill and significantly reformed. But he was unsure of how much he thinks is appropriate to cut from the program.
The candidates did agree on the need to look carefully at the Pentagon budget for major spending but support the F-35 fighter jet program. They would both like to see the jets based in Burlington.
The candidates sparred over marriage rights-Welch says he supports same sex marriage at the federal level; Donka does not. They also disagreed on energy policy and the need to add more domestic oil drilling to our national portfolio.