By Mike Faher
Last month, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch used most of a breakfast speech in Brattleboro to lament the pervasive partisan gridlock in Washington.
On Thursday, the Vermont Democrat joined 80 other members of Congress who have formed a new, bipartisan "problem-solvers" coalition focused on finding ways to break that gridlock.
Welch, Vermont's lone House representative, is a co-founder of the coalition and is one of eight co-chairs.
"The bottom line is, Congress is not working," Welch told the Reformer after a morning rally on Capitol Hill. "The members of this group recognize that, even though we have very substantial differences between us, we've got to make progress on the things we can agree on."
Welch is a former Vermont lawmaker who has said the state's part-time Legislature is a model for problem-solving in spite of political differences. He reiterated that theme on Thursday.
"We do it in Vermont, and what I'm dismayed at is ... how absent that is in Washington," he said.
Welch already had been affiliated with a group of Republican and Democratic federal lawmakers dubbed "No Labels." The "problem-solvers" coalition is an outgrowth of that, and it is comprised of 37 Republicans, 43 Democrats and one Independent.
The effort is "rooted in the Vermont tradition of civility, bipartisanship and practicality," Welch said, adding that the group is "building relationships across the aisle and identifying practical issues on which we can make progress for the American people."
Those issues are highlighted in a package of nine bills touted at Thursday's rally. The group is calling its legislative agenda "Make Government Work," and each bill was announced with a catchy title:
- No budget, no pay: There would be no paychecks for lawmakers if Congress does not pass a budget and all annual spending bills on schedule.
- Take the time, save the dime: Congress should budget on a two-year cycle, rather than the current, dysfunctional one-year process.
- Don't duplicate, consolidate: Calls for elimination of duplicative agencies and programs identified this year by the Government Accountability Office.
- No adding, no padding: Would end the assumption of automatic, annual spending increases in agency budgets.
- 21st century health care for heroes: Merges the electronic health records of the Department of Defense with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Welch said this is "totally about efficiency" for veterans so that they can receive "seamless" services.
- Stay in place, cut the waste: Replace 50 percent of federal-agency travel with video conferencing.
- Wasted energy, wasted dollars: Make federal buildings more efficient "by incentivizing private companies to identify energy savings." Those savings would pay for the contractors' work.
- Plan for efficient and effective government: Creates a bipartisan commission to make federal programs "more economical, efficient and effective."
Welch helped introduce the energy-efficiency bill, and he said it is one example of taking a bipartisan, common-ground approach to a potentially thorny political issue.
"Climate change is a huge crisis, but there are many people in the House who don't believe in it," Welch said.
That debate can be refocused, Welch said, by emphasizing energy efficiency.
"We're going to create jobs and save homeowners and building owners money," he said.
The group's legislative agenda was noted as possibly signifying "real change" but also was labeled "modest" in the New York Times. Welch said the idea was to find issues that encouraged bipartisanship.
"We've got to build trust here, and we've got to work together," he said.
It remains to be seen, though, how far the group's legislation will progress and whether its membership will grow. Fewer than 20 percent of House members and just eight of 100 senators currently are listed as participants.
"We'll see," Welch said of the group's future. "What's significant is that this really is unique because it's bipartisan. It's an acknowledgment by a substantial number of the members of Congress that the system is broken."