Progressivism in the Age of Trump: An Interview with Congressman Peter Welch

Congressman Peter Welch

Congressman Welch (D-VT) is a Bernie-endorsing progressive who won both the Republican and Democratic nominations in his re-election. He was voted to the Vermont Senate in 1980, later becoming the first Democrat in Vermont History to serve as Senate President Pro Tempore. In 2006, he was elected to Vermont’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he currently serves on the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

In this interview, Congressman Welch speaks to Fox & Hedgehog about progressivism under the presidency of Donald Trump, as well as potential areas for bipartisan co-operation, including infrastructure, prescription drug prices, and certain environmental standards. The interview has been edited for concision and clarity. As a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, what do you view as the greatest challenge facing the progressive movement during the presidency of Donald Trump?

The greatest challenge is his attack on the legitimacy of government. His view is that we’re pretty much better off on our own, and he criticizes the role of government: his emphasis is on tax cuts that are weighted very much toward the high end, eliminating rather than reforming regulation, and a budget that would reduce domestic spending to levels below what they were when Eisenhower was president—that was the time before we had Medicaid and Medicare. He would increase the military budget very significantly through cuts in domestic programs. He’s undercutting the important role that government has in defending civil rights and civil liberties for all citizens and creating a level playing field in opportunity. Capitalism can be very harsh if it’s unrestrained, and the Trump orientation is to take government out of restraining capital.

These regulations that he’s getting rid of right now would have astonishingly bad consequences on the environment. He got rid of the stream protection provision, so coal miners can dump coal in the streams. He’s getting rid of the mileage standards that would have increased mileage to over fifty miles a gallon. He’s going to tear up the Clean Power Plan that was enacted during President Obama’s time. Those are examples of regulations that are essential to protect health and safety, and only government can implement them.

Although there’s a lot you disagree with this administration about, you have a reputation for sponsoring bipartisan legislation. In what areas do you see potential for bipartisan co-operation under this administration?

There are two areas that have some hope. One is infrastructure: the president has indicated that infrastructure is a big priority, and we agree. It’s long overdue. Our roads and bridges, airports, rail systems, and ports are all in disrepair. We need a huge infusion of money in repair. Also, in rural America, which is being left behind and has been on the losing end of globalization, the infrastructure should include a very ambitious broadband build-up, so that essential tool is present in rural America as it is in our urban areas. That’s an area for potential compromise. We’ll see—he hasn’t revealed the details and the financing is going to be critical, but he has been advocating for an ambitious infrastructure program since he was a candidate, so my hope is he’ll follow through.

Another area is on the cost of prescription drugs, which is a big part of the cost of health care and the fastest rising component of health care. President Trump has indicated that he wants to bring that cost down. He also indicated during the campaign that he was in favor of allowing Medicare, which is the biggest purchaser of drugs, to purchase bulk priced discounts. So that’s a promising area of co-operation too.

On prescription drugs: You are the founder of the bipartisan House Affordable Medicine Caucus. What is your plan for reducing prescription drug prices in America?

Two things: number one, the biggest buyer is Medicare, and the law prohibits it from negotiating bulk price discounts. That’s bizarre, and it’s not what the free market would allow. It would be like if Donald Trump was building one of his big Trump Towers and he was going to buy a thousand mirrors for a thousand rooms; he would negotiate to get a better price per mirror than if he was buying two mirrors. In prescription drugs, Congress made it illegal for the Medicare program to do the same thing. Changing that would allow the purchasing power of the big buyer to be used to the price advantage of the taxpayer.

Number two, it’s a broken market in many places. With prescription drugs, you have some companies and hedge funds that buy a company that owns a product—an everyday product, not anything where the company has made expenditures in research and development—they own it, they have market and pricing power, and they stick it to the consumer. An example of that is the Epipen, which you might have read about, and you know it’s been around for years and years. That was controlled totally by Mylan, and they started escalating the price from about $100 to $600. They did it here in this country even though in the Netherlands, where they’re headquartered, the cost of the same Epipen was $100. That’s just a broken market, where there’s pricing power by a company and it is abused. That’s where you need government to stand up on the side of consumers.

Are you concerned about the effect of lowering prices on reducing innovation in drug development?

Not if it’s done right, I really don’t. We want to have innovation, and we want to have a pricing structure that allows for research. But when that assertion is made by companies, the next step is, will they show us the books to verify that in fact they spent that money on research? An immense amount of research is subsidized by the taxpayer through research and development tax credits, which is a benefit to the companies. The National Institute of Health does a massive amount of research that gets turned over to these companies when they are going to market a product, so there’s a lot of taxpayer participation in this. Yes, I’m for having a pricing structure that allows research and development, but I’m not for letting that be an argument that’s made without any validation. The drug companies by and large spend far more on advertising than they spend on research.

The other area of potential co-operation you stated was infrastructure. Some economists claim that the greatest need for infrastructure is in densely populated urban areas, not in rural areas as you mentioned. Could you give some examples of the kinds of infrastructure you have in mind that a rural state like Vermont would need?

Sure. One is broadband build-up in rural America. If people are going to have a chance, entrepreneurs are going to have a chance to locate in and vitalize rural areas, they need that tool, so that is key. It’s also an area where the big companies aren’t going to invest because it just doesn’t pay. So, I see broadband much like we saw electricity: the United States made a decision to get electricity out to rural areas even though it wasn’t “cost efficient” because it wasn’t going to turn its back on rural America.

The second is water and wastewater. Water systems are really important and we need significant upgrades in water and water treatment in our small towns in rural America. That’s essential infrastructure and something that’s really good for the environment.

You favor protecting waterways, and you co-sponsored the Microbead-Free Waters Acts, with provisions taking effect July this year. Yet you are currently co-sponsoring legislation to repeal the Renewable Fuel Standard, a standard that increases renewable energy use in transportation fuel. What’s the environmental argument for that?

Well, it’s been a flop. The corn ethanol program had good intentions. It was going to increase the price of corn, which is good for corn farmers; it was supposed to provide clean energy, and therefore be good for the environment. In fact, the evidence is in. Environmentally it has been very damaging. Number one, it has encouraged fence-to-fence farming, and an immense amount of conservation land has been plowed under because of the subsidies encouraging farmers to grow. Second, the energy inputs to produce ethanol exceed the so-called savings, so it’s a net loss not a net gain. Third, it is good for corn farmers, but it’s bad for feed-farmers. If you’re a livestock farmer, in dairy, poultry, hogs, then you are paying much higher prices for the grain you need to feed, so there’s farmer winners and farmer losers. It’s also had very bad effects on small engines; it’s really done a lot of damage to snowmobiles, lawnmowers, and other engines.

You’ve discussed potential bipartisan co-operation on infrastructure, prescription drugs, and repealing the ethanol program. However, some activists argue that the progressive strategy should be to fight Trump’s agenda on virtually every issue. Do you agree with this kind of combative approach?

I agree with being combative, and tough, and aggressive. But I don’t agree with fighting things that you agree with. My view on Trump is that, to the extent that he advances policies to compromise civil rights and liberties, like a Muslim ban, like demonizing Hispanics, we fight without compromise. Those are constitutional values, civil rights, and we have to defend them.

On other issues, where I’m in disagreement with him, like his tax policy and repealing health care, I fight him on the merits of the issue. But in other areas, if it happens to be that he has an infrastructure program that’s going to be good for people in Vermont, I’ll work with it.