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Peter Welch on being the Senate’s (old) new guy, dairy, and how Dems like him win rural voters

He sees opportunities for bipartisan work, especially on agriculture issues

Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt.
Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

At the tender age of 75, Peter Welch is starting from scratch, in a way. Welch became one of the oldest freshmen to ever roam the Senate’s hallways after winning the seat vacated by one of the longest-serving senators ever, Patrick Leahy.

Welch’s 16 years in the House as Vermont’s lone representative means he won’t have to spend any time getting caught up on statewide issues while he learns his way around the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Welch is already focused on prescription drug prices, rural housing costs and all things dairy.

On a call with Heard on the Hill in early March, Welch chatted about cheese, moaned about milk and screamed for ice cream. But he found some time to talk about lactose-free things, too, like how Democrats would do well to pay more attention to agrarian concerns to connect with rural voters.

This interview has been condensed.

Q: You’ve gone from the House, where you were a party leader with seniority on some big committees, to a freshman in the Senate. What’s the transition been like?

A: It’s really been wonderful. First of all, the caucus is very welcoming. Secondly, the intimacy of the Senate is quite special — it’s much smaller and relationships really matter. And I found that it’s a very welcoming place and I’m feeling very confident that we can get some bipartisan accomplishments.

Q: You’re a co-sponsor on a bill that would basically reverse the FDA’s recent moves toward allowing plant-based products to be marketed as milk. Obviously, dairy is a big deal in Vermont, but how do you convince the rest of the Senate? The people who represent fewer cows and don’t care if it’s called oat milk?

A: Milk has a specific definition, and even the FDA’s definition comes from the mammary gland. There’s a real basis to our bill — a plant-based product does not constitute milk. So, we’re wanting basically truth in labeling. And of course, those of us from dairy states are very, very concerned about the well-being of our dairy farms. And we don’t want the label to be appropriated by non-milk products. In Canada, they make the distinction.

So, the fairness argument here is the one we’ll make, and it’ll be about having the FDA enforce its own standards. You know, we think the FDA is off the rails with this latest interpretation.

Q: You’ve taken on the FDA like this before when it proposed a ban on aging cheese on wooden shelves. You got together with [former Wisconsin Republican Rep.] Paul Ryan and basically put the screws to the agency, telling the FDA that it’d be a real shame if something happened to their budget, right?

A: Well, it’s true. Y’know, this was an only-in-Washington kind of story. There was an inspection of an upstate New York cheese-making facility. The place was contaminated and they shut it down — rightly so. But then they came out with the regulation prohibiting the aging of cheese on wood boards — that made no sense. That place [in N.Y.] was contaminated because of the practices, not because of the material they used. They really went overboard and would have been devastating to the cheese industry in Vermont.

I was in the minority at that point, so I thought “Who can help me on this?” Paul Ryan at that point was chair of the Budget Committee. So, I met with Paul on the floor and said, “Paul, we got us a cheese problem.”
And we were able to convince the FDA that they ought to take another look at that regulation, and they did.

Q: Let’s talk politics. The partisan divide is usually described geographically — the Democrats are in the cities and Republicans are out in the country. But Vermont is a rural state — in fact, by some metrics, it’s the most rural state. But you guys also have arguably the most progressive congressional delegation in the nation. Why are Vermont dairy farmers voting for guys like you and Bernie Sanders but Wisconsin dairy farmers are voting for Ron Johnson?

A: I guess the biggest thing is the size of Vermont — it’s really small and intimate. Both Bernie and I spent a lot of time out in the farms and out in the rural counties, and you get to know folks. It moves past the red state/blue state, “whose team are you on?” I get an opportunity to reach out and show my profound respect for our rural communities. I think the Democrats have to pay much more attention to rural America, to connect.

And the fact that I’m home every weekend. Just as an example, tomorrow, I’m going up to Sheldon, Vermont, which is near the Canadian border. We’re going to have a press conference at Howrigan Farm about the DAIRY PRIDE Act.

Q: Speaking of delivering to rural voters: You’re chairing the Senate Agriculture subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy — what’s on your agenda this year?

A: I’m looking forward to working with my Democratic and Republican colleagues to put a focus on the needs of rural America. The big issues for us are going to be local agriculture, nutrition, broadband, and housing — housing is a big issue in rural America.

Post-COVID, the prices have gone way up. A lot of people from out of state are buying property in Vermont. It was tight before, but post-COVID it’s really severe. The prices are beyond the reach of young families trying to get started. And we’ve had a lot of people who have been recruited [to Vermont] for really good jobs and then can’t find a place to live, so they aren’t able to take the job.

Q: Prescription drug pricing has been one of the big issues for you, if not the biggest. You scored some wins last year, but I know you were disappointed more wasn’t done. Is there any realistic hope that a divided Congress can pass any additional legislation on this?

A: It’s going to depend on the House and particular the House Republicans.

Our prescription drug effort was ultimately successful in part – but in significant part. For example, lowering the cost of insulin to $35 [per month for Medicare patients]. The drug companies said the sky was going to fall. [But] this week, Eli Lilly said “We’re going to lower it to $35 [per month for anyone].”

So, all of the fear mongering — that it was going to ruin innovation — has been proven to be false. Keep in mind, these high drug prices are brutal whether you voted for Trump or you voted for Biden. All of us are hearing about that from our constituents. It’s a testament to the power of Pharma that they’ve been able to resist this for so long, but I think we’ve broken the dam.

Quick Hits

Favorite ice cream flavor?
Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia

Last book that you read?
“A River of Doubt” by Candice Millard. It’s an incredible book, beautiful writer. I just finished it last week and then started “Say Nothing.”

In politics, can the ends justify the means?
Hopefully no.

What is your least popular opinion?
For some of my colleagues, it’s my opposition to ethanol.

What is one thing your friends know about you that your constituents probably don’t?
Oh, that should be easy. … I like to waste time watching Netflix? I am not limited to wasting my time as we do in Washington. I can waste my time on Netflix, too.

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