Remember the joke about the young boy and the pile of horse manure? The one where the boy began digging furiously through the fertilizer, exclaiming "With all this manure, there's got to be a horse in here somewhere!"
Well, that little boy is Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.), and the manure pile is — need I say — President Donald Trump's Washington.
Welch is doing his best to ignore the noise, the chaos, the tweetstorms and that whole Russia thing so he can focus on actual lawmaking.
"This is a very volatile time with this president," says Welch. "But all of us have to do our best to advocate for policies that are going to be beneficial to the American people."
After the apparent collapse of Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Welch is engaged in a long-odds struggle to build bipartisan support for fixing the most problematic part of the ACA — the individual insurance markets, which have seen rising premiums and insurers fleeing the least profitable areas.
He's working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers who call themselves the Problem Solvers, a noble name for a group that has yet to, um, solve any problems. They number about 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, a small slice of the 435-member House.
They've got an idea. But it's not going anywhere unless they can get a lot more people on board — and, crucially, convince Republican leadership to concede that the ACA is here to stay and commit themselves to fixing it. Welch acknowledges that President Trump and congressional leaders have no apparent interest in saving the ACA.
"The idea that you could have legislative leaders saying 'let the thing blow up, no matter what the consequences,' is pretty bizarre. Outrageous, actually," he says. "But we each have a voice, we each have a vote and we each can stand against that dead-end approach."
Sounds downright noble. Or futile. Since Trump became president, Welch has sought common ground with Republicans — and gotten squat for his efforts. He put a lot of stock in Trump's campaign pledge for a $1 trillion infrastructure program. He even held meetings around Vermont, seeking local officials' input on infrastructure needs.
And now it's August, and there's no sign of an infrastructure bill.
Same thing with allowing the government to negotiate bulk prescription drug prices for Medicare recipients, which would save billions in health care costs.
In March, Welch and fellow Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) discussed the issue in a highly publicized confab with Trump. Welch emerged with a sense of optimism. Trump was "knowledgeable and enthusiastic" about price negotiation, and declared himself opposed to "price fixing."
It's been five months, and nothing's happened. And Welch gets a little tongue-tied when you ask about it.
"Well, the, um, you mentioned, to, the Trump administration, how do you define it? It's chaotic," Welch says. "None of the rules appear to apply to Trump."
And yet, Welch remains intent on digging through the manure.
"There's an enormous long-term benefit if, by the constancy of our commitment, we're able to convey that we're actually serious about our effort to try to make things better for the middle class," he says. "So I never see it as a waste of time, even if ultimately it fails."
Welch is not terribly interested in questions about Trump's legitimacy or the idea of impeachment. The questions about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, possibly in collusion with the Trump campaign? Pretty much off Welch's radar screen.
"He got elected under our system," Welch says. "He did get elected. The questions of his legitimacy are not so much about the election — although the Russia investigation may raise significant questions about that."
For now, Welch is content to let special counsel Robert Mueller dig into those questions. As much as some constituents would like to see an anti-Trump firebrand littering the House floor with articles of impeachment, that's simply not Welch's game.
"My expectation that this president is going to do the right thing is pretty nonexistent, all right?" he says. "But the danger for the Democrats is that we substitute constant attacks on the president for our affirmative obligation to come up with a plan that's going to help working Americans."
Is our Congressman banging his head against a big, beautiful wall? It certainly seems so. But he is steadfast in his belief that there's a pony in there, somewhere.