Sheldon dairy farmer Bill Rowell calls himself a lifelong Republican, but his party’s epic failure to steer a farm bill through the U.S. House last week left him seething.
“I thought it was a pitiful display of leadership on behalf of the House,” he says. “Good lord, how in the world could you have such a childish display and call it leadership?”
As vice president of the Vermont-based Dairy Farmers Working Together, Rowell has spent the past seven years trying to talk Congress into addressing chronic price volatility in the dairy industry.
His best chance yet came last Thursday when the House considered a five-year renewal of the expired farm bill. In it was a new program that would allow dairy farmers to insure themselves against increases in the price of feed and decreases in the price of milk. Equally important, dairy advocates say, the voluntary program would penalize farmers who rapidly expand their herds when milk prices drop, which has the effect of further depressing prices.
“When dairy is down, it has a real impact on the economics of our state,” Rowell says. “It’s imperative we get this stabilized. It’s imperative we get a farm bill.”
But in the present political climate, that’s not looking likely.
For decades, farm bill renewals have sailed through Congress, thanks to a mostly nonpartisan alliance between rural members who support the bill’s ag programs and urban members who support its nutritional-assistance programs.
That calculus still holds in the Senate, which voted twice in the past two years for a new farm bill — most recently earlier this month, by a vote of 66 to 27.
Not so in the hyper-partisan, gerrymandered House.
Fearing the wrath of his Tea Party-dominated caucus, Speaker John Boehner didn’t even bother to bring a committee-passed version of the bill to the floor last year. When he finally did last week, his fellow Rs tore the fragile compromise apart, stripping it of its dairy stabilization program and further slashing food stamp benefits.
Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, had promised his Republican counterpart, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), 40 Democratic votes to get the bill across the finish line. Among them was that of Vermont’s own Congressman Peter Welch.
Peterson and Lucas even tasked Welch with whipping his caucus to support the dairy provision, even though the Vermonter left the ag committee at the end of last year.
But after Republicans amended the bill to death, Welch and other Democrats bolted. In the end, just 24 Dems voted for it, while 62 Republicans voted against it. The final vote was 195 to 234.
“In my view, there was bad faith by the Republican leadership,” Welch says. “Because if their goal was to pass a bill, then they had to work with the bipartisan compromise that had been reached by the ag committee. And that was going to be tough for people like me to vote for — very tough.”
Tough because even the committee-passed compromise Welch supported included $20 billion in cuts to food stamp programs, which Hunger Free Vermont program director Dorigen Keeney describes as “draconian.”
According to Keeney, the House bill would have thrown 7000 Vermonters off 3SquaresVT, the state’s federally funded food stamp program, and reduced benefits received by another 10,000 Vermonters.
Facing what he called a “legislative dilemma,” Welch says he sympathized with advocates such as Keeney who oppose what he calls “extreme food stamp cuts” but felt it was important to move the farm bill — and its dairy stabilization program — forward. Welch says he was confident that when the House and Senate versions were reconciled in conference committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and other Senate Democrats would have been able to blunt the impact of the cuts.
But in the end, the House went too far for Welch.
Under pressure from dairy processors, Boehner personally lobbied to cut the dairy stabilization bill — a departure from tradition for a House speaker. And Boehner’s rightwing, er, right-hand man, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) lobbied for an amendment that would increase work requirements for food stamp recipients.
When both amendments passed, Welch balked. And walked.
“The speaker and the majority leader both actively intervened to unravel the compromise that was reached in committee,” Welch says, calling the outcome for Vermont dairy farmers “really cruel.”
So what happens next?
“There’s no clear path forward at the moment,” says Diane Bothfeld, the state’s deputy secretary of agriculture and a supporter of the stabilization program. “Nobody’s talking about next steps, so that’s pretty concerning.”
When the House failed to act last year, the Senate agreed to a one-year extension of the current farm bill, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday he wouldn’t do the same this year if the law expires in September without action.
“This is Boehner’s call, totally,” Welch says. “He has to decide whether he wants to ratchet the dials to the extreme wing of the Republican party by increasing, yet again, food stamp cuts to get another 70 votes. Or does he want to work with Democrats who are willing to work with him to get us to 218?”
If things get too hot for Welch this summer, at least he can look forward to a weekend of relaxation at the Woodstock Inn with a few of his closest lobbyist friends.
Over the weekend of August 16, Welch will be hosting a “Summer in Vermont” fundraiser, described in an invitation from his campaign as “a weekend of hiking, brewery tours, golf and more…”
No word on whether the “more…” refers to skinny-dipping in the Ottauquechee or gathering around a bonfire under a full moon.
The price of admission?
According to the invitation, it’s $5000 for two “PAC attendee[s]” — translation: D.C. lobbyists — $2500 for one and just $2000 for non-PAC-men.
But sorry, guys, “You are responsible for the cost of your flight & room.”
After spending Saturday touring the Long Trail brewery or playing a round of golf, out-of-town guests will dine with Welch at Quechee’s Simon Pearce restaurant, where even local yokels can get in on the schmoozing. According to a separate invitation that’s been distributed within the state, Vermonters can pony up $1000 a person or $1500 a pair to join.
According to Sunlight Foundation editorial director Bill Allison, whose organization tracks political fundraising, only about 10 percent of congressmen hold such fundraising trips for D.C. lobbyists. And while they’re perfectly legal, he says, they’re not very transparent — because there’s simply no way to find out about them unless you happen upon an invitation.
“The real problem with these events is you’re going to have lobbyists and big donors able to spend a significant amount of time with a member of Congress — talking to him about their issues and concerns. I don’t think you can help but be influenced by them when you spend so much time with these folks,” Allison says. “The fact that access is for sale — that certainly is a corrupting part of the political system.”
Welch declined to say who has RSVPed for the event; nor would he say how much he hopes to raise. Asked how Vermonters could find out who’s getting all that access, spokesman Ryan Nickel said only that, “Attendees will make contributions to Welch for Congress and, therefore, will show up on the FEC [Federal Election Commission] report with the date of the contribution, name and amount.”
Of course, there’s no line on the FEC report for “romantic getaway with a congressman.”
There is one, however, for a sum total of how much members of Congress raise from political action committees. During Welch’s last race, it amounted to $553,000 — way more than the $398,000 he raised from real live human beings. In the first quarter of the current election cycle, a full 92 percent of his campaign cash has come from PACs.
As to whether it’s appropriate for Welch to provide such extended access in exchange for campaign contributions, Nickel says, “Congressman Welch assumes he will have a competitive race and is raising money from his supporters to finance his campaign.”
This from a guy with $1.2 million in his war chest and no credible challenger since 2006.
Nickel adds that the golfing and beer-tasting events are, “‘on your own’ for out-of-state guests. Peter will likely only participate in the two dinners.”
Damn. For $5000, I’d demand at least nine holes with the guy.
With little fanfare beyond a change in the masthead, the heir apparent to Vermont’s most storied newspaper company was recently named editor of the Rutland Herald.
We’d tell you when exactly Rob Mitchell got the job, but neither he nor the rest of the paper’s top brass would return our calls last week. That might be because Mitchell wasn’t eager to discuss one of his first acts as editor: presiding over the layoffs of at least four Herald staffers.
Last week the paper eliminated the positions of chief photographer Vyto Starinskas, assistant sports editor Carleton Laird, New England Business Journals editor Robin Pollack and a customer service representative, according to half a dozen current and former employees of the company.
“I really didn’t see this coming,” says Laird, a 57-year-old father of three. “It came as a complete surprise to me.”
Between the two of them, Laird and Starinskas spent more than half a century at the paper. Laird first joined the Herald for a three-year stint in 1977 and returned in the mid-1990s, he says. Starinskas has worked for the paper since 1980.
In an upbeat and classy post to his Facebook page last week, Starinskas called himself “privileged” to have spent more than 30 years photographing Rutland residents, “excited” by his future and “saddened by the job eliminations.”
Pollack, who has edited the company’s four business-oriented monthlies since August 2008, says she was “absolutely shocked” that her position was cut.
“I don’t know what that bodes for those particular papers, but I hope they continue to be published,” she said, adding that she hopes her freelance writers and editors will still have work.
Like many dailies in Vermont and throughout the country, the Herald and its sister paper, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, have been bleeding staff for years.
The company laid off 14 workers at the height of the recession in January 2009 and another 25 after spring rains in 2011 flooded the Times Argus’ Barre headquarters and destroyed its printing press.
The Herald laid off its last editor, Randal Smathers, in October of that year and has since eliminated through attrition two full-time jobs on its sports desk. The Vermont Press Bureau, which covers state government for the two papers, dropped from three reporters to one during the last legislative session, though the company recently advertised for one of those positions.
One job that still looks pretty safe? Mitchell’s.
After all, his grandfather and namesake, Robert W. Mitchell, bought the paper in 1942, and his father, R. John Mitchell, has served as publisher since 1993.
Nice job security, if you can get it.
Disclaimer: Paul Heinz worked as Peter Welch’s communications director from November 2008 to March 2011.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Wheys and Meanies"