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“Science Does Not Exist on Capitol Hill”: Rep. Peter Welch on House GOP’s Climate Change Denial

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Democratic Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont reacts to his Republican colleagues’ recent vote to effectively force government agencies to stop studying climate change. The House measure calls on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and related bodies to focus on forecasting severe weather — but not explore one of its likely causes. The vote comes just as the U.N.'s top climate panel issued a report calling on governments to prepare for global warming's worsening impact and to cut emissions in order to prevent it from getting worse. “Science does not exist on Capitol Hill,” Welch says. “We’re in a fact-free zone here.” Welch also discusses his effort to repeal tax giveaways to pharmaceutical companies, the future of nuclear power in the United States, and the growing heroin problem plaguing Vermont and rural communities across the country.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Welch, since it’s the first time we’ve had you on and you’ve been a pioneer in many different areas, in these last few minutes, we’d like to ask you questions on a few different issues. For example, Governor Shumlin devoted his whole State of the Union address to the issue of the heroin crisis in Vermont. And that has led to national coverage of this issue, specifically in Vermont, and all over. You had The New York Times front-page pieces. Now you have this Rolling Stone piece that has—I know it’s controversial—in Vermont, the picture of beloved Vermont maple syrup, but it says “heroin” on it. Can you talk about what you feel needs to be done about this crisis, that’s not in Vermont alone, of course, but is ripping through your state?

REP. PETER WELCH: Well, it’s a real issue, and all across America, but particularly rural America. It was interesting, because the governor made a very bold decision. And a lot of my colleagues said to me when I got down here, the one hand, “How does that hurt the—or, how does that affect the reputation of your state?” And the second thing they said is, “You know, what he talked about, we have that in my state, in my district.” And what actually has happened is he’s brought out into the sunlight what a lot of our law enforcement officers, what a lot of our healthcare workers on the front line have been vividly aware of. And what I think is the most important part of this is that the law enforcement community in Vermont—and I think this is probably true a lot of other places—they have come to the forefront and provided leadership, saying, “You can’t arrest your way out of this.”

So there’s got to be a significant focus on treatment—that’s number one. Number two, the fact that it’s a public issue now, I think, gives immense relief to parents who are terrified about some of their kids that are getting in trouble. It’s also, in our healthcare community, putting an emphasis on what some of the real hazards are of overprescription of pain medication that hooks people and gets them into this dependency. So, the public discussion and the focus on treatment, particularly for a lot of the folks who are the victim end of this, not the dealers, not the sellers, you know, throw the book of those folks, I think that’s been very helpful. And everything you’ve seen is that Governor Shumlin, in talking about Vermont, hit a chord, because a lot of our rural communities are being afflicted with this.

AARON MATÉ: On the issue of drugs, Congressmember, you’ve also been a leader in calling for, first of all, repealing subsidies to drug companies and also for negotiating lower drug prices. Can you talk about your efforts around the issue of pharmaceuticals?

REP. PETER WELCH: Well, you know, that’s the exploding cost to healthcare. You know, we need good pharmaceuticals, and we need a research budget in order for them to do it. But if we have pharmaceuticals like this last drug that came out from one company that’s promising, but it’s $80,000 year, then you’re going to make it impossible for people who need it to afford it. Also, if you’re just going to kind of cram these huge, profit-driven, explosive prices on the taxpayer, it’s going to bury Medicare and Medicaid. You know, in the VA, they have price negotiation. In the Medicare program, Congress, thanks to Tom DeLay, made it illegal to bulk-price negotiate when you’re buying drugs. VA, oftentimes the same drug will cost 50, 60, 70 percent less than what it will cost through Medicare. Canada negotiates price discounts. So this is billions and billions of dollars that we can save, in my view, without adversely affecting the bottom line of a lot of these pharmaceutical companies that are doing good work, but putting the squeeze on the taxpayer and on the employers and individuals who are paying premiums.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, your body, the House of Representatives, last week voted—passed legislation that would effectively force government agencies to stop studying climate change, calling on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and related bodies to focus on forecasting severe weather, but not exploring the likely cause. Now, Vermont is a case study of the effects of climate change. You were devastated by Hurricane Irene. Talk about what you feel, as a person who has championed the issue of renewable energy, needs to be done now. And how did that get passed?

REP. PETER WELCH: Well, you may have noticed that science does not exist on Capitol Hill. We kind of—we’re in a fact-free zone here on some issues. And when it comes to climate change, people kind of make it up as they go along. And passing a law that prohibits you from getting information that you need in order to make decisions is pretty upside down and bizarre. But that’s the world we’re in.

In Vermont, on the climate change issue, here’s the key. If we take on the challenge of climate change rather than ignore it, it’s not only going to be good for the environment, it’s actually going to create jobs. And this is the one area where there’s some bipartisan hope in Congress. You know, I don’t win any arguments; I’m not going to persuade any of my colleagues who don’t believe in the science of climate change that it exists. But a lot of my colleagues do agree on efficiency, that if you can use less fuel, whatever the fuel source, you’re going to save money. You’re going to create jobs, like in retrofitting homes and buildings. So that’s a promising area where we can do something good for the environment and also build the economy. But the real dilemma here is that the folks who are so against climate change is a challenge that we have to face. I think the possibility that in taking on that challenge we can create a strong economy eludes them. And that’s what we have to do, because the middle class is getting squeezed. They need jobs, and we’ve got to find ways, through building our infrastructure and having a stronger energy policy that can help create jobs and increase wages.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I know you have to go, but President Obama has pushed for a nuclear renaissance. Very unusual. You come from a state, Vermont—in fact, you were the Senate president—dealing with your nuclear power plant, one of the few in the country that were shut down. Here we are in the wake of Fukushima, third anniversary. What are your thoughts about nuclear power and the fact that these plants are being built in Georgia for the first time in more than 30 years? Do you think nuclear power is the answer to the issue of climate change?

REP. PETER WELCH: There’s—I don’t. And here’s why. There’s enormous economic obstacles, aside from the safety issues, aside from the fact that we still don’t know what to do with the nuclear waste. The amount of subsidies that the taxpayer has to provide in order to get those plants built, the loan guarantees that have to be provided, and then the so-called standby agreements, where if there’s a delay in permitting, the expense of that delay is passed on to the taxpayer, is just a monstrous bill that makes them economically, I think, unjustifiable. The second thing is that with the lower cost of gas, natural gas, that’s really having an adverse impact on the market power of these nuclear generators. And that was a major reason why the plant in Vermont has been closed, is that the—Entergy, the owner, came to the conclusion that it wasn’t economically feasible to keep it going, even though they actually had a shot at doing that. So I think the economics of nuclear power, not just the safety issues, make it not—make it unlikely that it’s going to be the path forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Peter Welch, thanks so much for being with us, the lone Democratic congressmember from Vermont, speaking to us from Capitol Hill, co-sponsor of the Intelligence Budget Transparency Act that would shine a spotlight on the 16 budgets of the intelligence agencies of the United States. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a major ruling on Americans killed in drone strikes in Yemen. Stay with us.

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