There were very few seats left empty in Herrick Auditorium on Friday as students, faculty and community members gathered for an open forum with Rep. Peter Welch.
“Ever since Vermont became the first new state to join the union in 1791, we have established an amazingly proud legacy in sending very distinguished people to the United States Congress,” Dean Jonathan Spiro said.
To illustrate his point, Spiro detailed the story of Matthew Lyon, the Vermont representative jailed in 1798 for violating the Alien and Sedition Acts under president John Adams.
“So, speaking of criticizing vain presidents…” Spiro said, much to the amusement of the assembled audience.
After a brief biography, he turned the microphone over to Welch.
“I’m here to report that things are going smooth in Washington,” Welch said, drawing laughter from the audience.
Then the open discussion began.
The topics, raised by the audience, crossed the spectrum of current events including the notion of free tuition for college students.
“I would support free tuition. College is really, really essential. There’s got to be much more public support for it,” Welch said.
Democrats in a recent debate on the budget for next year asked for increased funding for the National Institute of Health, PELL grants and Stafford loans, according to Welch.
“The folks who just voted for that tax cut now started preaching to us about fiscal responsibility, saying that if you fund NIH, if you fund Pell and Stafford, you’re going to add to the deficit.” he said, noting the tax cut added $2.3 trillion to the deficit.
“That’s the struggle that’s going on here, because essentially, it’s about folks who don’t believe that the government does have a role in creating opportunities through the budget process,” Welch added.
He said the tax cut served two purposes; to pay off the contributor class, and to create an argument for not getting tasks done, he said, including President Trump’s plan for infrastructure.
“There’s no money for it, and people get it. That’s really the heart of this,” Welch said.
Castleton student Evan Antal attended the forum and said having access to legislators was one of the greatest parts of living in Vermont.
“Today at the forum, we saw what is needed to steer us into a successful future. People engaging in direct communication about the issues that they face,” Antal said.
Welch seemed to agree. He said that the Democratic party needed to be more in touch with the everyday American people.
“We’ve got to face the fact that we’ve got to be doing a better job reaching out to everyday Americans who are trying to get ahead, in where a government’s not on their side,” he said. “To some extent, this is where I think Bernie Sanders made such a significant contribution. In many ways, both he and Trump appealed – and were heard – by rural America.”
Sanders’ solutions were different from Trump’s, Welch said, and his solutions made sense.
“He was sensitive, in alarm, by the pain that rural America was experiencing,” Welch said.
“He was sensitive, in alarm, by the pain that rural America was experiencing,” Welch said. “I see us as having to go back to our roots, where our policies really have to make a difference at Castleton University.”
At the end of the meeting, the topic drifted back to higher education. Welch said when he left college he only had $5,000 in loans – and low interest rates – through the National Defense Education Loan.
“We actually made the link between education and a strong national defense, even if you weren’t in the military,” Welch said. “People getting out of school now… often times have the debt the size of a mortgage. There has to be significant public support for that, and me, Bernie and Patrick are all there.”