Funding for the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health is up by 14 percent during the two years that President Donald Trump has been in the White House — but it’s despite and not because of the president, according to Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen.
“The short answer is NIH is better off – but not because of Trump at all,” Van Hollen, a Democrat, said during a wide-ranging telephone interview with Bethesda Beat, in which he reviewed highlights of his first two years in the Senate and laid out his legislative priorities for the next two. “In fact, when Trump came in, in his first budget year, he proposed a pretty deep cut in NIH funding.”
Van Hollen said the Senate Appropriations Committee, on which he serves, had played a key role in the “significant increase” in funding for NIH, where the annual budget has jumped from $34.3 billion when Trump took office in January 2017 to $39.1 billion for the 2019 fiscal year.
The current NIH budget is $4.3 billion more than Trump originally proposed.
On top of a nearly 9 percent hike for fiscal 2018, NIH funding went up another 5 percent for 2019 – an increase consistent with that proposed by the Senate Appropriations Committee and backed by the full Senate.
“I fought very hard to get on [the Appropriations Committee],” said Van Hollen, only the second Montgomery County resident elected to represent Maryland in the Senate. “It’s very rare that a new member of the Senate gets on that committee … And we had a lot of success in fighting for important Maryland and national priorities.”
Van Hollen – a Kensington resident who served more than a quarter of a century in the Maryland General Assembly and U.S. House of Representatives prior to his 2016 election to the Senate – in large part owes his Appropriations Committee seat to some political horse trading.
Soon after winning the Senate seat held for three decades by Baltimore Democrat Barbara Mikulski, Van Hollen – who twice chaired the House Democrats’ campaign committee – was asked to head up the Senate counterpart, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer of New York was not finding a lot of takers for the DSCC post in light of the playing field for the 2017-2018 election cycle: The Democrats had to defend 26 Senate seats, compared to nine for the Republicans.
Van Hollen accepted the DSCC post. But, in return, he pushed to be appointed to Mikulski’s old seat on the Appropriations Committee, the only vacancy available there at the time. “It’s not a secret – it helped me win that seat on the Appropriations Committee,” Van Hollen acknowledged of his agreeing to chair the DSCC.
His work on the Appropriations Committee has included a successful effort to block “early efforts by the Trump administration to cut funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program,” Van Hollen said.
That program, created in 1983 to coordinate efforts to clean up the bay, has been maintained at the $73 million annual funding level of recent years, after Congress rejected a proposed 90 percent reduction by Trump.
The recent legislation that ended the threat of a further federal government shutdown included both the Chesapeake Bay Program funding plus a $150 million annual payment toward improvements in the Washington Metrorail system. The latter is the latest in a series of yearly allocations from the federal government to Metro going back to 2008, when Van Hollen, as a member of the House, teamed with then-Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, on a 10-year authorization bill. That authorization expires this year.
“We will be introducing legislation shortly … to reauthorize the federal commitment to WMATA [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] for another 10-year period,” Van Hollen said.
He added he is “working on some of the policy pieces of the bill,” including provisions to “strengthen” the role of WMATA’s inspector general.
“We also have to address this issue…about China’s bid to provide some of the trains and what that might mean,” Van Hollen said. He was among the four Maryland and Virginia senators who signed a recent letter to WMATA, expressing concern about whether Chinese-made subway cars could be used for electronic spying.
And while NIH, according to Science magazine. in recent years has received the biggest increases in its budget since a five-year effort to double the agency’s funding culminated in 2003, “I’d like to see it go even higher,” Van Hollen said.
He sponsoring a bill with another Appropriations Committee member, Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, to put NIH on what Van Hollen characterized as “a mandatory funding increase trajectory” in lieu of annual appropriations by Congress.
In the meantime, Van Hollen said he meets “frequently” with NIH Director Francis Collins, who has headed the agency for the past decade. “I’ve been very pleased with his leadership,” Van Hollen said.
Among the other committees to which Van Hollen was assigned when he joined the Senate was the Agriculture panel. During deliberations on the so-called Farm Bill – legislation that reauthorizes federal agricultural and nutrition programs every five years – Van Hollen inserted a provision to increase assistance to farmers to help protect the Chesapeake. Runoff of chemicals from farm fields long has been a contributor to bay pollution.
But, as DSCC chair, Van Hollen relinquished his seat on the Agriculture Committee in early 2018 to open a slot for newly appointed Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith. It was a move designed to bolster Smith, a Democrat who faced a tough special election battle to hold on to her seat.
Van Hollen then assumed an opening on the Environment and Public Works Committee – where his senior Maryland colleague, Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, was already a member. While it is an exception to the rule in the Senate to have legislators from the same party and state sitting on the same committee, Van Hollen said, “This is one committee where we think we think having a double-teaming is a benefit for the state.”
He noted the legislative jurisdiction of the Environment and Public Works panel contains much of significance to Maryland – including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers which, respectively, play key roles in protecting the quality of the Chesapeake Bay and dredging the bay’s channel “that makes the port of Baltimore the great competitive port that it is.”
That committee also oversees the General Services Administration, the landlord for federal government buildings and facilities. “I’ve used both Environment and Public Works and an Appropriations subcommittee I serve on to keep alive the possibility of the FBI coming to Maryland,” Van Hollen said. A proposal dating back to the administration of President Barack Obama identified a site near Greenbelt in Prince George’s County – near the eastern border of Montgomery County – as a future home for the agency. That proposal has remained sidetracked under Trump.
Van Hollen left the chairmanship of the DSCC at the end of 2018. In taking the post two years earlier, he had served notice that he was not interested in reprising that role for the 2019-2020 election cycle. “There are lots of [policy] issues… that I really want to focus on, and turn my attention to in an even bigger way,” he said.
Senate Democrats were in the minority by a 52-48 margin when he took over the DSCC. After a 2017 special election in Alabama, their disadvantage shrank to 51-49 before increasing to 53-47 following the 2018 midterm election. “We think we really succeeded in limiting our losses in a significant way,” Van Hollen said. Senate Democratic incumbents were up for reelection in 10 states Trump had carried in 2016: The Democrats prevailed in six of these states, while gaining a Senate seat in Arizona, which Trump also had carried.
In Van Hollen’s view, the DSCC stint “also helped Maryland because, as a result of that, I remain part of the [Senate Democratic] leadership team that meets every Tuesday morning.” He described the weekly gathering as “a steering committee-type thing…a place where we exchange ideas and talk about the way forward.”
With 26 Democrats up for election in 2018, an upside of the DSCC job was that “it gave me an opportunity to work with a lot of our caucus members,” Van Hollen said. “I’ve formed some very good relationships with my Senate colleagues.”
And while having only nine Republican-held Senate seats in play gave the Democrats limited opportunity to gain ground in the 2018 election, “the other side of that was that I wasn’t attacking every one of my new Republican colleagues every day,” Van Hollen chuckled – making it easier to forge relationships across the political aisle.
Next: Van Hollen seeks impact on 2020 national political agenda with sweeping proposals on jobs and the environment.