With Eye to 2020, Van Hollen To Roll Out Bills On Economy, Environment
‘We need some very specific proposals to organize around’ as election looms, Democrat says
U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen
Bethesda Beat File
U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen is about to spend the middle part of his first six-year term promoting a number of sweeping legislative proposals – ranging from reducing long-term unemployment and improving worker compensation to addressing climate change – that he acknowledges have no chance of being enacted with Republicans in control of the White House and the Senate.
So why is the Maryland Democrat placing these measures atop his legislative priorities during the forthcoming session of Congress?
“We need some very specific proposals to organize around as we head into the 2020 election,” he said during a telephone interview with Bethesda Beat. “…My general view [is] it’s really important to have a proposal that people can pick up and run with as soon as we have the votes to pass it. Otherwise, what happens is that you get into the majority and all of a sudden you go ‘Oh, we have to come up with a plan.’ It’s much better to lay the groundwork in advance.”
He added, “I will say that, as you look forward in terms of ultimately passing these provisions, I think the Democrats are going to have to win the White House.”
While he isn’t a candidate for that job in 2020, a half-dozen of his Senate Democratic colleagues are – and, once his proposals are introduced in legislative form, Van Hollen intends to shop them around in the hope of gaining support from those seeking the party’s presidential nomination.
Within the next couple of months, Van Hollen plans to roll out detailed legislative proposals reflecting ideas that, in several instances, he has advocated going back to his decade-and-a-half in the U.S. House, and, before that, as a member of the U.S. House and the Maryland General Assembly.
His economic plan is two-pronged, he said, explaining, “One is making sure that everybody who wants a job and is trying to find a job can get a job. So I have focused on the long-term unemployed … The other piece is making sure that when people have a job, it can be one with an income that supports their family.”
The latter proposal would link corporate stock buybacks and increased dividends for shareholders to a required rise in salary levels for a corporation’s rank-and-file workers.
“I do believe the challenge of our times [is] to make sure more Americans benefit from our economy,” Van Hollen said. “You have this growing gap between corporate profits and CEO pay and worker pay…The wealth gap and wealth disparity is at shocking levels.”
On the environment, Van Hollen will continue to push the so-called “cap-and-dividend” bill that he first introduced as a House member in 2009 to cut down on emissions tied to global warming. The measure would establish caps on carbon dioxide emissions and mandate auctioning of permits to the first sellers of coal, oil and natural gas in the U.S. market – with auction proceeds returned to U.S. taxpayers.
“Making it a 100 percent dividend back to households … addresses the major concern of the critics of doing something – which is that the cost will go up to the American consumer,” Van Hollen explained.
Notably, Van Hollen’s proposals to deal with job creation and climate change coincide with the unveiling of the “Green New Deal” being promoted by the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. It is a non-binding congressional resolution whose top goals include “achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” and “establishing millions of high-wage jobs and ensuring economic security for all.”
Twelve Democratic senators, including the half-dozen announced presidential contenders, have signed on to the resolution. Van Hollen has yet to do so.
To be sure, Van Hollen has a record comparable to the Senate’s most progressive members: A 2017 analysis of Senate votes, prepared for the forthcoming edition of the “Almanac of American Politics,” places Van Hollen among the chamber’s top 10 most liberal members.
However, Van Hollen — as a member of the leadership and two-time chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee while serving in the House – also possesses a pragmatic side. It’s a characteristic that caused him to be viewed skeptically by some on the party’s left during an often nasty Maryland Senate Democratic primary in 2016.
When asked about his stance on the Green New Deal, Van Hollen replied: “I think it’s a bold vision, and I’m certainly not opposed to it. I may at some point join it.”
But he added, “Even if we pass that legislation with ambitious goals, it doesn’t do anything to actually reduce carbon pollution — whereas passing the cap-and-dividend bill would immediately begin to reduce carbon pollution… The public needs to rally around a specific proposal, not just the concept.”
Van Hollen also acknowledged his economic plan “is not the sort of job guarantee idea” implied in the Green New Deal and pushed by many on Democratic Party’s left wing — who see the federal government as the employer of last resort. But what his plan “does is say ‘If you’re long-term unemployed, and you’re looking for a job, we’re going to provide you a path’,” he added
Van Hollen’s proposal, the “Long-Term Unemployment Elimination Act,” is being readied with the assistance of the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank. Aimed at creating temporary jobs for those who unemployed for more than six months, it then envisions placing them into more permanent jobs – with tax credits offered to businesses that hire the long-term unemployed.
“The whole idea is to get people into the workforce, getting that experience of going to work every day and then transitioning those individuals into the private sector,” Van Hollen said, adding: “My view is that these are very progressive proposals, but they’re also practical. They certainly in this Senate are not going to get Republican support, but they’re the kinds of things that are a progressive but doable plan to accomplish these goals.”
While Van Hollen believes much of what he is seeking to do will require a Democratic White House as well as a Democratic-controlled Congress, he is more optimistic about progress in education funding in the shorter term. He is seeking an additional $1 billion for early childhood education funding in this year’s congressional appropriations process, a 10 percent increase over the $10 billion now provided for Head Start and Early Head Start programs. Current funding covers only a little more than 30 percent of those eligible for Head Start (three to five years old) and just 7 percent of those under three years who are eligible for Early Head Start.
“As a country, we need a dramatic new effort in the area of early education,” said Van Hollen.
“I do believe we can rally bipartisan support around that idea — both because we’ve got to make sure we expand opportunity for every child in every neighborhood in the country, but also because we are at major risk of falling behind competitively in the international arena … It’s been something that has sort of slipped off the radar screen recently.”
While supportive of recent legislative proposals to make college more affordable and increase access to community college and job training, Van Hollen declared, “…Every economist I’ve talked to has indicated that if we want to address the opportunity gap, if we want to make sure we restore some upward mobility in the American system, we need to focus on early education and K-thru-12.”
While Van Hollen said he has been pushing for greater funding for early childhood education since his freshman year in the House in 2003, his advocacy for gun control dates back to his days in the Maryland General Assembly. The House, now under Democratic control, this week passed legislation for universal background checks for firearms purchasers – but on a largely party-line vote, with just eight Republicans voting in support of the measure.
Interviewed shortly before that vote, Van Hollen acknowledged this was another issue where there was little likelihood of action prior to the next election. While predicting the House vote “will create pressure in the Senate,” he added, “This is another example of the need to continue to build public support and public momentum … It will become part of the presidential election debate, as will the climate change issue.”
On climate change, he said, “The fight … has been tough because our Republican colleagues continue to bury their heads deeply in the sand and deny the fact of climate change.” But he also contended, “The bottom line is that the public is way ahead of the Republican majority in the Senate on climate change. I’ve seen that in all the public surveys.”
But Van Hollen is up against ever-widening partisan divisions in that battle. While a December 2018 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 66 percent of respondents believe climate change is a serious problem requiring action – up 15 points in a decade – such sentiment increased dramatically largely among Democratic and independent voters. Only 15 percent of Republicans saw a pressing need to deal with the issue – the same percentage as two decades earlier.