A Decision of Consequence
by John Lawrence
A decision by a key House Democrat last week could have major implications down the road for the shape and style of congressional politics for years to come. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the 56 year old budget wunderkind who enjoys broad respect in the Caucus, announced he would be leaving his safe Montgomery County seat to run for the seat being vacated by Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
In a number of ways, what could be good news for Van Hollen – there are things in life worse than a seat in the U.S. Senate, even in the minority – could create many uncertainties in the House. Van Hollen has played a crucial role in a range of ultra-high level negotiations as the seeming Ranking-Member-for-Life of the Budget Committee and House Democrats’ trusted point man during fiscal cliff and debt ceiling confrontations. A telegenic, articulate and passionate Democrat, Van Hollen is also an accomplished legislator, helping lead the fight on the Ways and Means Committee for last year’s ABLE Act, one of the few important bills to make it through the partisan minefield. (See my earlier blog on the ABLE Act which allows parents to create tax protected savings accounts for children with special needs.) He also has fashioned a progressive budget package, promoted climate change legislation, and was the longtime leader in the battle for the DISCLOSE Act to reveal the source of political donations.
Van Hollen’s easy manner and upbeat style camouflages a skilled and effective politician, traits he will need in his coming Senate campaign. He came to Congress via one of the most unusual paths a Democrat can imagine: he defeated a Kennedy (well, actually, Mark Shriver, a Maryland delegate, but close enough.) Van Hollen has deep roots into state politics; he served in the Maryland House of Delegates and State Senate before defeating eight term moderate Connie Morella in 2002 for a House seat. Doubtless he anticipates winning a huge margin in Montgomery County to help offset the votes of Democrats in Baltimore, home to some of his potentially most challenging rivals.
It seemed to many observers only a matter of time before Van Hollen found himself either chairman of the Budget Committee, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, or a top member of the House Leadership, an exclusive ensemble in which he has served as Assistant to the Speaker (Pelosi) and other appointive capacities for years. His name was surely on the short list of candidates for Democratic Leader, Speaker, or Whip whenever change came to the current Pelosi-Hoyer-Clyburn troika.
But Van Hollen prefers to roll the dice and try for a Senate seat, perhaps anticipating a quicker return to a majority in the so-called “Upper Body” than is likely in the House where gerrymandering and population concentration skew seats against Democrats. In all likelihood, he will not have a free ride across the Capitol. Already, some progressive groups in Maryland have begun touting Rep. Donna Edwards, an energetic and outspoken liberal who has joined with Leader Nancy Pelosi to announce the Maryland representative’s chairmanship of the House Democrats’ “Democracy Task Force: Restoring People-Powered Politics,” an initiative to “reduce the influence of big money in politics and provide key reforms to bring transparency to our country’s campaign finance and election laws.”
Other potential challengers for the Democratic Senate nomination include Rep. Elijah Cummings, an astute and respected member who has ably served as Ranking Member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and who recently teamed up with Sen. Elizabeth Warren on behalf of a “Middle Class Prosperity” initiative. Also, second term Rep. John Delaney might prefer to reach into his deep pockets of personal cash in pursuit of a Senate seat, and Rep. John Sarbanes, a five -term member who has focused on campaign finance reform and bears the famous surname of his father, Sen. Paul Sarbanes.
It goes without saying that Democrats are hoping that some of these candidates will look over the field and decide to stay put. (Former Gov. Martin O’Malley, while mentioned as a potential candidate, has already taken himself out of consideration for the Senate seat.) It would be an expensive proposition to have to spend money to ensure Democratic replacements in 4 or 5 Maryland seats – all of which are eminently winnable, but with non-incumbents, you never can take election for granted. And there would be the cumulative loss in next-generation talent with the likes of Edwards, Sarbanes, Delaney and Van Hollen dropping out of the House simultaneously.
With Van Hollen gone, attention will doubtless focus on likely aspirants like Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, who brings both an Hispanic background and potentially a big slew of California votes to any contest, Joe Crowley, a more moderate New Yorker who serves as Caucus Vice Chair, has close relations with the New York finance community, and plays a mean electric guitar, or someone not yet on the so-called “leadership ladder.”
Whatever happens in the Senate primary and future House leadership races, Van Hollen’s departure is going to leave a void in the House, if for no other reason that he enjoyed the confidence of Members as a thoughtful and savvy technician who also knew how to play the political and media games expertly.
Last December, I wrote a blog entitled @“Don’t Count Out the House Democrats” that pointed out the unappreciated power of a well-led, unified House minority in checking the exuberance of the new Republican minority. That strategic skill has been on full display this past week under the artful leadership of Nancy Pelosi who completely outmaneuvered Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans and got exactly the legislative outcome she wanted: a clean funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security, with none of the “defund the Obama immigration executive order” poison pills the majority had insisted be included. Of course, there was no way for the Republicans to succeed in their hostage-holding strategy, an outcome that was clear to virtually everyone (including, I have no doubt, the beleaguered Boehner who has yet to devise a strategy for containing the wing nuts in his party who intimidate many who do not share their nihilist agenda. As has generally been the case since Republicans gained the majority in 2011, Boehner had trouble cracking 180 Republican votes for anything but the ain’t-goin’-nowhere message bills his Conference loves to pass and watch flame out.). But as a slew of favorable stories (below) noted, no one should minimize the talent displayed by Pelosi, who proved again she can engender broad support from her disciplined troops. When she does, President Obama is vastly empowered because the chances for overriding a presidential veto are nil. Observers would do well to recollect the unprecedented discipline of Democrats when Pelosi served as minority leader, especially in the 2005-2006 period, which served her Caucus well in challenging George Bush and the renegade Republican majority of Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert. This is a leader who has a firm grip on the levers of power, and knows how to work them to her, and her party’s, political advantage.