Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a point man in Democrats’ policy and political shops, said his party recognizes it is now fully responsible for the performance of the federal government and must deliver on President-elect Barack Obama‘s long list of campaign promises - or else.
Making good on those promises - specifically reviving the faltering U.S. economy - likely will determine whether Democrats gain or lose seats in Congress in 2010, he said.
“I do think the most important thing for the Democrats in the Congress is to find a way to follow through on what the American people expect us to do,” the Maryland Democrat said.
Topping the must-do list Mr. Hollen laid out Wednesday with editors and reporters at The Washington Times was an economic stimulus packed with New Deal-style public works projects followed by energy, health care and education reforms.
“We are going to be judged by our ability to move forward on those issues and I think the incoming Obama administration understands that their fortunes are tied in part to how the Congress does and we certainly understand that our fortunes are tied in part to how they do and how they are perceived,” he said.
Mr. Van Hollen ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) as the party captured the majority in Congress in 2006 and bucked historical trends by enlarging the majority significantly in elections this year. He was tapped Monday for an expanded leadership role as both DCCC chairman and in a new job as assistant to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, shaping policy and coordinating efforts with the White House.
In announcing the appointment, Mrs. Pelosi said Mr. Van Hollen was “a first-rate thinker and political strategist who knows the policy, politics and people that are essential to House leadership successfully developing and executing our agenda for change.”
Mr. Van Hollen told The Times that combining the policy and political jobs affords him “the best of both worlds.”
“We all understand we are operating in a political world and you need to be able to navigate those political waters to get things done,” he said.
On the political side, the next test for Mr. Van Hollen will be to help stave off losses in Congress in the midterm elections after the party won the White House - a feat in modern U.S. history accomplished only by Democrats in 1934 after the presidential election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Republicans in 2002 after the election of George W. Bush.
Mr. Van Hollen said Democrats plan to start making good on campaign promises as soon as the new Congress convenes in January by passing an economic stimulus package that could cost anywhere from $500 billion to nearly $1 trillion.
He said lawmakers will quickly move on to long-stalled Democratic initiatives, such as expanding the federally funded State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to cover more children in need and enactment of a renewable energy portfolio standard mandating that at least 10 percent or 15 percent of the country’s electricity come from wind, solar or other renewable sources.
The Democrats also face continued spending on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Mr. Obama’s pledges to spend $15 billion a year on green energy projects, to provide universal health care and to cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans.
Echoing the president-elect, Mr. Van Hollen said worries about deficit spending will be put on hold until the nation’s economy pulls out of the recession.
“The most important thing we can do right now is get the economy moving again, to try and make this recession shorter and shallower than it would otherwise be,” Mr. Van Hollen said. “To do that, I believe, you do need to make these investments.”
He will have to make that case to a slew of newly elected conservative Democrats and deficit hawks likely to balk at a government that is already running a $1 trillion deficit and an exploding national debt. The argument can be won, he said, by providing a long-term plan to control the deficit.
He said he does not expect increased spending, at least on economic stimulus measures, to come at the expense of the Defense Department.
The assessment did not jibe with a recent call by House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, for a 25 percent cut in defense spending.
Some new revenue will come from rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, Mr. Van Hollen said, adding that the Democratic leadership had not decide whether the move will come sooner or later during the Obama administration.