Friday, November 21, 2008

Chris Van Hollen: Man of the House

By Marc Korman.

Recent indications that Barbara Mikulski is running for reelection and another appointment as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee indicate that Chris Van Hollen is headed for a long and fruitful career in the House of Representatives.

It is no secret that Chris Van Hollen has Senate aspirations, despite his decision not to run for the seat left open by Paul Sarbanes’ retirement in 2006. But his work in the House along with the lack of an open Senate seat in 2010 mean there is less and less reason to seek a Senate seat in the future. Van Hollen should continue to focus his energy on the House of Representatives, where he is on the fast track to House leadership and sits on one of the most powerful House Committees, Ways and Means.

Politics and Leadership

After declining the 2006 Senate run, Van Hollen immersed himself in his duties as one of Rahm Emanuel’s deputies at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the political arm of the House Democrats. The DCCC was successful in 2006, giving the Democrats majority control of the House of Representatives for the first time since the 1994 election. Van Hollen was rewarded for his work recruiting candidates around the country with the chairmanship of the DCCC when Emanuel moved into House leadership.

The early belief was that Democrats would have difficulty building on their majority. In the 1996 election, two years after their wave election, the Republicans lost two seats. Though the results are not yet final, Democrats managed to increase their majority by at least twenty-three seats.

Van Hollen hoped to follow Emanuel’s path and join the House leadership. With Emanuel vacating his leadership post and the House to work for the Obama Administration, Van Hollen considered a run for Caucus Chairman against Caucus Vice-Chair John Larson (CT), but ended up taking a second appointment as DCCC Chair. To make the grueling task of DCCC Chair a little sweeter, the Speaker also carved out a special position for Van Hollen as a liaison between the House of Representatives and the White House. A Speaker created position has the potential to be just a title and relatively meaningless, but given Van Hollen’s close relationship with Emanuel, he may be able to do a lot with it.

Perhaps more importantly, each Democrat Van Hollen helps as he travels the country is a potential vote for him in a future leadership race. With hard work, he could even some day replace Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer as House Majority Leader. Building on majorities is difficult, but not unprecedented. Since the 435-member House came into being after the 1912 election, Democrats have managed to build on existing majorities in three or more elections in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1980s. If Van Hollen succeeds in 2010, his chances of leadership will continue to grow.

Policy and Committees

On the policy side, Van Hollen is also well positioned. He sits on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is important for his district full of federal employees and contractors. But he is also on the prestigious House Ways and Means Committee. He ranks 21st in seniority on the committee, but three of those ahead of him will not be returning in the next Congress and six others are over 70 years old. That means in just a few years Van Hollen could be in striking distance of chairmanship of a subcommittee. Just shy of fifty, Van Hollen can afford to wait a few years.

When Ben Cardin decided to run for the Senate, he did not expect Democrats to win a majority in the House. Had Cardin stayed in the House, he would have been chairman of the Trade Subcommittee, part of the Ways and Means Committee, instead of a freshman Senator. Although now in a statewide office, Cardin would have had much more of an impact on policy as a Subcommittee Chair than as a freshman Senator. I actually believe that had Cardin thought the Democrats would retake the House before he launched his Senate campaign, he would have stayed.

As the years go by and if Democrats maintain their House majority, Van Hollen should focus his efforts on House leadership and substantive committee work. Leave the Senate for someone else and be a man of the House.