Van Hollen visits college, takes students’ questions
CHESTERTOWN — U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, in speaking to Washington College students Friday, said this year’s midterm election is probably the most consequential in his lifetime.
Van Hollen, D-Md., is happy not to be up for reelection this year. The senator was elected to his first-six-year term two years ago. Prior to that, he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, which meant his name was on the ballot every two years.
“This is the first time in a long time that I’ve not been on the ballot,” he told students of professor Melissa Deckman, chairman of the Political Science Department, in a classroom at the college’s new boathouse. “I’m not up this time but I feel as nervous about the outcome for the country as if I were on this time.”
With less than two weeks before people head to the polls, Van Hollen said this year’s election is crucial in ensuring checks and balances remain in place in Washington.
Prior to speaking with Deckman’s students, Van Hollen was given a tour of the new boathouse by college President Kurt Landgraf and Director of Waterfront Activities Ben Armiger. Joining them were Provost and Dean Patrice DiQuinzio and Executive Vice President of Strategy and Operations Mark Hampton.
Van Hollen said Washington College is a great school in a beautiful setting.
Landgraf thanked Van Hollen for his public service in these turbulent times.
“Its really is a big deal, senator. We appreciate ev- erything you do,” he told Van Hollen.
Encouraging students to cast ballots, Van Hollen said a lot of the elections this year are going to be determined by voters between the ages of 18 and 29. He said there is a trend of low turnout among young voters for the midterm elections, with only 16 percent of eligible voters between 18 and 29 having gone to the polls in 2014 versus about 57 percent of voters over the age of 60.
“Young people are notorious for not turning out to vote in midterm elections. I mean, the numbers are really stark,” Van Hollen told the students. “There’s just a huge amount of potential power left on the table every time.”
Citing close primary races in Baltimore and Montgomery counties, in which the difference between first and second place was less than 100 votes, Van Hollen said
spoke about a race in the Virginia legislature in which a tie was decided by a coin toss. He said that coin toss also gave Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates a majority by one seat.
Van Hollen spoke about the bipartisan work in the U.S. Senate that led to a number of bills passed on issues of importance.
He said the Senate passed a couple of major budget items, including appropriations for education that secured funding for the U.S. departments of Education and Health and Human Services and Pell grants for college students.
Also of note was a bill to help combat the opioid epidemic, which he said passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Van Hollen said there are “a lot of things that we should be doing that we’re not doing.”
“But we’ll see if anything changes in this election,” he said.
A student asked Van Hollen if he thought was it as his duty to follow his conscience in making decisions or to fall back on his constituents’ requests.
In answering what he called “the classic question,” Van Hollen said he does consider constituents’ input. He said he tries to listen to both sides of issues. He takes all that information and tries to exercise his best judgment based on his beliefs and what he campaigned on.
“When I campaigned for the United State Senate, I told voters about what I believed in and what my values were and where my priorities were. And the good news for me was that it matched well pretty well with a significant majority of the state of Maryland,” he said.
Van Hollen said there also is a difference in the decision-making process on subjects that may involve a philosophical divide such as war and peace and questions of where to place a road. He said on the latter, he looks to find the best consensus among constituents and the people directly affected.
One of Deckman’s own sons, not old enough for college, asked Van Hollen who he supports in the midterms.
Van Hollen spoke about being chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Committee. He said in that position, his job is to try to get fellow Democrats elect- ed to the Senate.
He said of the 34 seats in the Senate up for election this year, 26 are already held by Democrats. He said with every member of the House on the ballot, it is much more susceptible to wave elections like the Republican surge in 2010.
“People are predicting a Democratic wave this year as there’s a lot of energy from Democrats and independents. But the House is much more impacted by that because everybody’s up,” he said.
Van Hollen also threw his support behind Democrat Ben Jealous for Maryland’s governor.
Asked what he thinks is the most important issue in the next congressional session, Van Hollen said there is a lot that needs to be dealt with.
He spoke about how as the nation is getting close to full employment, real wage growth has been lower than it was during the previous administration and the cost of living has gone up faster.
“When they say people feel like they’re not getting ahead, they’re not getting ahead. They’re sort of running in place,” Van Hollen said. “There are a number of things I think we can do to try and change that beyond just establishing higher minimum wages.”
Student debt is another issue, Van Hollen said, noting that he cosponsored bills to allow graduates to refinance their debt and to establish lower interest rates for those still in school.
He also spoke about climate change and immigration and criminal justice reform.
“So a lot to do and the key of course is to get the votes so you can have a majority to get it done,” he said.
When asked about the most rewarding issue he has worked on, Van Hollen spoke about his efforts to pass the Affordable Care Act. He also spoke about increased Food and Drug Administration incentives for child cancer research, creating a program for parents with children who have disabilities that is similar to college savings accounts and protecting efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay from federal budget cuts.
“There’s some things that you can do on a bipartisan basis that don’t get a lot of attention,” he said.
Answering a question about challenges he has faced working with the Trump administration versus the previous administration, Van Hollen said he worked closely with the Obama administration on domestic and foreign policy issues. He said that has
been much more difficult with the current administration.
He said a White House effort for an infrastructure modernization bill has been rejected by Republicans and Democrats because it does not come with an adequate funding component. He said under the current administration, the government instituted a $2 trillion tax cut.
“That’s a lot of money as you know,” he said.
Immigration reform has been another challenging issue under the Trump administration, Van Hollen said.
Van Hollen also spoke about how a lot of Senate bills need 60 votes to move forward, a higher hurdle than the simple majority required for House approval. He said a lot of bills pass the House that do not clear the Senate.
Van Hollen said the more stringent Senate requirement drives consensus so a bill that clears the Senate likely will pass in the House.
“We have to look for those kinds of opportunities, because even if Democrats win the majority in the House, in order to pass legislation it’s got to get through the United State Senate,” Van Hollen told the students.
Van Hollen invited students to visit Washington, saying he would love to host them and give them a tour.
“I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t want to visit Capitol Hill these days,” he quipped.
Washington College President Kurt Landgraf, left, shows U.S. Sen Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the college’s new boathouse Friday.
U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, left, stands at the top of the deck with Washington College President Kurt Landgraf, Provost and Dean Patrice DiQuinzio and students Friday at the college’s new boathouse. Van Hollen participated in a question-and-answer session with students.