Democratic Agenda for Congress Starts with Ethics
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We turn now to one of the people charged with implementing the Democrats' plan for its first 100 hours in the majority. Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen is head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Good morning, Congressman.
Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (Democrat, Maryland): Good morning. How are you?
MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. Now of the initiatives that are on the list for the first 100 hours - they include raising minimum wage, more stem-cell research, changing ethics and lobbying rules - which issue takes the highest priority for you?
Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Well, this entire package takes priority, because during the last election candidates around the country campaigned on an agenda for change. They talked about each of these items, and that is why we're taking them all up together within the first 100 hours. I do think it's especially important that the rules changes that we will make right out of the box, first thing, are to change some of the ethics and lobbying rules in Congress. I think these changes are overdue, and I think they are very significant step forward in terms of gift bans, travel restrictions, opening up the earmark process, making it more transparent and accountable.
Those were all issues that people talked about on the campaign trail, along with enacting the 9/11 Commissions Reports, eliminating subsidies for the oil and gas industry and using those funds instead for renewable energy and other very important items.
MONTAGNE: The president has said he would sign a bill raising the minimum wage if it included protections for small businesses. Would Democrats in the House agree to such a deal?
Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Well, I think we think that the raising minimum wage is way overdue. It hasn't been raised for 10 years. That's wrong. And we don't think…
MONTAGNE: But wait. Well, we know that Democrats want to raise the minimum wage…
Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Right, but we don't…
MONTAGNE: But are the Democrats open to, or have the time in a hundred hours, to work a deal where it would be something that the Republicans could accept?
Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Well, we don't think it should be linked. In other words, we think that it stands on its merits, a raise the minimum wage. We hope Republicans would join us and we hope the president would join us in signing the bill.
MONTAGNE: Can you pass these initiatives in a hundred hours if you don't just simply block the Republicans from debate on this?
Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Well, there is going to be opportunity for debate on the floor on these issues. I should point out that most of these issues have been debated in the House. And in the past, when Democrats tried to get votes on this, we were blocked by Republicans. So it's not as if these issues like the minimum wage have not been debated. Stem cell research, for example, has been a bill that not only has been debated but it's passed the House. It's passed the Senate.
MONTAGNE: With the war in Iraq as a backdrop, how much of this broad economic and social agenda will you be able to accomplish when so many Americans are thinking about the war?
Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Well, let me say first of all with respect to national security and the war in Iraq, one thing that will change immediately is we're going to have far greater accountability and oversight over the administration. With respect to this agenda, there are a number of measures - especially this 100-hour agenda - that we can move forward at the same time. But there's no doubt that, as we go forward, the cost of the war in Iraq will have an impact on our ability to move forward on other issues.
And we are also going to be implementing a pay-as-you-go approach, because we think that the Bush administration's approach of putting everything on the national credit card and running up the debt has been very irresponsible. So…
MONTAGNE: Although pay-as-you-go, would that not smash into some of your other programs?
Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Well, that's what I'm saying. There is no doubt that it's going to be a challenge to enact some of the broader agenda items over the next two years. This is going to be a challenging period, and hopefully we will work through those challenges together. And we would like to get bipartisan cooperation from the Republicans.
MONTAGNE: Congressman, thank you for talking with us.
Rep. VAN HOLLEN: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland is the new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Later today, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED broadcasts live from Capitol Hill. They'll talk with some of the leaders of the 110th Congress. And you can see profiles of some of the Democratic and Republican congressional leaders at npr.org.