a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Van Hollen, Geithner reassure on earned benefits — but just for now

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd December 2012

Ten days ago I wrote about this statement by my Congressman, Chris Van Hollen, to a Wall Street Journal symposium:

I think there are other things you can do — look, I’m open to a conversation about this. I think when it comes to things like Social Security, again, you’ve got to take a mixed approach. I mean if you look at Simpson-Bowles or other plans, again, they have a combination of additional revenue along with spending reform. — [Alan Murray, Wall Street Journal: But you’re willing to at least look at that?] — I’m willing to consider all these ideas as part of an overall plan. I don’t think we should jump to the solutions which simply … especially in Medicare, which simply transfer costs, and within Social Security, I think there are actually other ideas, some of which some of us discussed in the SuperCommittee, but unfortunately to no avail.

As ranking member of the House Budget Committee and a key Democratic Party functionary (e.g., ex-DCCC chairman), Van Hollen’s views on budget matters are a fair indication of the Democratic position on issues like these.  So I wrote Van Hollen’s office, laying out my concerns and then inquiring, about the the above quote,

My first question: doesn’t that amount to being open to a Social Security benefit cut?  (Perhaps via what I think are called “chained cost of living adjustments”, i.e., a way of decreasing the adjustment for inflation?)  If not, why not?

My second question: Rep. Van Hollen then says, “I don’t think we should jump to the solutions which simply … especially in Medicare, which simply transfer costs, and within Social Security, I think there are actually other ideas, some of which some of us discussed in the SuperCommittee, but unfortunately to no avail.”  What were those “other ideas”?

Late last week, I got an answer from Congressman Van Hollen’s press secretary Bridgett Frey, referring me to a Huffington Post article by Zach Carter, featuring the video embedded below in which Van Hollen said,

“With respect to Social Security, I agree with what the president has said and what [Rep.] Peter DeFazio said, Social Security is not part of the deficit and debt problem and we’re not going to raid Social Security in order to balance other parts of the budget. As the president has said you can deal with Social Security and try to strengthen it on its own terms but it should not be part of these other conversations.”

The video also shows a clip of Van Hollen refusing to go along with FOX News’ Martha Macallum’s suggestion to raise the Medicare eligibility age:

No.  There are much better ways of dealing with Medicare costs. Why wouldn’t people say, let’s look at ways where we can reduce the cost of Medicare without simply transferring rising health care costs?

Now both of those statements are great, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee is urging supporters to thank Rep. Van Hollen for saying so.

So I did — in person, at a Saturday night fundraiser/birthday party for our State Senator Jamie Raskin — thanking my representative both for his opposition to raising the Medicare eligibility age and for decoupling Social Security from the immediate ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations.  I also asked about the ‘spending reforms’ Van Hollen had mentioned to the Wall Street Journal symposium — but unfortunately, all he had time to answer was that he felt Social Security would need to be addressed later.

How much later? I wondered, as Mr. Van Hollen headed off to the dais to praise our excellent State Senator.  While both Van Hollen’s statements are welcome, they don’t actually take Social Security off the table altogether, they simply postpone its consideration.  That may well be a win for now (in which case: thanks, for now), but it left my questions unanswered about what specific kinds of “spending reforms” Van Hollen is hinting he might support later on — and it doesn’t answer just how soon that might be.

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Van Hollen OK on Medicare — but “willing to consider” Social Security “spending reform”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 21st November 2012

Click image to view C-SPAN clip of Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s (D-MD-8) discussion of
Medicare and Social Security in the context of the “fiscal cliff” — running from
~8:15-14:30 in the full C-SPAN video of his interview with Wall Street Journal
deputy editor Alan Murray.

Last week I got a worrisome Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC)  e-mail: the Wall Street Journal was reporting that Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD-8),  my Congressman — and the ranking Budget Committee member — was open to  “cutting entitlements,” as a part of negotiations around ending tax cuts and avoiding the so-called “fiscal cliff.”  Journal reporters Janet Hook and Carol Lee added that Van Hollen — who was attending a Wall Street Journal confab with CEOs — said “changing Social Security and increasing the Medicare eligibility age above 65 should be part of negotiations,” and that “I’m willing to consider all of these ideas as part of an overall plan.”

Personally, I think the current deficit mania is disastrously misguided at a time when the economy is still struggling.  But  I certainly want Social Security and Medicare benefit cuts completely off the table — so I called Van Hollen’s DC office to say so.  A staffer told me he’d been misquoted, leading me to wonder, “So what exactly *did* Van Hollen say about Social Security and Medicare?

Luckily, it turns out that the interview was taped by C-SPAN, so I could see for myself; the relevant remarks started around the 8:15 mark and continued for another six minutes.

Van Hollen began with Medicare, and to cut to the first chase, he did not advocate increasing Medicare eligibility age as the Journal had reported.  Instead, Van Hollen’s ideas were generally about seeking efficiencies in Medicare rather than reducing access to it:

We need to move Medicare away from a fee-for-service system. And we’ve begun to do that.  Because fee-for-service systems contains no incentives for anybody in the system to contain costs.  … We’ve actually begun to put in place the building blocks to get there: accountable-care organizations, bundled payments.

I think we can make significant savings in the area of … dual-eligibles: people who are on Medicare and Medicaid –  a relatively small percentage of the overall Medicare/Medicaid population but a very high percentage of the costs. And there are lots of misaligned incentives between the Medicare and Medicaid payments.

You can look at things like redesigning “Medigap” policies, because right now, some Medigap policies actually create incentives for people to spend a lot more on Medicare.*  […] 

What I think we should avoid is …simply transferring [health care] costs on to other individuals.  I think our first focus should be on trying to contain overall healthcare costs

Regarding substituting “premium-support” voucher plans for Medicare, Van Hollen responded:

…the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office looked at that and concluded it does not contain costs, it simply transfers costs. …what they concluded was if you simply …provide a voucher to go out there in the private health care system, as you know, in the private health care system costs have been rising at at least the same rate as in the Medicare system.   […]  Simply transferring somebody out of Medicare to the private health insurance market, it will save Medicare money, but …by requiring premiums to go up dramatically on these individuals whose median income is $23,000 right now.

I quite agree with Van Hollen’s opposition to “here’s a lump sum, go figure it out” voucher plans that discourage seeking medical help and transfer costs to the poor instead of helping them.  People more knowledgeable than myself may take issue with some of Van Hollen’s Medicare suggestions — e.g., maybe there can be good reasons for dual eligibility (though less so for inconsistent subsidies).  But overall, and to his credit, Van Hollen’s solutions are quite a bit less less draconian than simply raising the Medicare eligibility or retirement ages — a.k.a. “hope you die first.”

Turning to Social Security, however, Van Hollen stumbled right out of the block:

 In Social Security, number one, I think we should create a process like we had with Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. 

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So what exactly *did* Van Hollen say about Social Security and Medicare?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th November 2012

On Wednesday, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a.k.a. PCCC or “,” reacted sharply to the Wall Street Journal article “Obama Sets Steep Tax Target” by Janet Hook and Carol Lee — not, of course, to Obama’s goal to let tax cuts for the richest to expire, but to signs of what some Democrats might be willing to bargain away for that.  From the Wall Street Journal article:

On Capitol Hill, it isn’t clear how strenuously Democrats will resist cutting entitlements. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) said he and others were open to changes as long as they were done in a measured way and were part of deal that included tax increases. Mr. Van Hollen also said changing Social Security and increasing the Medicare eligibility age above 65 should be part of negotiations.

“I’m willing to consider all of these ideas as part of an overall plan,” Mr. Van Hollen said Tuesday at the Journal’s CEO Council.

The PCCC immediately set up a phone campaign urging supporters to call Van Hollen and tell him “Cuts to benefits should be completely off the table.” 

I did, calling Van Hollen’s congressional office — (202) 225-5341.  To my surprise, the staffer I reached told me that Van Hollen had been misquoted and that he definitely does not want to raise Medicare eligibility from 65 to 70 or see cuts to Social Security benefits.

I hadn’t expected a flat denial, and said that was “good to hear.”   But that’s a pretty egregious misquote if that’s what happened — and it occurred to me (after hanging up, as usual) that what Van Hollen might prefer is a different thing than what he’d be willing to vote for.

In fairness, there’s been no hint from Van Hollen before now that he was willing to throw Social Security or Medicare recipients under the bus to avoid sequestration; both in speeches to the Budget Committee in May and in a Politico op-ed in July, the Congressman spoke of wanting to avoid the “meat ax” of sequestration via a “balanced approach” — somewhat vaguely defined as “a combination of spending reductions and cuts to tax breaks for the wealthy and powerful special interests” in the July op-ed, but specifically “preserv[ing] the Medicare guarantee” in his May remarks.

Moreover, Van Hollen is the ranking member of the Budget Committee, so the Democratic alternative 2013 budget has his stamp of approval; it, too, specifically calls for “preserving the Medicare guarantee,” but only speaks (defensively) of preventing Republican plans to privatize Social Security — thus not ruling out other bad ideas like reducing cost of living adjustments, but not proposing them either.

Still, as far as I know, the Wall Street Journal has not issued a correction to its November 14th report — nor has PCCC backed down on asking for more phone calls to Van Hollen.

So please join me in calling Chris Van Hollen’s Washington, DC and Maryland offices some more about this:

  • Washington, DC: (202) 225-5341
  • Rockville, MD: (301) 424-3501
  • Hyattsville, MD: (301) 891-6982

You might say something like,

I understand the Wall Street Journal reported that Congressman Van Hollen was willing to consider changing Social Security and increasing Medicare eligibility age as part of a deal to let Bush tax cuts expire.  Did he really say that?  If not, what did he say?  Cuts to benefits should be completely off the table.

Please let me know what you learned, and/or notify PCCC. Thanks!

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Ladies and gentlemen: your infinitely cunning Democratic Party

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th March 2012

So I listen to Chris Van Hollen tonight, and he’s “asked about” health care reform — i.e., the moderator shuffles a bunch of question cards people submitted and then boils some of them down to a key word.

Van Hollen starts shaking his head and says (paraphrasing) “”Obamacare” was really patterned on *Romney*care; Obama’s going to be able to look at Romney in a debate and say “this is your plan.” Yes, what a stirring moment that will be for Democrats.

Then he added “*Democrats* wanted Medicare for all.”  Golly!  If only they’d had the White House and both houses of Congress, they could… have… never mind.

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Van Hollen: “public option is essential”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th September 2009

I received an e-mail from Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD-8) today that updates my knowledge of where he stands in the health care debate.

As Van Hollen might write, I’m pleased to report that he makes repeated and positive mention of the “public option” in his remarks, which naturally center on HR 3200, the “American Affordable Health Choices Act.” From the e-mail:

The American Affordable Health Choices Act fulfills the promise of bringing real change to America through two key provisions: giving Americans the choice of a public health option and providing universal coverage to all Americans. […]

One of the most significant elements of this bill will be the public health option. A public option is essential for creating choice for consumers and more competition for the insurance companies. The top 10 insurance companies have seen their profits increase 430 percent over the last seven years, yet the majority of Americans’ incomes have stayed flat while their insurance premiums have sky rocketed. A public option will keep insurance companies honest and bring health costs down for the American people.

This may or may not be a surprise to close watchers of the health care reform debate, but Van Hollen’s unequivocal emphasis — at least at this point — on the public option was welcome news to me.  Last year during the election he actually went further, endorsing a “single payer,” Medicare for all reform, but hasn’t opined on that since then as far as I know.

In an September 1 interview with Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, this is how Van Hollen handicapped the prospects for the public option:

Right now, you have Senate moderates saying they can’t pass a bill with a public plan and House liberals saying they won’t pass a bill without one. Is health-care reform between a rock and a hard place?

We need to let it play out more. In the House there’s a consensus in support of the public option, and people coming back from their districts continue to support a public option. Then we’ll have to see what the Senate does and where we go from there. As we come back, the White House will have to play a bigger role in this debate.

I wonder how he rates Obama on that score now; that’s somewhat less than a pledge to fight for a public option no matter what.  But given his continued support for a public option — a stance that is presumably in step with other House Democrat leaders — it’s important to support Baucus bill amendments like Jay Rockefeller’s that add the public option to the Senate bill.

EDIT, 9/25: “Representative,” “(D-MD-8),” and link to the congressional web site added.

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The greening of Van Hollen

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th July 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) that read, in part:

Thanks to your hard work, the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed 219-212 in last Friday’s historic vote. Although, as we’ve said, key features of the bill fall short of what scientists say is urgently needed, there were several members of Congress who emerged as true climate leaders — including Congressman Van Hollen. Congressman Van Hollen is on a well-deserved recess until July 6th but I want to make sure he hears from his constituents when he gets back. That’s why on Tuesday, July 7th, I plan to hand-deliver a giant thank you card to his office. (Care to join me? Just email me)…

I decided against joining in on the giant thank you card. But I think the story of just how Congressman Van Hollen got the “climate leader” accolades and “climate herogala festivities CCAN has been bestowing on him is worth telling.

Gordon Clark, the 2008 election, and “cap and dividend”
In last fall’s election, Representative Van Hollen was opposed by (among others) Green Party candidate Gordon Clark — whom I supported. Van Hollen is a personally popular liberal Democrat elected in something of an uprising against local moderate Republican Connie Morella in 2002; he’s not hurting for campaign funds, and many in the area are proud he’s chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — despite Van Hollen’s association with the disappointing Democratic “opposition” to Bush between 2002 and 2008.

Clark, a long time activist in and director of peace and environmental movements,  campaigned hard and turned in a strong debate performance — which Van Hollen couldn’t attend due to the emergency bailout vote the same evening.  On Election Day Van Hollen easily outdistanced both Clark and his Republican challenger.

But the Clark/Green Party campaign was influential nonetheless; as often happens with third parties, they peel off some activists, they serve as an important source of ideas, and they can win some important skirmishes even if they wind up losing the contest. In this case, the skirmish Clark won was one for the endorsement of an influential local political group, Progressive Neighbors. In a very surprising development (covered on this site), Clark tied with Van Hollen after a kind of “mail-in debate” — the only debate of any kind between the two candidates in the campaign. Clark had parried Van Hollen’s less coolly composed letter with point after point detailing Van Hollen’s lack of leadership, especially on the financial crisis, peace, and environmental issues.

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Van Hollen cosponsors EFCA

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 13th March 2009

One million strong for the Employee Free Choice ActFrom the AFL-CIO:

This week, 223 representatives signed on as co-sponsors of the Employee Free Choice Act. They are leading the way in the fight to restore workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain for a better life. It is imperative that we thank these representatives for siding with working families instead of Big Business lobbyists.

Thank you, Representative Van Hollen. As one of the cosponsors listed in the preamble of the act itself, and as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, I hope he’ll continue to lead the charge for this important legislation in the days and weeks ahead.

As is well known, the bill seeks to “amend the National Labor Relations Act to establish an efficient system to enable employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to provide for mandatory injunctions for unfair labor practices during organizing efforts, and for other purposes.”

The means for that efficient system is the so-called “card check” method of organizing a union, in which the National Labor Relations Board is directed to immediately certify a union as the representative for workers when “a majority of the employees in a unit appropriate for bargaining has signed valid authorizations designating the individual or labor organization specified in the petition as their bargaining representative” when the workers are not already represented.

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Van Hollen cuts and pastes views on Iran blockade resolution

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd November 2008

I received an e-mail from Representative Chris Van Hollen’s office last week on the subject of H.Con.Res. 362, known to its detractors as the “Iran blockade resolution.”  (The e-mail may be read here.)

A disturbing part of that resolution (in my opinion) is:

[Congress] demands that the President initiate an international effort to immediately and dramatically increase the economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities by, inter alia, prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran; and prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program;…

(emphases added) …which — given this administration’s “ready, fire, aim” methods — still seems to me like waving a red cape in front of a bull in a china shop.” The gist of Van Hollen’s response to my own e-mail expressing opposition to H.Con.362 is this:

Some have interpreted language in the resolution as authorizing a blockade of Iran. The resolution makes no mention of military pressuremuch less a blockade. H. Con. Res. 362 calls for the President to seek the international community’s support for an export ban on refined petroleum, not a blockade. Iran does not export refined petroleum products, it imports them. Therefore an export ban on refined petroleum would be enforced by customs inspectors and export administrators on the territories of the exporting countries, not in the Persian Gulf. This method is already in use by the international community, including the United States to enforce the four existing UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran.

Finally, I draw your attention to the final whereas clause of the resolution which states in explicit language, “Whereas nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran.” Since a naval blockade is by definition the use of force, the language of the final whereas clause of this resolution renders the prospect of a naval blockade simply out of the question.

First, it is of no consequence whatsoever that Iran imports refined petroleum products — in fact, preventing imports is the traditional purpose of a blockade.  Second, the resolution itself speaks of “stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran.

Now I’m not alone in suspecting that the language of the resolution is a reckless demand for a naval blockade — whatever its sponsors may have intended, the measures envisioned can not be carried out without inspections and, if necessary, interdictions at sea.  From a July 10, 2008 letter by Lawrence Korb, Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan (ret.), and Lt. General Robert Gard, Jr. (ret.) urging Congress to abandon the resolution:

• The language demanding the President initiate an international effort “prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran,” is of particular concern because despite the protests of its sponsors, we believe that implementation of inspections of this nature could not be accomplished without a blockade or the use of force.

• Immense military resources would be required to implement such inspections of cargo moving through the seas, on the ground and in the air. The international community has shown no willingness to join in such an activity. Without a Security Council Resolution, implementation of these measures could be construed as an act of war.

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A Van Hollen/Clark “mail in debate” at Progressive Neighbors

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th October 2008

Progressive Neighbors nonendorsementBy Montgomery County standards, it qualified as a political earthquake: the respected Takoma Park/Silver Spring “Progressive Neighbors” PAC steering committee did not endorse Chris Van Hollen in his bid for re-election to Maryland’s 8th Congressional District seat in the House of Representatives.  As their election issues flier — to be distributed by volunteers before and on Election Day — states,

Progressive Neighbors is split between endorsing the incumbent Chris Van Hollen and Green Party challenger Gordon Clark.  We appreciate many of the stands Van Hollen has taken but have been disappointed by his lack of progressive leadership on issues that Clark is championing such as ending the War in Iraq and single payer, universal health care.

The organization’s web site front page adds, “The positions of both the incumbent Chris Van Hollen and Green Party challenger Gordon Clark were considered by the steering committee, and the committee came to a split decision.”

I spoke with Progressive Neighbors steering committee member and contact person Wally Malakoff, who said he agreed with the position the group took: “Van Hollen has taken good positions, but could be more aggressive” in pushing them, while Clark is a “good, articulate spokesman” for progressive positions.  He said that the steering committee solicited member opinions via email and also considered those responses — roughly evenly divided — in coming to its decision.

The two candidates submitted letters to the Progressive Neighbors steering committee — first one by Van Hollen requesting endorsement, and then a response by Clark— both of which are now posted on the Progressive Neighbors web site.*  Given that Van Hollen had to miss the only debate he was willing to schedule with Clark, the letters are perforce the only debate the voters of the 8th Congressional District will get to judge.

There are a lot of specific points made by both candidates in their letters.  Instead of dwelling on these specifics, I’ll try in the following to get across the themes of both candidate’s positions accurately.  In case it needs restating, I should make it (even more) crystal-clear that I support Clark.

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For Gordon Clark for Congress in Maryland’s 8th C.D.

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 26th October 2008

The following email was sent to impeachment supporters in the Takoma Park area; I’ve added a video link to the campaign video mentioned in the second paragraph.


Dear Takoma Park Impeach Bush & Cheney supporter,

We — Thomas Nephew, Lisa Moscatiello, and Michelle Bailey — are writing to endorse Gordon Clark (Green Party) for Maryland’s 8th Congressional District seat in the House of Representatives.  We’re confident that as the kind of independent thinker who has supported impeachment, you’ll be very impressed with Mr. Clark, who is opposing incumbent Chris Van Hollen (Democratic Party).  For our part, all three of us will be voting for him on November 4th.

To learn more about Gordon Clark, visit his web site at  While you’re there, be sure to check out his latest campaign video — a great two minute summary of why Gordon Clark is running for Congress.*  There’s also a video of his recent debate with Republican Steve Hudson and Van Hollen legislative aide Bill Parsons (Van Hollen couldn’t attend because of the bailout bill vote).

The centerpiece of Clark’s campaign is a Green New Deal — an Apollo program, Manhattan Project, and Marshall Plan all rolled into one — to put America on the path to renewable energy independence.  He also supports universal health care, opposes threatening war with Iran, and wants a complete withdrawal from Iraq; as you’ll see from an issues chart comparison, Chris Van Hollen falls short on these and other counts.  There’s more, everything is well documented — and you’ll probably find yourself agreeing with Gordon Clark much more often than not.

There will be a Clark volunteer meeting today (Sunday, October 26th) from 4-6PM at 822 Gist Avenue, Silver Spring; to get in touch with the campaign, contact Sara Gilbertie at 860-233-4097 or, or visit the campaign web site at

= = = = =

What about Clark’s views on impeachment?  Here’s what he told Internet radio host Chip Gibbons earlier this year:

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