What is likely to be the most heated showdown between Democrats and the new Republican majority in the 112th Congress — over the budget — will feature a head-to-head matchup between two rising stars in their respective parties. Prominent fiscal hawk and conservative wunderkind Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) is set to chair the House Budget Committee next year, and Democrats believe they have a suitable adversary in Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.), who was unanimously selected last week for the role of ranking member.
Van Hollen is widely viewed as a talented up-and-comer despite his stint as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which just oversaw the loss of more than 60 Democratic seats. In fact, Van Hollen has mostly escaped blame for the loss of his party’s majority in the House, and perhaps rightly so. (Though with Nancy Pelosi set to retain her leadership position, it remains unclear whether the Democrats believe anyone is responsible for their poor showing on November 2.)
One reason why the Democrats were in need of new leadership on the Budget Committee is that one of those 60-plus seats belonged to the current chairman, John Spratt (D., S.C.). Spratt enthusiastically endorsed the Maryland Democrat to succeed him. The Democratic caucus — led by Pelosi, a close ally of Van Hollen’s — followed suit, sparing the Democrats a potentially messy power struggle. In fact, Van Hollen was the only Democrat to secure a leading committee position before the Thanksgiving recess.
Both parties understand the crucial role the Budget Committee will play in the new Congress, so Van Hollen’s selection shows that the Democrats have considerable confidence in the 51-year-old lawmaker. The move is even more dramatic considering that Van Hollen is not currently a member of the Budget Committee, though he does have experience on the Ways and Means Committee.
The Democrats need an effective counterweight to Paul Ryan, whose bold “Roadmap for America’s Future” garnered him frequent media appearances, spurring his rise to national prominence. No one doubts he’ll be a force to reckon with as Budget Committee chairman. Ryan has become the face of reasoned opposition to President Obama’s spending agenda. This was on full display during the deliberations over health-care reform, when he systematically dismantled the flawed financial assumptions and “cynical gimmicks” riddling the bill, leaving the “professorial” Obama speechless; the president awkwardly changed the subject.
Ryan is a rock star in the eyes of many conservatives. He has managed to achieve the unthinkable — making fiscal responsibility cool, or at least something that needs to be taken seriously. In the eyes of liberals, he is certainly a threat. His calm, plain-spoken demeanor and obvious intelligence shatter the Left’s caricature of the dim, angry Republican “tea-bagger.” While some liberal commentators insist on dismissing Ryan as “flimflam” or a “dangerous madman,” most Democrats seem to realize the futility of this approach.
Enter Van Hollen. Described as a “Washington gentleman,” he has spent most of his life in politics, but has served in Congress only since 2003, rising through the ranks of the Democratic leadership in short order — he became DCCC chairman in 2008 and was named assistant to the Speaker in 2009. Ryan aides tell National Review Online that their boss welcomes the extra attention that Van Hollen’s high profile should bring to next year’s battle over the budget.
The two are familiar with each other from their work together on the Ways and Means Committee, and have already had a number of heated back-and-forths — among other things, over health-care reform in the run-up to the bill’s passage last spring, and over Ryan’s “Roadmap,” which Van Hollen has criticized as a “dead end” because of its approach to entitlement programs. Ryan dismissed Van Hollen’s remarks as “irresponsible scare tactics” and responded by calling for an “adult conversation” about the future of entitlement spending.
Ryan’s plan became a hot-button issue during the midterms, largely at Van Hollen’s behest. The DCCC under his leadership made a point of going after Republican candidates who spoke so much as a positive word about Ryan or his plan. For instance, the DCCC opened its midterm television blitz with an ad in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin, targeting Republican Sean Duffy, who went on to win the seat held by retiring Appropriations Committee chairman Dave Obey (D.). The ad accused Duffy of wanting to privatize Social Security and slash Medicare, citing as evidence his support for Ryan’s “Roadmap.” As PolitiFact Wisconsin pointed out, the ad’s claims are completely false. But they are also indicative of the tenor of Democratic attacks on Ryan and his plan, at least during the campaign, and could foreshadow a nasty political showdown over issues like Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, spending and deficit reduction, tax policy, health-care reform, and much more.
Van Hollen has to hope he is more successful in his new role than he was as chairman of the DCCC. Ryan, who enjoyed a good working relationship with John Spratt, anticipates “spirited debates” with Van Hollen, but is looking forward to the challenge, an aide says. A Van Hollen adviser recently told the Huffington Post that his boss feels the same way, and relishes a leading role in the “central fight” of the new GOP-majority House.
If Van Hollen intends to mount a defense of Obama/Pelosi economics, then a fight is what he’ll get. Ryan has made clear that he intends to promote a bold budget proposal in the spirit of his “Roadmap” to seriously address the nation’s fiscal problems. Ryan and Van Hollen will both have their work cut out for them.
— Andrew Stiles is a 2010 Franklin fellow.