During a conversation the other day with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, I referred to the American Recovery Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009, when I meant to cite the American Rescue Plan, signed by President Joe Biden in 2021. Van Hollen immediately straightened me out.
“The American Recovery Act,” he said, “was the bill we passed after the Great Recession in 2008. The recovery in that case took over eight years, whereas, in the case of the [American Rescue Plan], the country has bounced back much more quickly.”
In both efforts at recovery, 12 years apart, it was Democrats in Congress and Democratic presidents who approved massive government spending to help the country through a jam.
And, for the record (and emphasis): No Republican in the House voted for the American Recovery Act. Only three Republican senators joined Democrats in sending the measure to Obama, who had inherited the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression from a Republican administration.
Biden also succeeded a Republican president and inherited the lingering effects of a pandemic, with unemployment at 6.2%. No Republican in the House or Senate voted for the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion package of direct payments to households, funds for vaccinations and an extension of unemployment benefits.
Two years since its passage, the nation’s unemployment rate is down to 3.5%.
Note: During Obama’s first year in office, the unemployment rate reached 10%. Eight years later, it was down to 4.7%. Many economists have said the 2009 spending, at $787 billion, did not go far enough, prolonging recovery from the Great Recession.
This time around, Van Hollen says, there are two reasons the country came back faster: “One, because we very quickly deployed the [COVID-19] vaccines and more equitably deployed the vaccines. We helped get over the worst of the pandemic. But the second reason is the investments we made. … The American Rescue Plan, the evidence is very clear, is what helped our economy bounce back much more quickly.”
Republicans, of course, believe the big spending contributed to inflation; some economists back them up. But other factors related to the pandemic — supply chain problems, loss of manufacturing, labor shortages, overdue wage increases — contributed to higher prices.
Despite that, Americans did not punish Democrats as severely as had been predicted at the polls in November, and, according to the Commerce Department, economic growth remained strong at the end of the year.
Good thing, Van Hollen says, that Democrats managed to do what they did before the Republicans gained a modest majority in the House. Democrats passed not only the American Rescue Plan, but the $1 trillion infrastructure package and the Inflation Reduction Act.
And good thing, because Republicans appear poised to do nothing constructive for the next two years.
“I divide my goals in this Congress into three buckets,” Van Hollen says. “One is, do no harm. That means stop House Republican extremists from doing bad things to the country.
“Another is working on implementing the major pieces of legislation we passed during the last two years. How it’s implemented can have a significant effect on Maryland and Baltimore.
“And the third area is new initiatives,” he says. “In order to make progress, you have to keep pushing on important proposals. A lot of what we were able to do in the last two years, with President Biden and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, would not have been possible had we not been preparing for years.”
Example: The Inflation Reduction Act has two provisions Van Hollen pushed in several previous sessions, going back to when he was in the House. One is the creation of a “national green bank” to use $27 billion in public funds to leverage more billions in private capital for investments in clean energy and other projects that reduce carbon emissions; the money would go to states that have green banks — Maryland is one — with an emphasis on projects in low-income communities.
A second provision with Van Hollen’s fingerprints is a program to provide an array of rebates for Americans who make their homes more energy efficient.
“You have to keep pushing,” Van Hollen says. “We are going to push forward on a number of initiatives even if we can’t get them through the House or even the Senate right now, to lay some groundwork.”
Here are three things he’s working on:
- Requiring the nation’s biggest corporate polluters — specifically, those in the fossil fuel industry — to pay into a fund, based on a percentage of their global emissions, to help arrest climate change.
- Repealing statutory obstacles that Congress created to keep the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from tracking guns used in crimes. “People would be appalled if they knew all the ways the Congress has handcuffed the ATF,” Van Hollen says. “Current law is designed to protect the bad actors.”
- Demanding statehood for the District of Columbia. “We are the world’s oldest democracy,” he says, “and yet the people who live in the capital of our democracy don’t have the same political rights as everybody else in the country. That’s wrong.”
Van Hollen believes “there’s a very strong likelihood” that the Democrats win back a majority in the House in 2024. “We have to be ready … have to keep pushing on these fronts,” he says. “If you’re not pushing on the door, it won’t open.”