If a voter is concerned about potential influences from campaign backers, it can be challenging to dig into the available information and confirm suspicions or relieve their minds of such worries. Thus, it must be a great relief to the voters in Maryland to read reports like this one from January of 2019:
“U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) has joined Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and House Ethics Committee Chair Ted Deutch (D-FL) in introducing the Conflicts from Political Fundraising Act of 2019. The bill would require Presidentially-appointed executive branch officials to disclose whether they have solicited donations for or contributed funds to political action committees (PACs), political non-profits, and industry trade associations. Such disclosure would close a glaring ethics loophole that allows executive branch appointees to avoid divulging their ties to shadowy political spending groups and other interests they may regulate as federal officials.”
The “shadowy political spending groups” referenced in that comment are also known as dark money groups, and they are a very troubling force in modern American politics.
And though some political experts say that the influence created is seen in “subtle things that are less top of mind, less likely to be in the news — some amendment tucked into a larger bill…[and] greater access for friendly lobbyists,” the sway they hold cannot be ignored.
One source noted that “spending of this kind (in which groups did not reveal their donors) climbed rapidly from five million dollars in the year 2006 to more than three hundred million dollars in 2012.” Another source explained the challenge concisely, saying: “With big-dollar donors effectively in control of American politics, writing six- and seven-figure checks to SuperPACs to support ad campaigns that confuse viewers and distort the views and records of candidates, it’s no surprise that voters are increasingly cynical about public affairs.”
Sadly, many voters remain unaware of the level influence that these rather dubious contributions have. To clarify, “dark money” is used to described donations that are unable to be traced to their sources. However, dark money is also used to talk about expenditures by large groups towards the election of a candidate. These funds, as that quote noted, come through PACs (Political Action Committees) and SuperPACs, and most do no know that it is almost impossible to identify or legislate.
PACs and SuperPACs are non-profits, and recent changes in the law mean they are no longer required to disclose the names of donors. Thus, funds may come from almost anywhere, keeping the source of political backing covert, but also enabling an undesirable “workaround” of traditional tax and campaign finance rules designed to limit influence.
They earn the name of PAC when they breach the $2600 spending cap for any federal election. PACs and SuperPACs differ only in that the latter cannot donate to parties or candidates. Instead, a SuperPAC is allowed to spend any amount on advertising and other marketing methods. And, there is no cap on what a SuperPAC can receive from groups or individuals.
Though PACs and SuperPACs are a relatively new evolution in American elections, rule changes also grant such groups more and more leverage all of the time. For instance, the Citizens United ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, eliminated the ban on corporations and unions spending enormous sums on political campaigns.
Deeming it a matter of free speech, the court (in a five to four ruling), determined it was appropriate for labor unions and corporations to “spend as much as they want to convince people to vote for or against a candidate,” according to an article from The Center for Public Integrity.
Of course, it isn’t about elections alone, but political donations in general, which is the focal point of that legislation introduced by Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). At the time he presented it to the Senate, he said, “The American people have a right to know whether government officials nominated to protect the public interest have been previously engaged in protecting powerful special interests. This legislation will provide crucial transparency to the public on political donations – information they have a right to know.”
Aiming to eliminate conflicts of interest in the executive branch, it would make plain when donors are regulated by those they supported in their political careers or with whom they have an unacceptable relationship.
It was back in 2016 when Senator Van Hollen first ran for the Senate seat he now holds that an edition of the Washington Examiner ran a headline saying, “Van Hollen complains about ‘dark money,’ which is helping him.” The article went on to explain that the Senator’s rival in the election had accepted around $15k from a dark money group and a total of less than $900k in campaign funding.
It went on to point out that “Van Hollen has raised a whopping $9.5 million… receiving aid from far more outside groups, some of which actually don’t have to disclose donors. Among these are both super PACs (which do have to disclose) and 501(c)4s (which don’t). One super PAC, affiliated with the National Association of Realtors, spent nearly $1 million on Van Hollen’s re-election during the primary.”
Further, it indicates that “Van Hollen has previously benefitted from money that broke FEC rules, resulting in a fine. In 2004, Van Hollen was fined $2,500 by the FEC for accepting donations from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s PAC, which had exceeded FEC limits when donating to candidates.”
So, is Senator Van Hollen under undue influences by his backers or is he working on behalf of his constituency? That is what we are going to consider throughout the rest of this article. To do so, we will examine several specific points:
- His publicly stated priorities and issues
- Senator Van Hollen’s committee and caucus activities
- His critical sources of campaign funding
- Senator Van Hollen’s most recent legislative items sponsored or co-sponsored
By doing so, we can determine if campaign backers rather than constituents have influenced him. We will also use other data to reach our conclusions, including bipartisanship ratings, approval ratings, and more.
For example, Senator Van Hollen rates poorly in the Lugar Center Bipartisanship Index, holding the 85th spot in the list. What this means is plain: legislation he creates does nottypically attract the support of Republicans, and that, in turn, he does not often support their efforts. He does rate favorably in Senate approval ratings where he holds 42ndplace and maintains a 53% net approval rating among fellow Dems and a 25% net approval with Republicans.
About Senator Chris Van Hollen
Born abroad in 1959, he is the son of a former Foreign Service officer who worked as both the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs as well as the U.S. Ambassador to both the Maldives and Sri Lanka. His mother was part of the CIA and the State Department, focusing in South Asia. Thus, his childhood was spent in far removed areas like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, and Turkey.
He came to the U.S. to complete high school and then moved on to Swarthmore College to get a BA in philosophy. After that, he studied public policy at Harvard, as well as national security at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. He obtained a JD from Georgetown University, too.
His life in politics did not begin until the mid to late 190s when he worked as a legislative assistant to a Republican Senator in Maryland and then moved up to a staff position in the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He was an advisor to Maryland’s Governor and began practicing law privately in 1990.
He obtained a seat in the Maryland General Assembly and its House of Delegates before taking a seat in the State Senate. In 2002, he ran for and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving seven terms before running for and winning his seat in the Senate in 2016. During his time in Congress, he has served as Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, as the House Democratic Assistant to the Leader, and as the Chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
His official website says he “believes that every child deserves the opportunity to pursue their dreams and benefit from a quality education, and that anyone willing to work hard should be able to find a good job. That’s why his top priorities include creating more and better jobs, strengthening small businesses, and increasing educational and job training opportunities for individuals of all ages and in every community.”
It also explains that he is a “tireless fighter for the people of Maryland…[and] has also become known for working hard to find common sense solutions to difficult national issues.” The site notes he has addressed “the problem of growing inequality in America,” and created a “a blueprint for building an economy that works for everyone.”
The issues he identifies as his primary focal points include:
- Civil Rights and Civil Liberties
- Consumer Protection
- Education and Job Training
- Health Care
- Immigration Reform
- Jobs, the Economy, and Tax Reform
- National Security and Foreign Policy
- Public Safety and Gun Violence Prevention
- Small Businesses
ProPublica keeps tabs on all Senators to determine how they vote, the most common subjects of bills they sponsor and even what issues appear in press releases. They have identified that Senator Van Hollen focuses on the following in his legislative work:
- Government Operations and Politics
- International Affairs
- Finance and Financial Sector
- Armed Forces and National Security
The Senator’s press releases and the topics seem to be his key issues include:
- International Affairs
- Transportation and Public Works
- Environmental Protection
There is a bit of overlap here, but not a lot. So, that means we need to keep scrutinizing the Senator’s words and actions to reveal any signs of influence.
Senator Van Hollen’s Committee Work
For the 116th Congress, Senator Van Hollen is assigned to the following committees and subcommittees:
- Committee on Appropriations
- Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies
- Subcommittee on Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies
- Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government
- Subcommittee on Legislative Branch
- Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs
- Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
- Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection
- Subcommittee on National Security and International Trade and Finance
- Subcommittee on Securities, Insurance, and Investment (Ranking)
- Committee on Environment and Public Works
- Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife
- Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure
- Committee on the Budget
o authentically gauge his level of commitment to this diversity of priorities, and look at any signs of influence, it means it is time to examine his most prominent financial backers.
The Top Industries Funding Senator Van Hollen Campaign Efforts
In 2016, Senator Van Hollen campaign raised $11,875,663.00 and spent $11,394,123.00, leaving a small amount of debt, but which has since been erased. This support came from an array of industries, and we’ll look at those contributors in three distinct groupings:
- The industries in which the Senator was a “favorite,” or top recipient in the last campaign cycle (2016)
- The industries that contributed the largest amount of financial support
- Individual organizations that donated the most
According to the Open Secrets Website, Senator Van Hollen was an industry favorite in:
- Public Sector Unions (#3)
- US Postal Service unions & associations (#4)
Also, there were many contributing towards his re-election, and the 20 industries that gave the most, overall, in 2016 were (in ranking order):
- Lawyers/Law Firms
- Real Estate
- Securities & Investment
- Health Professionals
- Civil Servants/Public Officials
- Business Services
- Miscellaneous Issues
- Hospitals/Nursing Homes
- Non-Profit Institutions
- Human Rights
- Electronics Manufacturing & Equipment
- Miscellaneous Finance
- Printing & Publishing
In addition to the general industries making contributions, the individual organizations were offering up the most, and which are listed below. NOTE: None of these organizations or groups donated directly to the campaign. Instead, they worked with PACs or had direct employee contributions for the 2016 election.
- Votesane PAC – “Serves as a conduit for individual donors to pass money along to the candidates and committees of their choosing, regardless of party or ideological persuasion.”
- Arnold & Porter- A “white-shoe international law firm based in Washington, D.C. Consisting of over 1,000 attorneys, Arnold & Porter is one of the largest law firms in the world.”
- WilmerHale LLP – “an American ‘BigLaw’ firm with offices across the United States, Europe and Asia. It was created in 2004, through the merger of the Boston-based firm, Hale and Dorr and the Washington-based firm Wilmer Cutler & Pickering; and employs more than 1,000 attorneys worldwide. WilmerHale ranked 2nd in the nation…”
- JStreetPAC – A “nonprofit liberal advocacy group based in the United States whose stated aim is to promote American leadership to end the Arab–Israeli and Israeli–Palestinian conflicts peacefully and diplomatically.”
- University of Maryland
- Arent Fox LLP – A “law firm and lobbying group based in Washington, D.C. The firm also has offices in New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In 2007, the National Law Journal ranked the firm as the 137th largest in the United States based on its number of attorneys.”
- Marriott International – An “American multinational diversified hospitality company that manages and franchises a broad portfolio of hotels and related lodging facilities…It has 30 brands with 7,003 properties in 131 countries and territories around the world, over 1,332,826 rooms (as of March 31, 2019), including 2,035 that are managed with 559,569 rooms, 4,905 that are franchised or licensed with 756,156 rooms, and 63 that are owned or leased with 17,101 rooms…”
- Venable LLP – “Ranked 64th in the 2017 AmLaw 100 survey. It was founded in Baltimore in 1900. Today the firm maintains 8 offices throughout the country and includes more than 800 attorneys practicing in over 70 practice and industry areas covering corporate and business law, complex litigation, intellectual property and regulatory and government affairs.”
- Dentons – “A multinational law firm. In 2015 is was ranked as 6th-largest law firm in the world by revenue and the world’s largest law firm by number of lawyers.”
- Johns Hopkins University
Having a nice balance of in-state and outside supporters presents a good picture for Senator Van Hollen. To complete our look for signs of influence, we can turn our attention to the legislation he’s introduced and sponsored during the current Congress. It is his legislative acts that will prove definitively any undue pressure from backers.
7 Items Senator Van Hollen Has Sponsored During the 116th Congress – To Date
For the 116th Congress, to date, Senator Van Hollen has 384 pieces of legislation with his name appearing on them; he has sponsored only 35 of them, and the remaining 349he has cosponsored. The Senator’s official Congressional page indicates that his emphasis in this Congress has been, as ProPublica noted, government operations and politics, international affairs, armed forces, and national security, education and finance.
Introduced on January 29, this legislation aimed at providing “federal employees with a 2.6 percent cost of living increase,” according to a press release about the bill from Senator Van Hollen’s office. Cosponsored by 20 Democratic Senators, it was created in response to President Trump’s 2018 announcement of a “freeze for civil servants for 2019, which he can do unilaterally unless Congress acts.”
A companion bill was also introduced in the House, and when speaking of this legislation, the Senator said, “Our federal workforce protects our nation, ensures the safety of our food and medicine, delivers Social Security and veterans’ benefits, and carries out countless other responsibilities on behalf of our citizens. President Trump’s shutdown just stranded more than 800,000 of these men and women without pay for over a month – at the same time that the Trump Pay Freeze took effect. Now more than ever, they deserve this cost of living adjustment to help make ends meet.
I was proud to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass a 1.9 percent pay raise in the Senate prior to the government shutdown, and in light of the added costs imposed on federal workers by the shutdown, I urge my colleagues to support this modest 2.6 percent raise.”
As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Senator was able to obtain a “1.9 percent pay increase as part of the Fiscal Year 2019 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, which passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support.” The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Introduced on February 11, this is legislation meant to help protect pedestrians and transit workers alike. It would do this in several ways. According to a press release from Senator Van Hollen, it gives “transit agencies two years to develop Bus Operations Safety Risk Reduction Programs in partnership with their transit workforce, and with oversight from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The bill authorizes $25 million per year for 5 years to pay for the implementation of these safety improvements as part of their Bus Operations Safety Risk Reduction Programs…”
It lists improvements that include assault mitigation infrastructure and technology, including barriers to prevent assault on bus drivers, de-escalation training for bus drivers, bus specifications and retrofits to reduce visibility impairments, driver assistance technology that reduces accidents, and Installation of bus driver seating to reduce ergonomic injuries.
Railways are part of the bill, and if passed it would provide “transit agencies two years to develop Rail Operations Worker Assault Risk Reduction Programs that would include a risk analysis of assaults on rail workers, including operators and station personnel, plans in cooperation with their labor representatives, and an implementation plan for rail worker assault mitigation.”
The legislation would also involve reporting of assaults. With endorsements from “the ATU, International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART), Transport Workers Union of America (TWU), AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, and Teamsters,” it was read twice and referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.
Introduced on February 27, this bipartisan legislation in an effort to bolster transparency in corporate trading. According to a press release about the bill, “The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) prohibits the purchase or sale of securities based on non-public information. Right now, the SEC allows executives to create a trading plan that ensures trades are done without taking advantage of inside information…[However] some dishonest players may be abusing loopholes in the system. This bill requires the SEC to study this issue, report their findings to Congress, and write additional rules addressing the ability of people to take advantage of the system.”
Similar legislation has been introduced to the House, and when speaking of both items, Senator Van Hollen said, “This bipartisan legislation will help ensure that corporate insiders are following the same rules as everyone else. By studying and modifying SEC Rule 10b5-1, the SEC can make changes that will ensure this rule can’t be used by individuals to shield themselves from liability when they do trade on insider information.”
The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.
Taking its name from the late Otto Warmbier who was imprisoned in North Korea in 2016 only to be released in mid-2017 in a vegetative state and dying shortly afterward, this bill is a reintroduction of bipartisan legislation. Having passed the Senate Banking Committee unanimously during the 115th Congress, it returns unchanged.
Introducing it on March 5, Senator Van Hollen said, the bill “is designed to offer foreign banks a stark choice: continue business with North Korea or maintain access to the U.S. financial system. The BRINK Act would impose mandatory sanctions on the foreign banks and companies that facilitate illicit financial transactions for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).”
Speaking to Congress, Senator Van Hollen said, “The United States should not sit on our hands as reports of North Korea’s efforts to build up their nuclear capabilities continue to stream in. And with talks between the Trump Administration and the DPRK breaking down last week, the need for Congress to draw a clear line in the sand is more important than ever.
This legislation sends a straightforward message to the regime and its partners that it’s not business as usual. We must expand and enforce sanctions against Kim Jong Un’s regime – the BRINK Act would do just that. I’m glad to join Senator Toomey in reintroducing this crucial measure to protect our national security.”
Mr. Warmbier’s parents also expressed support of the bill, saying, “We continue to support their bill and appreciate them honoring our son’s memory. We believe that the sanctions in this bill will provide useful new tools for the United States to impact and change the behavior of Kim and his regime.”
It was read twice and referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.
This legislation was introduced on March 7 in an effort to “Halt the Trump Administration’s Nuclear Escalation Endorsed by Outside Groups,” according to the Senator’s press release on the matter. In the release, the Senator noted that the bill had received “a wide array of outside groups,” offering support. It was created in “response to the Administration’s reckless and deeply short-sighted decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty,” and if passed into law would:
- “prevent the Trump Administration from taking any action to escalate nuclear tensions by unconditionally restricting the use of funds for activities prohibited under the INF Treaty during the six-month withdrawal period;
- prohibit the Administration from any near-term steps to further exacerbate the INF crisis and strain relations with our NATO allies; and
- require that the Trump Administration report on measures that the U.S. is pursuing to hold the Russian Federation accountable for its violations and to bring it back into compliance with the INF Treaty.”
With endorsements from the Council for a Livable World, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Arms Control Association, it was read twice and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.
This bipartisan legislation was introduced on March 14 to “prohibit foreign adversaries from owning and controlling the companies supporting American elections,” according to a press release from Senator Van Hollen’s office. It goes on to explain that “intelligence chiefs have made it clear that hostile foreign actors continue to work to disrupt our democratic process by any means possible. This common-sense legislation – with public disclosure and annual reporting – is essential in ensuring that our elections are free from foreign influence.”
Citing his own state, the Senator noted that “the FBI found that a Russian oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin was heavily invested in the software vendor that maintained key parts of the state’s election infrastructure. The Department of Homeland Security found that no information was compromised, and the state has now ended its relationship with ByteGrid and is using an American-owned company that has been reviewed by federal law enforcement. But the fact remains that this should have never happened – and cannot be allowed to happen in the future.”
Speaking directly to Congress on the matter, he said, “Our free and fair elections are central to what makes America’s democracy an example to the world. We cannot allow Russia or any other foreign adversaries to own our election systems. While Maryland’s systems were ultimately not compromised, it reinforced that this is a real issue we must address. The bipartisan Protect Our Elections Act would take simple but critical steps to ensure that the nuts and bolts of our elections are secure.”
If enacted, the legislation would include two central provisions:
- “Mandates disclosure of foreign ownership or control: The bill requires the companies that provide elections services to report to the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Election Assistance Commission, and appropriate state or local governmental entities any foreign national who owns or controls their firm. It also requires elections service providers to notify the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Election Assistance Commission, and appropriate state or local governmental entities of any material change in ownership or control. It mandates a $20,000 fine for any election service provider that fails to submit the required information.
- Prohibition on foreign ownership and control of elections systems: The bill requires state and local governments to conduct an annual evaluation of their election service providers to ensure that each election service provider is solely owned and controlled by U.S. persons. The legislation includes an exception for election service providers created or organized under the laws of our Five Eyes allies – Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.”
The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Rules and Administration.
Introduced during Public Schools Week, this bipartisan and bicameral bill seeks to get a Congressional commitment to “fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).” Dating to 1975, IDEA is meant to guarantee that all disabled kids enjoy access to educational opportunities. Since its passage, however, “Congress has failed to provide the funding promised under this bill,” and this legislation seeks to change that.
Speaking of it before Congress, Senator Van Hollen said, “Every child deserves a quality education – and the Congress must keep its promises to fund its share. The federal government must stop shortchanging our students and make good on its commitment to fully fund IDEA. That’s why I’m proud to introduce this legislation to support our schools and ensure a first-rate education for children with disabilities. I urge my colleagues to pass this common-sense, bipartisan bill immediately.”
Originally, IDEA legislation paid 40% per pupil, but never met that mark and holds at under 15% at best. Endorsed by a long list of educators and educational associations, the bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Introduced on May 2, the bipartisan bill is cosponsored by Dan Sullivan (R-AK). Both men cofounded the “bipartisan Foreign Service Caucus,” and created this bill to “help ensure that the State Department can attract and retain a world-class diplomatic corps by providing expanded career options and services to eligible family members.”
Having come from such a family himself, the Senator’s press release about the bill says, “For many of these family members, the process of finding employment isn’t easy — frequent moves, language barriers, and limited options pose significant challenges. This legislation will address that issue so our Foreign Service can continue to serve the best interests of Americans at home and abroad.”
He said that “Growing up in a Foreign Service family allowed me to see firsthand the immense impact our diplomats have on furthering American security, interests, and values abroad. But these families often face unique challenges. This legislation will help provide more employment opportunities to Foreign Service spouses, and ensure that we can continue to attract and retain the best and the brightest to serve in our diplomatic corps. I’m proud to introduce this bipartisan legislation with Senator Sullivan, and I urge the Congress to take up this common-sense measure immediately.”
If passed, it would “provide authority to the State Department to offer the same services to Foreign Service family members overseas that the Defense Department is permitted to provide to military families.” It was read twice and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.
Senator Van Hollen is a lone voice on this legislative item and introduced it on June 25. In his press release about it, he said that it “would provide an immediate investment into Americans’ retirement security. The bill would return the estate tax to 2009 levels – rolling back the most recent boon for wealthy estates in the 2017 Republican tax law – and depositing all of the revenues from this tax into the Social Security Trust Fund.”
He simultaneously introduced the “Social Security 2100 Act, which would strengthen the program over the long term while expanding benefits.”
He went on to say that in 2017, “Republicans in Congress secured their latest massive giveaway on the estate tax – delivering a $4.4 million tax cut per couple to just 1,900 estates in the entire country at the same time they refused to support vital national priorities. That was unconscionable, and we must return the estate tax to a more reasonable level.
I can think of no better way to use for that revenue than to strengthen Social Security. This program has been under attack in recent years, and we must fight to protect it. With this new legislation, we can ensure all hard-working men and women have financial security in their later years – not just the wealthy few.”
It would increase the estate, gift and generation-skipping transfer taxes to 2009 levels, combine Social Security’s two trust funds, and deposit all revenues from estate, gift, and generation-skipping transfer taxes into the Social Security OASI/DI Trust Fund, to achieve its goals.
The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Finance.
As we can plainly see, the Senator shows no signs of influence by his backers. He is looking out for the working class, families and kids in many of his bills. He is not introducing items that would have any direct benefits to the organizations responsible for the most substantial contributions to his campaigns, and it is obvious by his words and deeds that he is seeking functional, common-sense solutions to many of the issues he has experienced during his many years in Congress.