Van Hollen a rarity: free-trade Democrat

April 06, 2005|By Jay Hancock

WHAT IS Chris Van Hollen so shy about?

The Montgomery County congressman and possible candidate for Paul Sarbanes' Senate seat just got a well-deserved nod from the Cato Institute for his support of free trade. But he doesn't want to talk about it.

I tried three times recently to interview him about his status as one of only seven of the think tank's "most consistent free traders" in the House - and one of only two Democrats.

"He is interested in the issue," spokeswoman Marilyn Campbell said. "But this isn't a good time" to talk about it. She wouldn't elaborate. Two weeks ago wasn't a good time, either.

As a liberal Democrat aspiring to greater things, is Van Hollen embarrassed that the libertarian Cato folks have outed him as a free-trade, Democratic renegade?

Cato gave him a 100 percent score on votes against trade-distorting corporate subsidies and a 91 percent score on votes against tariffs, quotas and other barriers. That puts him in a very select caucus within his increasingly protectionist party.

The contingent of Democratic free traders "is not very strong and is getting smaller all the time," said Dan Griswold, director of Cato's Center for Trade Policy Studies. "Forty percent of House Democrats voted for NAFTA," the North American Free Trade Agreement, in 1993. "And I bet you couldn't get 20 percent today, and you won't get 20 percent for the Central American Free Trade Agreement."

To earn top honors from Cato, Van Hollen voted for free trade agreements with Singapore, Australia, Morocco and Chile; for relaxing the embargo on Cuba; against sanctions on Burma, and for extending a program making it easier for foreign doctors to practice in rural areas.

Griswold credits the votes to Van Hollen's suburban Washington voters - "government workers and consumers" - and the fact that he represents few manufacturers hurt by global commerce.

"His constituents have nothing but to gain from free trade," Griswold says. "He is serving his constituency, if not the marching orders of his party."

Van Hollen's predecessor in the 8th District, Connie Morella, thrived for years as a Democrat in Republican clothing. Now Van Hollen, an official Democrat, is mimicking his GOP colleagues in one respect. In Montgomery County, you do what you gotta do.

But perhaps something more noble is going on.

Van Hollen is a man of the world. Born in Pakistan, growing up in India and Turkey, he presumably saw how international commercial ties can transform impoverished nations and prevent wars. His father, Christopher Van Hollen Sr., was ambassador to Sri Lanka, and his mother, Eliza, was a career Foreign Service employee.

So maybe Van Hollen's pro-trade votes are based on principle, consideration and desire for a better world, not political expediency. There's too much groupthink these days among both liberals and conservatives; we need more intelligent rebels.

Griswold thinks Democrats badly need a new free-trade leader. It might be Van Hollen, especially if he graduates to the Senate. But first he has to don the mantle.

The wheels of charity reform took another turn with an entertaining hearing of the Senate Finance Committee yesterday and a stern letter from Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Mark W. Everson.

After years of virtually ignoring flagrant abuses at nonprofits, the IRS last year began increasing charity investigations.

"We can see that tax abuse is increasingly present" in the nonprofit sector, Everson wrote in response to the Finance Committee's inquiry about the progress. "We will act vigorously, for to do otherwise is to risk the loss of the faith and support that the public has always given to this sector."

The agency said it found "lax attitudes toward governance," "abusive transactions," and "excess compensation" in numerous nonprofit sectors.

Examples of problems were presented at a Finance Committee hearing yesterday, including the case of a nonprofit Minnesota hospital system that sought donations from the public and then spent $89,000 to send trustees, executives and spouses to an Arizona resort to discuss "health care reform." The boondoggle included a $5,000 dinner and $4,500 spent on golf, tennis and spas, according to Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch.

The nonprofit, known as Allina Health System when the incident took place several years ago and now called Allina Hospitals & Clinics, has said the expenditures were legal but not necessarily "right."

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