When the 12 lawmakers named this week to the debt reduction super committee return from their August break, they'll have their work cut out for them. The group has until Nov. 23 to propose $1.5 trillion in savings over the coming decade. Democrat Chris Van Hollen of the Maryland is the only member of the super committee from our region. He joins us now to talk about his role.
WAMU: Good morning, Congressman.
Van Hollen: Good morning, good to be with you.
WAMU: There's been so much partisanship gridlock in Washington over the recent weeks, particularly over the debt ceiling debate, putting a lot of pressure on this committee. So how hopeful are you that this group is going to be able to reach a viable agreement?
Van Hollen: Well, I hope we'll come together with a seriousness of purpose to try and reach the goal that you talked about -- $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reduction or perhaps exceed it. The president at one point talked about a grand bargain, and so I think all of us need to come to the table willing to listen to the ideas of the others, and I think that can happen. Whether or not we end up getting an agreement is something only time will tell, but I can you based on my conversations with various people, I think we're going to come to the table willing to listen.
WAMU: How much worse would it be if you guys were not able to get this deal done, and then by Dec. 23 the automatic spending cuts go into effect?
Van Hollen: That would be a very bad result because the spending triggers as you pointed out will go off. Now, the actual cuts will not be implemented until January 2013, so conceivably, the Congress would still have another year to come up with a different plan, but I think we have to assume that if this committee is unable to come up with that plan, then the cuts will go into effect until January 2013. And those are very significant across the board cuts. They're done in a way that’s not targeted. It’s a shotgun approach, which is not the way we should be approaching the budget. We should be prioritizing and deciding what the proper mix of cuts and revenue will be as we reduce the deficit.
WAMU: Federal workers make up so much of the workforce in this area and in your District in particular. What impact should they be prepared for?
Van Hollen: I think it's very important that nobody try and single out federal workers and bare the brunt of deficit reduction. Sometimes you get in these debates and federal workers become scapegoats when we rely on them to do all sorts of important jobs for the country – everything from boarder patrol to NIH and developing new and innovative discoveries. And FDA, trying to make sure they’re discovering new drugs and trying to approve them. These are just a few of the examples of the work done by federal agencies, and it would be a big mistake to take a chopper to them.
WAMU: NIH in particular was cut by your Republican colleagues in the House earlier this year. Will there be any cuts at NIH? It's such a big agency in this area and in your District. And how are you going to try and protect that?
Van Hollen: Well it would be very short-sighted to make cuts to NIH because the history has that the discoveries that they've come up have helped to reduce costs because they’ve developed treatments to various diseases, so I'm very hopeful that we'll be able to protect that very important national investment. But again, as you pointed out, that was put on the chopping block by our Republican colleagues in the House, and we'll have to make the case that it's important. It's another example of where the money spent at NIH have also helped boost the economy even as they help folks from diseases around the country.
WAMU: To what extent has the S&P downgrade of the bond rating changed the tone of these conversations?
Van Hollen: I think even before the S&P downgrade, there was a clear understanding that we need to do two things: one is reduce the deficit over the longer term, but I think the focus will also be on trying to make the economy going now, and getting the jobs going now. The single most important thing we can do in the immediate term to help the deficit situation is to help put people back to work. When you're not at work, you're not only unable to pay the rent, but obviously fewer revenues are coming in to the federal treasury, so the focus many of us will bring to the table will be what can we do for jobs in the economy now. That’s the right thing to do for American families. It’s also the right thing to do if you want to reduce the deficit.