National issues top discussion at Van Hollen meeting
Dec. 17, 2003
Brooke W. Stanley
Staff Writer

National issues took precedence over local ones last week during a town hall meeting in Gaithersburg where residents talked with U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. about education, health care, the war in Iraq, terrorism and the upcoming presidential election.

Van Hollen (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington discussed his legislative priorities for the coming year, including fulfilling what he described as broken promises and mandates with no funding that are taking their toll on the educational system.

Not only are college tuition costs rising dramatically, but not enough money has been set aside to implement the No Child Left Behind Act or the Individuals with Disabilities Act, Van Hollen said.

"We need to fully fund special education [for the disabled]," Van Hollen said.

Van Hollen believes the No Child Left Behind Act, a law passed in 2002 that mandates when schools must meet certain educational standards and provides them with extra money, needs to be fully funded. In fiscal year 2004, Maryland will receive $320.6 million less than it would if the act were fully funded. The initiative, Van Hollen said, needs modifications in its test use and scoring methods.

Van Hollen said he will push for legislation in 2004 that will end state cuts to higher education with hopes of curbing rising tuition increases at colleges and universities.

"I think we have a very serious problem brewing here in the state of Maryland" and in the nation, he said.

Van Hollen also talked extensively about Medicare, telling residents he believes the bill that was recently passed will worsen healthcare for many residents.

The drug benefit for residents is "measly," and though some people will receive a little help, low-income residents will be much worse off.

There is a provision in the bill that prohibits federal government officials from bargaining with prescription drug companies to reduce the cost for patients.

As Van Hollen pushed an agenda for education and criticized new Medicare legislation, some of the more than 200 residents in attendance chose to ask questions about national security.

North Bethesda resident Mollie Habermeier said she is concerned about the use of Mexican Consular identification cards, which are recognized by police and banks as legitimate forms of identification. The ID cards could make it easier for terrorists to further their plots without being detected, and because Montgomery County is so close to the nation's capitol, she was particularly concerned about terrorism in this area.

Van Hollen said that while he has no involvement in the approval of the cards, he believes they are intended to better track illegal immigrants.

Habermeier said she knew the Montgomery County Council approves the cards, but she also thinks Congress needs to give the State Department authority to regulate local decisions on the cards.

"It's a federal issue also," she said.

One woman said she was concerned there had been more government money given to study what happened in the space shuttle Columbia disaster than has been set aside to study how the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks happened. She encouraged Van Hollen to support more funding for the commission studying the terrorist attacks.

"It's important to learn [about] any mistakes [that] were made -- whether we could have done things better," Van Hollen said of the Sept. 11 attacks. He did not, however, say whether he would lobby for that extra funding.

Several residents thanked Van Hollen for taking a stance against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"My view is that the President didn't give international process -- the inspectors -- enough time," he said.

Saqib Ali of North Potomac thanked Van Hollen for not supporting the war while pushing him to endorse a Democratic presidential candidate.

"Many people here share my feelings of gratitude ... and a lot of those people are wearing little blue Howard Dean stickers," Ali said, eliciting a chuckle from the crowd.

Van Hollen has not announced a presidential candidate endorsement.

"I believe all of them would serve the party well and represent the party well," he said.

However Van Hollen said he sees a similarity between the grassroots nature of Dean's campaign and his own campaign.

"I really respect the campaign he's running," Van Hollen said.

Kentlands resident Rob Ficke said he strongly supports Van Hollen's legislative actions, particularly his opposition to a bill that would have meant hourly wage employees did not receive benefits from overtime hours.

"I'm really interested in what Chris has been able to do in the face of a Republican majority," Ficke said.