Chris Van Es had found what he believed to be “the best job he ever had” when he went to work at the U.S. Treasury Department in April 2016, first as a senior advisor and then six months later as acting deputy assistant secretary.
Van Es, an Eau Claire native, was the department’s chief liaison with the global business community. He advised then-Secretary Jacob “Jack” Lew and other top officials on enhancing trade relationships and fostering sustainable economic growth policies.
“It was great,” Van Es said recently from Washington, D.C., where he continues to live and work. “My job at Treasury was the best job I ever had.”
Prior to 2011, Van Es worked on several campaigns for Democratic candidates in Wisconsin in areas including operations and outreach.
Treasury is an “impactful agency,” he added, having a portfolio “so broad that on any given day you are working on very different sets of issues.”
But then came the 2016 election and, with the change in administration, Van Es joined the thousands of political appointees who were out of work on the spot. Since May 2017, Van Es has worked for the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority or FINRA, a non-governmental organization that regulates member brokerage firms and exchange markets. He currently is senior director and deputy for corporate communications.
In recent days, given his time at Treasury—and previous positions within the Obama administration starting in January 2011—Van Es watched with keen interest what he called the “parlor game” concerning who President-elect Biden would name as Treasury secretary. That debate ended recently when Biden named former Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen as the first woman to lead the department that traces its origins back to Alexander Hamilton.
“In the last four weeks or so there had been more buzz about her name,” Van Es said. “Between the end of October through the election you started to hear her name more and more, so it didn’t come as a surprise.”
And Van Es couldn’t be happier with the choice of Yellen to lead his previous place of employment.
“The entire economic team is terrific,” said Van Es, who worked on the 2020 Biden campaign as part of its National Finance Committee. “It reflects a group who are crisis tested,” he added, referring to the fact that many of the appointees worked with Obama in 2008-2010 on the response to the Great Recession.
Van Es noted that in the entire history of the Treasury Department, a woman never served as secretary, adding, “In 2020 we are still breaking barriers like this.”
Yellen will be a key player in Biden’s efforts to restore a semblance of equality to the economy, Van Es said, since the policies of the Trump administration have skewed the priorities toward the rich and left the rest with higher unemployment, increased hunger, and other difficulties.
For example, she said six years ago: “The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concerns me. The distribution of income and wealth in the United States has been widening more or less steadily for several decades, to a greater extent than in most advanced countries.”
“For people who were doing well before (Trump came into office) they are likely to be doing well now,” Van Es said. For the rest, he said, “we are in a historic crisis.”
Besides working on economic equality, the question remains: How does Treasury impact the lives of Wisconsin residents?
“At a foundational level, Treasury does a lot that impacts Main Street,” Van Es said. For example, it oversees the Internal Revenue Service, so “every annual Tax Day, the Treasury, the IRS, does have a direct impact on everyone’s lives.”
Treasury also oversees the printing of money, Van Es said, and every dollar bill is signed by the Treasury secretary.
“Another key element that resonates with people is that Treasury manages debt,” Van Es said (a role that goes back to Hamiltonian times), as well as issuing Treasury bonds and notes. These responsibilities, in coordination with the Federal Reserve Board, affect people’s mortgage rates and the strength of the US dollar, Van Es said.
The Treasury Secretary also serves as an advisor on trade policy which gives Yellen the challenge of rebuilding bridges that were casualties of trade wars that hurt Wisconsin farmers and manufacturers.
Finally, Yellen will be in charge of administering the regulations put in place through the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act after the 2008 financial meltdown, Van Es said, intended to ensure stability in financial markets. Yellen will be chair of the Financial Stability Oversight Council and will be a key player in the effort to overturn the Trump administration’s deregulation efforts.
Overall, Van Es said, Biden has “struck the right chord in terms of his tone” during his initial steps in setting up his administration, adding, “there is a lot of work to do, in his words, in restoring the soul of this country” and addressing the pandemic, the current economic crisis, and racial inequality.
Finally, the obvious question for Van Es is whether he is planning to join the Biden administration. He was involved in the president-elect’s campaign, helping to raise money and volunteering as part of the national business outreach efforts. He also held positions in the White House and the Small Business Administration during the Obama Administration.
Van Es noted that Biden has roughly 4,000 political appointments at his disposal and “you do not do that overnight.
“There are definitely people who move in and out of government…I have plenty of friends who have gone in and out.” Many people who end up in an administration “were drawn to a single candidate,” he added.
“I think if there is an opportunity to go back into government, I’m open to it,” Van Es, stressing that he likes his position with FINRA. “But there are a lot of ways to be involved. It’s not something that I’m losing sleep over.”
Doug Mell owns Mell Communications in Eau Claire.
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