Bryan Berky joined the Foundation to Restore Accountability in March as the Executive Director. We asked him to share a little bit about his background and experience.
Q: Tell us a little about your background.
A: I graduated from Oklahoma State University in 2010 with a degree in secondary education. Shortly thereafter, I made my way to Capitol Hill where I spent seven years working as a policy advisor for Senators Tom Coburn and James Lankford. I advised them on budget, tax, banking and government oversight issues and served as the senators’ lead staffer on the Banking Committee, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee. Both senators had a knack for rigorous oversight and I learned a lot about the importance of holding government accountable.
Q: What surprised you most about your time on Capitol Hill?
A: There were many things that surprised me about Capitol Hill. One of the biggest surprises is how much of the Congressional operation is dedicated to responding to constituent correspondences and requests. You mostly hear about the Congressional staff in the context of legislating, but in any given office, I would say at least two-thirds of the Congressman’s staff is dedicated to responding to phone calls, letters, meeting requests, case work and the occasional fax that arrives from the 90’s. Congress often gets a well-deserved bad rap for its inability to get things done. But, in this sense, it truly lives up to being the people’s branch.
I was also surprised by how young Congressional staff is and how much decision making is heavily influenced by twenty-somethings. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as most of these staffers are incredibly bright and hardworking. But I was definitely surprised to find myself having a direct impact on legislative outcomes in my mid-twenties.
Finally, I was surprised how easily a person inside the beltway can categorize a million or a billion dollars as a rounding error.
Q: What might most Americans not know about the inner workings of Capitol Hill?
A: How many bills are considered or passed without a recorded vote or any public attention. The Senate operates mainly by unanimous consent, meaning that anything that has the approval of all 100 Senators can be moved immediately. My former boss and this organization’s co-founder gained the nickname of “Dr. No” for refusing to go along with the then-status quo process of letting bills that spend billions of dollars pass without any scrutiny.
Also, that simply “reading the bill” is usually useless without referring to the U.S. Code or other reference documents. Understanding the bill in its full context and looking for costs and unintended consequences is far more important than simply reading it. Seemingly benign wording could be adjusting existing law of tremendous importance. Due to the volume of bills that come before Congress, having policy staff that can give the proper amount of scrutiny is critical for Congressmen to do their jobs effectively.
Finally, for all of the bickering you see and hear in the news, for the most part Senators actually do get along pretty well behind closed doors.
Q: What’s a day in the life of a policy advisor like?
A: My favorite part of the job was that no day was ever the same. There are some days when you control your schedule and can work on a research project or developing a bill. Then there are other days when unforeseen events control your schedule and you scramble to respond to a surprise news event, a bill that is being asked to be passed by unanimous consent, or an amendment being offered on the Senate floor or a committee markup. At any moment, a phone call, an email, a pop-in request from your boss, or a news event can completely change the course of your day, week, or month.
Preparation and being able to adjust on the fly is really important to being successful. This means knowing the process of how Congress works and applying accumulated knowledge to make sure that the Senator has the information he or she needs to make an informed response – whether that be through a vote recommendation, an amendment to improve the bill, or a statement explaining a position.
Q: Are there any Congressmen talking about the national debt/entitlements?
A: Oh sure, there are lots of them that will talk about the debt when it makes a convenient talking point and a few that actually strongly care about it. But, regardless of which party is in charge, dealing with our long-term debt and entitlements rarely goes beyond just talk.
Q: When can we expect any action on fiscal reform/national debt/entitlements?
A: Whenever Congressmen decide it’s time to stop denying basic math to further their political careers and decide to get the courage to do what is right over what is purported to be popular. Admittedly, this is a tough proposition given that everyone got to Congress by winning a popularity contest.
I am also of the opinion that inaction on these issues is an active choice, especially with all of the clear evidence about the impacts the debt will have on my generation.
Q: What can constituents do to get their opinion to their representative?
A: That’s a really important question and that follows well to the entitlement problem. There is a deeply embedded perception that entitlements are the “third rail” of American politics that nobody should dare touch because it would end their careers. There is also a lot of interest groups developed around ensuring that perception stays around. Public engagement is so critical to pushing back against this narrative and millennials must be part of this effort to tell Congress to stop bankrupting our futures.
As I mentioned before, there is a massive apparatus to receive and respond to constituents. Phone calls, letters, emails, town halls, constituent coffees, meetings with policy staff in Washington or field representatives in your home state are all ways to communicate with your representative. Congressmen will hear about their constituents’ views through all of these channels and these do make a difference in the way they approach an issue. You are their bosses after all.
Q: What are some challenges you see in the current political climate?
A: Oh jeez, I’m at a struggle to find parts of the current political climate that aren’t a challenge. But, I’ll pick out three of the big ones that Restore Accountability is well positioned to push back against. These challenges apply equally to both parties and are not so much new as they are magnified by the unprecedented fiscal problems our nation faces today.
The first is the emphasis of partisanship over everything. Our political discourse has been relegated to cherry picked data, impugning the opposition’s motives, and posturing to ensure the other political party cannot get any perceived “victories” even if it would be a positive outcome for our nation. This divisiveness makes it so difficult for working Americans that can’t track every detail of every debate to discern what is truth, what is political spin or what is a flat-out lie. Some modern media channels that allow people to see ideas from a single perspective exacerbate this partisanship problem.
The second issue is short-termism. Political strategies are deployed with eyes on the next election and communication strategies are driven by a “win the news cycle” mentality. This means that the time for real policy solutions is a mirage just beyond the next political clash.
The third issue is that political power is more valuable than policy results. So often, leaders of political parties try to create optics that they will “do good for the American people” in order to win elections and gain power in Washington rather than trying to win elections and gain power in order to actually “do good for the American people.” For example, Republicans harped on fixing our nation’s debt problems when in the minority, but did not consider a single bill to reduce the debt once put in the majorities in Congress. Even though they know they are necessary, implementing policies that fix the debt could cause them to lose power.
Washington’s addiction to preserving power is why Congress tends to be a reactionary – rather than a proactive – body. Congress should have spent the last 20 years preparing for the massive fiscal challenges associated with the easily foreseeable and now-imminent baby boomer retirement wave. Instead, we racked up trillions upon trillions of more debt and have put off any real entitlement reforms because the political risks are too high. We have a gaping hole in our roof but are resided to not fix it until it begins to storm.
All three of these could be easily changed with leadership. Unfortunately, too often in Washington, leadership is a position rather than a character trait.
Q: What can we expect in the future?
A: We will never get on top of the $20 trillion in accumulated debt and the $100 trillion in unpaid for liabilities if our nation’s policies are set under these distorted lenses of partisanship, short-termism and the plight for power.
I don’t claim to be a fortuneteller, but without a changed mindset from Washington that incorporates doing what is best for the country in the long-term, we can expect reduced economic outcomes for future generations and a debt crisis. Younger generations, including my own, will be hit hardest by the dereliction of current and past politicians.
But, I have always been an optimist and I do believe that we can solve our problems by holding elected officials accountable and arming their constituents with the facts.
That is why I am excited to join and push the critical mission of Restore Accountability. The American people are financing a $4 trillion annual enterprise. This massive endeavor demands rigorous and fair oversight. I am looking forward to helping Restore Accountability provide non-partisan, informative, and engaging takes on what your government is doing and why it matters to you.