–by Joanna Hallac
It has been quite a while since we last had a post in our series of interviews with various Capitol Hill insiders and so we thought we would dive right back in with an interview with Brett Loper, who serves as the policy director for Speaker Boehner. While the distinction of working for the Speaker of the House is unique enough, Loper has also worked in the House Majority Whip’s and House Majority Leader’s offices—both under former Congressman Tom DeLay—as well as serving as the Republican Staff Director for the Committee on Ways and Means. In addition, he served in the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush. As you will read, Loper has an interest and love of American history going back to high school, as well as a clear dedication to government service. I thank Brett for taking time out his very busy schedule to speak to me and I hope you enjoy this latest interview in our series.
JH: So, before we get started, just give me your name and your title.
BL: Brett Loper, Policy Director for the Speaker (Boehner), which means I lead a team of about ten foreign and domestic policy experts, and serve as a sort of legislative strategist for the Speaker.
JH: OK, great. And where did you grow up?
BL: I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi.
BL: Yeah, and my parents are still there.
JH: Not that I know a lot of people from Mississippi, but I don’t detect any hint of a deep Southern accent.
BL: Between Villanova and almost seventeen years here, it’s been beaten out of me.
JH: Yeah, I imagine. And so you said you attended college at Villanova, but where did you attend graduate school?
BL: At George Washington.
JH: And what did you study? What was your major in college, in grad school?
BL: I was an economics major at Villanova and then I received an MBA from GW.
JH: OK, and now this is a question that could apply, I guess, to either high school or college, but what was your favorite subject growing up?
BL: That’s a good question. In high school, US history was one of my favorite classes; that was in part because I enjoyed it and in part because I had a great teacher.
JH: Yeah, that always helps.
BL: And then in college—I was always good at math and enjoyed math, you know, and took AP Calculus and those kinds of things in high school. In college if I had to pick a particular course…
JH: Not sure I can remember the names of all of my specific courses either, so maybe just even a subject area.
BL: Yeah, I was an economics major and there was some macroeconomic theory along the way. I’m trying to remember…there were one or two courses that were oriented away from the finance side of economics and more toward the public policy side of economics and those were the ones that I enjoyed more than anything else.
JH: Great. OK, so now we’re going to get into some of the questions we talked about ahead of time…so favorite historical period, area of the world, and why?
BL: I’ve always been fascinated with World War II. Again, I don’t know the inspiration behind it; it may have been that it was recent enough—my grandfather served, both of my grandfathers served in World War II so it may have been that. It may have been the history teacher that I had in high school that made it interesting. It may have been the good vs. evil aspect of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan versus the rest of the world. But that was a very fascinating period of time to me. Then in addition to the period of the war, there was the Depression beforehand and what America was before and after and how the war was a break point between a very low point in American history economically and a very rich point in American history afterwards. So, anyway, a number of factors but that’s one period of time in particular that I’ve always found fascinating.
JH: Yes, always one I enjoyed teaching as well. OK, so had you always planned on working in government and politics or did you kind of fall into it? Basically, how did you end up here?
BL: It was some happenstance, some luck, and some interests, so a combination of things. When I was in high school, I was very good at math and my dad had taught me—or tried to teach me—that I needed to have a trade skill, so he encouraged me to try to become an engineer. So I started out as an engineering major in college, and even though I was very good at math I was not very good at physics and it just took a certain mental orientation to understand engineering and it just never really clicked well for me. Eventually, I transferred out and into something that I found more enjoyable, which was economics. While I was at Villanova, I thought that I might want to pursue a Master’s degree and PhD in economics and teach; but, you know, while I was a good student, I wasn’t going to go to MIT or the University of Chicago for their economics program, so I thought well, I’ll come to DC, where you have the economics policy angle. I had always been very interested in politics—never active in it, but very interested in it and it was a common bond between my dad and me, and so, I decided to come here.
I thought I wanted to work somewhere in politics, in government, where there was an applied economics angle to the job, whether it be at the Federal Reserve or the CEA [Council of Economic Advisers] at the White House or something like that. When I came, I was literally just trying to find openings, any avenue I could get to find a position. One of the natural places for anyone to start is with their home state congressional delegation, which I did. It was really through an internship, which lasted about two months after I graduated from college that I discovered the Hill, and I literally had no idea what it took to run the place, and I was just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. A full-time position opened up after I’d been here for two months with one of my home state members and the rest is history, so to speak.
JH: Great. Yeah, it is so much about luck in this town, being in the right place at the right time, and having the kind of the dedication to really stick it out and keep looking.
BL: Yeah, I think there is a view outside of Washington that it’s a “who you know” kind of thing, and I have found that it’s very different than that. That it’s really more of an entrepreneurial kind of place and you have to really prove yourself and wear out a lot of shoe leather, ask for help.
JH: And knowing people can maybe get a door open for you, but then you have to do the rest of actually getting the job and impressing people.
BL: Right. You have to do a good job of selling yourself.
JH: Exactly. All right, so, especially being in this office I’m sure this is something that definitely comes up from time to time, but how much does history impact your job? Is it something you think about as you go through your job on a daily basis? I mean, obviously Congress is built upon precedent and there’s lots of history behind the speakership, but how much does it really impact your job, how much do you really think about it?
BL: Yeah, so, there’s different ways to think about it. You can think about it from the order of the House and how the House functions, and certainly the key to that is the Speaker. The development of the institution, the committees, the rules process, the decision-making process really is maybe the simplest way to put it, because there’s 435 members that are all equally, duly elected, they all serve the same number of constituents, they all have one vote, but somehow you have to find a way to make that system work so you can make decisions and that has developed over the course of the country’s history and the Congress’s history. So there is certainly a lot of that, that’s not necessarily speaking to a historical moment in time for the country, per se, but there is history within the House of Representatives literally just to make the place function, so that’s one angle that I think is one that the Speaker’s office is cognizant of. This may not be the first thought of each day, as opposed to whatever issue of the day is at hand, but it’s always something that’s in the background.
I think the other thing that comes to mind, is history from the perspective of what has been tried and what has worked, and that can be in the context of what I would describe as routine authorizations. So you take something we’re literally in the midst of debating right now in the House, a transportation bill, which authorizes hundreds of billions of dollars for federal highway and transit programs and has been something, it was something that Eisenhower pushed when he became President was building the interstate highway system. We did that as a country and it was a good decision and necessary economically, and we have built on that roughly every five years since then. So, there is a history to the highway programs and there are now reasons that the transportation program has transit as part of it, has certain other safety programs as part of it, and has a money formula for money going to the states for certain reasons, etc. As a result of history, there are reasons for why the policy is what it is today. You can go back and look at the history of the transportation program and figure that out and it gives you the opportunity to go back and measure—if Congress is doing its job—the results of what happened for the last five years versus the way things were done for the five years prior or ten years ago or 15 years ago or 20 or 25 years ago, and to make decisions about how we should do the next five years based on that historical data. So, that’s another area.
There’s also history of personalities, of members themselves, where their relationships were formed, where they served, or the professions that they were in, or where they grew up, where they came from, what types of families they came from, and all of that has a historical connotation to it as well. These have an impact on the decisions they make and the way that they think and interact with people, the priorities they set for themselves as legislators. So, anyway, I guess the short answer is everything around here in one way or another is connected to history.
JH: Well, and I think, other than those who work here, most people probably don’t realize how much history dictates everything that goes on here from procedure in both chambers to decision making and everything. So, OK, anyway, now you’re going to be asked to go into history a little bit here and be a part of it…if you could be any one of our founding fathers, which one would you be and why?
BL: Ah, so I’m going to throw you a little bit of a curveball because this person isn’t, per se, one of the founding fathers, but I am a distant relative of Henry Clay.
JH: Very interesting.
BL: And he was arguably one of the most notable legislators in history, serving in both the Senate and the House, and was the Speaker of the House early in his tenure and really modernized the speakership. When he became Speaker, it was a purely parliamentary responsibility, and he arguably turned it into the office that it is today. He was the one who said, “we’re going to start creating committees,” and “I’m going to start referring bills to committees,” and “I’m going to use my power to recognize people to speak,” and “I’m going to use my power to recognize what legislation comes before the House.” So, he really defined the speakership in a new way, again, so that he put it on its way to what it has become today, and because of that family connection and because of his role here, I’d put him at the top of the list.
JH: Now, when you were applying for this job did you drop that family connection in there or not?
BL: No, in fact the only member that I’ve mentioned this to is Senator McConnell, who is of course from Kentucky and has Henry Clay’s desk in the Senate, and a couple of portraits of Clay in his office.
JH: Very cool. All right, so having been around for a while, what is the favorite anecdote, historical anecdote or story you’ve heard about Congress, the Capitol, or a Congressman since coming here, without embarrassing anyone or being inappropriate, of course. I’m sure there are lots to choose from, but…
BL: Oh Jeez, well (long pause)…oh man, there are just so many.
JH: I will say that the John Quincy Adams having a stroke at his desk in the House chamber and dying there two days later has been mentioned already (laughing).
BL: (Laughing) OK thanks that’s helpful. I’m hesitant to pick a moment or story that I wasn’t here for, but I’ve been here long enough to have seen some things that are neat.
JH: Well, yeah, if there’s a moment that you’ve been a part of that you want to talk about…
BL: I wasn’t a part of this, but being here for—and this isn’t something that is actually positive—but being here during Clinton’s impeachment in ’98 was a unique event. Obviously it has been written about, will be written about, but it was a really unique and in some ways a very dark time in our history. Things were going very well in our country at the time and the economy was doing well and the threat of terrorism was not yet really upon us.
But there are other times, and probably the neatest thing I’ve experienced, I was actually not an employee of the House at the time. I was working at the White House, and following September 11th, President Bush came up [to the Capitol] to give a speech six or seven days later, and I was able to—I mean I totally tricked my way into it—but I was able to get into the caravan that came up from the White House. It included various people that were sitting in the gallery; there was, I can’t remember the name of the Cardinal at the time, but he was the head of the Archdiocese of New York and he was in the car, or the van I was in, but I was able to catch a ride up and was able to be on the House floor for that speech, and it was just a really, obviously a wrenching time for the country, all that going into that time period, just really was one of the unique opportunities I was able to witness first hand.
JH: Wow, talk about being a part of history, or witnessing history, for sure, yeah, that’s great. Good. All right…let’s get a little happier now (both of us laughing).
BL: I mean, I could tell some jokes about members and stuff like that.
JH: Yes, I imagine there are many (laughing).
BL: Not sure it’s good for a blog publication (laughing).
JH: No, I wouldn’t want you to do that (laughing).
BL: But I would say it really is one of the neat things, the way that members interact with each other, particularly when they’re on the floor of the House. Congress has had a bad reputation since its founding, but in times when public confidence in Congress is at a low, it’s harder to imagine, to put yourself in their shoes and to imagine what it’s like to be a member of Congress, because they have to be “on” all the time—when they’re in the grocery store, when they’re in church, when they’re at home, when they’re picking their kids up from school, when they’re walking around the streets of Washington. So, what’s kind of neat is being on the House floor, which is, oddly, a time where they can be more themselves than almost any other time, where they almost don’t have to be on because they’re just, they’re just hanging around their peers and it’s fun to watch the little things. Like the way that they sit on the Floor—and there have been various newspapers that have written about this—it’s the same way that kids in high school choose where they’re going to sit, and they sit in the same seat every day when they go to class, whether it’s math or English or science or whatever, and the Members do the same thing. It’s just human nature, and it’s funny to watch that behavior pattern where the same members, sit in the same seats. I know where the Louisiana delegation is going to sit, I know where the Kentucky guys are going to sit, I know where the freshmen are going to sit, you know, and I can just think through where they all are.
JH: That’s so funny…do a lot of them sit by state delegation?
BL: It definitely, like I can think of, the Texas delegation, I can picture their seats, and I can picture the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama guys sitting together. Hal Rogers has a little area and all the Kentucky guys around him. Then in the back I can see some of the Ohio and Pennsylvania members, and on the other side of the aisle they have the same sorts of things. One of the most famous of those was Jack Murtha who held a corner in the back for decades, literally, and was just always back there holding court.
JH: I love stories like that…that’s great. All right, staying in the Capitol, what’s your favorite part of the Capitol?
BL: Hmm, you know, I don’t think anything can beat the Speaker’s office, I mean where Boehner actually sits. I was fortunate enough to work in the Majority Whip’s office, the Majority Leader’s office, and the Speaker’s office–and I was able to sit in meetings on a weekly basis when Hastert was Speaker, in his office. Now I get to do it on a daily basis with Speaker Boehner, and it’s really just, it’s not enormous, it’s not that it’s lavish, it’s simple and elegant and has the best view of Washington. There’s just something about the balcony being right there and being able to see down the Mall, you know, it’s just one of the neater rooms in the Capitol.
JH: I bet. I’ve seen Kevin McCarthy’s office. It’s a whole GW story…Jeff Shapiro, Adrian Smith’s chief of staff, was able to, during a recess, arrange for us to have class in the Majority Whip’s conference room, and a few of his staff members were talking to us about a few things and at the end, before we left, they let us just take a look in McCarthy’s office, and so, but it’s big.
BL: Yeah his is actually bigger.
JH: Is it bigger?
BL: Yeah, it is.
JH: Yeah, the whole suite is nice, and I’d never seen anything like that before so it was fun. But even just the history of being in the Speaker’s office must be pretty neat. Anyway, this is kind of playing off of a little of what you’ve said already, but what does it mean to you to work in the Capitol, to work for the Speaker, you know, purely from a historical point of view, nothing to do with partisanship, just what does it mean as an American who has always loved history…you worked at the White House, you’ve worked at a lot of places on the Hill and in government, what does it mean to you work in this building and to work for the Speaker?
BL: Yeah, well, you know it’s obviously an incredible honor. As colorful as our political system can be and the colorful characters that can be in it and the emotions it can engender, it’s still, almost without debate, the finest system of government ever designed. So to be in the office that leads the legislative branch—the Speaker is sort of seen by virtue of being third in line for the Presidency—so to have the opportunity to serve in his office is obviously quite an honor. It’s also the ability to be, I don’t think of myself as any brighter than the next person—obviously I was able to go to college and have a Master’s degree and that kind of stuff—but the fact that someone as normal and who comes from as normal a family as I do, you know, with no special connections or anything like that, but just to find an interest in this and be able to make my way here, it makes me proud of my country and makes me proud of the institution. It says something positive about our country’s institutions if normal people like me can serve in a job in this office—and I can assure you that everyone in the office, almost everyone in the office comes from some very normal, not normal as in boring, but from typically American families. So, it just speaks to the wonderful system that we have for those types of people to find their way here and to serve their government and help the current leaders of our country make some of the same wise decisions that the former leaders of our country have made along the way to make us the great country that we are. So, I’m proud of it and obviously very humbled by it.
JH: OK, great. All right, to kind of switch gears here a little bit, do you think that history, I mean, I know that education is important to your boss and that it’s important to most people, hopefully, but do you think history is emphasized enough in schools today and, whether you think it is or isn’t, why do you think it is important for students to study history?
BL: That’s a good question…I guess I would answer it this way, I think that question could quickly lead into a discussion of how history is taught, or whether or not our school systems are rigorous enough in teaching history and those kinds of things, and that’s certainly open to debate. Certainly there are some high schools and some school districts that have phenomenal high school teachers and phenomenal offerings for history and AP courses and such. To me, I guess I’d answer your question a little bit differently: history is necessary for a student because it provides balance.
In my view the most capable people professionally, and as members of society, are the ones who are well-balanced in whatever they do—well-balanced in family versus profession, well-balanced social-life vs. family vs. profession vs. community service, etc., and educationally I think the same thing applies. So, in order for the country to continue to develop and learn from mistakes that are made along the way–because the country collectively is just as capable of making policy mistakes as an individual or family–history is important.The learning from the mistakes of history so that we are better the next time I believe is critical.
So, I don’t know, I guess I do at times fear or worry that that balance, that ability to maintain not just the language, the science and the math, but also history, the knowledge of history, you know, it does worry me that at times it sort of lapses and is viewed as less important than the others.
JH: Yeah, I agree. OK, so one last, kind of culminating question, and again you’ve kind of peripherally touched on it, but if you were trying to inspire the next generation of young people to want to come and work in government and to want to give back to their country in the form of service to their government, how would you frame that argument? What would you say to really inspire them to want to do that?
BL: I’ll tell you a couple of things. One, I’d say to a young person who is graduating from college and looking for what they would like to do career-wise or to develop professionally and have that first “real job” experience, there’s no more fun of a place to work than here. Actually, I’m sure there are more fun places, maybe the NBA or NFL is more fun (both of us laughing). There’s no more fun of a place that a respected, solid student with good all-around qualities can work than here. It’s a great place to work because with 435 members of Congress representing every nook and cranny of the country, plus 100 Senators representing all fifty states, there are staff that are coming here from everywhere. So you meet people and they’re all young and they’re bright and they’re energetic and they’re go-getters, and so that just makes for a wonderful environment in which to work.
Second, it’s something new every day. It might be policy and politics, but you may have the King of Jordan in here one day and an Oscar-winning actor the next and the CEO of a Fortune 10 company the day after that. You just never know whose path you’re going to cross.
And then there is the nobility of it. Again, as frustrated as people may get with the process of getting the country to make a decision about what it’s going to do collectively with its tax system or its social safety net, those are difficult decisions to grapple with, but there is nothing more noble than trying to assist the decision-making process on behalf of all of the people who can’t be here. I remember when—I don’t know why this sticks out in my head, but I’m reminded of it from time to time—I remember when I learned what it meant to vote. I was 7 or 8 years old and I was in the back of the car and I frustrated because I wanted to be home playing, and I’m demanding from my mother, “where are we going, where are we going,” and she says, “I’m going to vote.” And I said, “Vote, what’s that mean?” She said, “I have to go vote for someone so they can represent us in Congress.” I said, “Well, why can’t you just represent yourself in Congress?”
JH: (Laughing) Spoken like a true 7 or 8 year old.
BL: (Laughing) Yeah, exactly. But that sort of crystallizes it that you’re representing these now 700 to 750,000 people and by extension the staff are as well, so there’s nothing more noble than trying speak on behalf of them, to try and determine where their tax dollars are going to go to and how to defend their freedoms and liberties and all that kind of stuff.
Anyway, again, between the sheer fun of it, the challenge of it, the diversity of the people, the diversity of what you get to do on a daily basis, plus the nobility, it really is a unique and wonderful place to work, and I would suggest, for all of those reasons that even if you only work here for a year or two years, it really does create the opportunity for professional development down the road.
I again want to extend a very sincere “Thank you” to Brett Loper for setting aside time in his always busy schedule to talk to me. Being able to talk to someone who is a true veteran of Capitol Hill and who has been around to see quite a bit is always a fascinating and insightful experience for me and helps me to better understand the all-important role played by those behind the scenes. It is also nice to get to hear from both members of Congress and staff members in this setting—outside of politics and partisanship, merely speaking about the important role that history plays in their work and positive impact they try to have upon the lives of Americans on a daily basis through their jobs.
I hope you enjoyed this latest in our interview series, and that you continue to stay tuned for additional interviews in the months to come.