When French Hill banked on banking
Arkansas Republican was rare Banking aide with real-world cred
Walking down the hallways of the Capitol in the early 1980s, Sen. John Tower insisted on staying a few steps ahead of his aide French Hill. It was hard to hide the height difference — at 6’2”, the staffer stood a full foot taller than his boss.
“I was always shouting at his back,” Hill says of the gruff Texas Republican, who died in 1991.
Hill was the rare aide with a banking background on the Senate Banking Committee, and from there he made friends with fellow staffers connected to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, which paid off later when he landed a gig at the Treasury Department.
When Hill finally made his way back to Capitol Hill, it was as a lawmaker himself, representing Arkansas’ 2nd District. He ended up getting the same office space once held by his friend Jack Kemp, another man he could pull rank on when it came to height. (The late NFL quarterback was listed at 6’1”.)
Hill shared with CQ Roll Call his memories of jumping from the private sector and back, plus his thoughts on staffer pay.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: Do you think Capitol Hill is a place that works for people who come from the private sector, like you came from the banking world?
A: I do think private sector experience is a real advantage on Capitol Hill. When I went to work for Sen. Tower at the end of 1982, I had been out from college three years and had been working for a commercial bank in Dallas. And the senator wanted someone with practical, real-world experience to help advise him on banking and housing issues.
I was certainly the only banker on his staff, and then I moved over in early 1983 to the committee staff, where it was mostly lawyers.
My commitment to work for Sen. Tower was for two years — I told him I would leave the private sector for just two years. And I kept to my plan. I went back to Texas and went into investment banking after I left the Senate Banking Committee. But also John Tower announced that he would not seek reelection in the fall of 1984. From that point of view, it was maybe meant to be.
Q: So you returned to Texas. Was the money better in the private sector too?
A: Maybe bonus-wise, but at the time, it really was not. There was not much difference between what I was paid [on the Hill] and what I made when I moved back to Dallas and Houston. And that’s intriguing compared to where our world is now. I made in 1984, working for the Senate Banking Committee, about what someone makes working as a legislative aide today. Think of the impact of inflation, the cost in Washington, D.C. So I would argue that our staff on Capitol Hill are pretty severely underpaid.
Q: Next you went to work for the Bush administration. What pulled you back into government?
A: When I worked for Sen. Tower, I was part of a big group of Republican staffers who were from Texas, and some of them were very familiar with a guy named George Bush. At the time, it was the first term of Ronald Reagan, and, obviously, Bush was his vice president. So I got to know the vice president and his staff. And in 1988, when he ran for president, I was given an opportunity to go work at the Treasury Department as a deputy assistant secretary for corporate finance.
The interesting thing about that was Treasury Secretary Nick Brady. He too wanted staffers that had hands-on, private-sector financial experience. Because his two top aides, David Mullins, who went on to become the vice chairman of the Fed, and Bob Glauber, who went on to run the NASD and FINRA — both were brilliant guys, but they were Harvard Business School professors. So Nick wanted to bring in some leaders with private-sector experience.
Q: You also struck up a friendship with former Rep. Jack Kemp, then the Housing secretary.
A: I had a lot of affection for Secretary Kemp. My job was the head of what President Reagan called the Economic Policy Council, now we call it the National Economic Council. And the mission was to coordinate all international and domestic economic policy at the White House. So a big part of that is making sure the Cabinet is always pulling in the same direction on the president’s priorities.
Your readers today won’t recognize the fractious internal Republican debates of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but Jack Kemp represented the supply side, free market viewpoint in the Republican Party. He was also very involved in lifting people up. The concept of opportunity zones was a Jack Kemp concept. And on the other side of the Cabinet, you had Treasury Secretary Nick Brady and OMB Director Richard Darman, who would be very traditionalist about only a balanced budget — you raise taxes to balance a budget, and you cut spending. And that led to the famous 1990 budget deal that many believe cost President Bush the ’92 election because he broke his “no taxes” pledge.
But Jack was inspirational. When you’d go to a meeting in his office, you say, “Well, secretary, we need to talk about housing policy and our relationship with Congress.” And he’d want to talk about Abraham Lincoln, or supply side economics. A lot of fun to be with.
Q: Kemp had a reputation of cultivating staffers — Paul Ryan comes to mind. How did he mentor them?
A: Jack was very good about recognizing talented staffers, encouraging them. And Jack was a true happy warrior. I believe that staffers who are young in their careers are attracted to people who can argue for their policies and be a happy warrior, advocating for what they think is best for the United States. Some Cabinet members don’t operate that way. They go to their ivory tower office and sit there and issue press releases, or go to highway openings, whatever their job is, but they’re not working their colleagues for an outcome and trying to influence the president’s policymaking. Jack Kemp was an activist Cabinet member, which made my job a lot of fun, but harder.
When I was first elected and came to my office that first week in January 2015, I was proud to look at the list of previous occupants, and one of them was Jack Kemp. So I felt like I was on hallowed ground in the Longworth Building.
Q: During your time in the Treasury and working at the White House, you had a part in dealing with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany. That was almost 30 years ago. Is there anything you would have done differently, knowing what you know now?
A: It was a large undertaking, and it was the first time that the State Department and USAID had let another agency plan, allocate and spend USAID funds. But I made a presentation to State, and they accepted it. We set up accounting and banker training institutes in the capitals of Central Europe. And then we hired retired accountants, security lawyers and former bankers, including some former central bank staff, and we let them be senior advisers in the finance ministries, from the Baltic down to the Black Sea.
When I travel now in Central Europe, I’m, of course, stunned by the changes I see, particularly Warsaw today versus Warsaw in 1989. And it’s a tribute to the incredible hard work, those basic principles of free enterprise and the benefits of the growth of the European Union. But not all those countries have done well. Even 30 years later, some are still struggling.
What we did right was set the example of the rule of law, how to set up a proper regulatory and legal system. What could we have done differently? There are probably university professors who have really studied it. The privatization process and that movement to capital markets in Russia, I think we all know, created a concentration of wealth, the famous oligarchs issue. And so I wish we had done more of what we proposed in Central Europe, for the people of Russia.