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Bryan Steil on the importance of doing the ‘homework’

Capitol Police, opening campus to the public are priorities for House Administration chairman

“I think there are huge opportunities to drive this institution into the 21st century,” says Wisconsin Rep. Bryan Steil, House Administration chairman.
“I think there are huge opportunities to drive this institution into the 21st century,” says Wisconsin Rep. Bryan Steil, House Administration chairman. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Bryan Steil wasted no time getting the House Administration Committee off the ground.

The Wisconsin Republican’s first order of business as chairman of the normally staid committee was to call in embattled former Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton for an oversight hearing to answer for a slew of alleged ethical breaches.

Blanton’s testimony under heavy fire from committee members led to President Joe Biden removing the Capitol architect several days later and put a spotlight on the Administration panel and its new leader.

Steil, who first came to Washington in the early aughts as an intern for former Speaker Paul Ryan, has set an agenda that includes reviewing the composition of the Capitol Police Board and holding Legislative Branch agencies more accountable.

In a February interview with Heard on the Hill, Steil, a self-described “modernist” who came to Congress from working in international law, vowed to target “archaic” processes on the Capitol campus from his new perch as leader of the panel.

“I think there are huge opportunities to drive this institution into the 21st century,” Steil said.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You started out working for Paul Ryan, and ended up filling his seat years later when he decided not to run. What was that like?

A: I only worked for Paul for one year, after I graduated from undergrad in 2003. During that time, I learned a ton, and then I left the Hill and didn’t come back for [about] 20 years. 

What you learn from Paul is the importance of doing your homework. He was a really effective member because he actually read the material, understood the issues. 

If you look at the tax cuts that ultimately went through under his speakership — I mean, that was a policy area that he worked on for years and years and years. It shows that when you are actually willing to do the work on Capitol Hill, you can accomplish your goals, although sometimes it takes a little longer than you’d like.

Q: Do any memories stand out?

A: I interned for him, and then I took a job as the guy answering the phone. By the time I was done, I was a legislative aide, and I actually managed a bill on the House floor when I was 23. 

It was very memorable for me, because it was a budget process reform bill. This was at the time when the Republican Study Committee was kind of the right flank of the party, and the bill redid how we do the appropriations process. We got more than a hundred co-sponsors, and the other two members who were willing to [lead] on it were two freshmen, Chris Chocola and Jeb Hensarling.

When I managed the bill on the floor, we got fewer votes than we had co-sponsors, which was a whipping operation of the appropriators at the time. They didn’t like the fact that this bill would have controlled spending. 

[It relates to the spending and debt] conversation we’re having now, which actually says we have to go back and look at this 1974 Congressional Budget Act. It was an area that I spent a ton of time working in, and I enjoyed my time in the office, sitting on the second floor of Longworth. 

Q: You started out your tenure as chair of House Administration with a bang, thanks to the architect of the Capitol hearing. What are some of your other priorities? 

A: That was the tip of the iceberg of what this committee is going to do. We need robust oversight over a whole host of Legislative Branch agencies.

So take the architect of the Capitol, rough math — a billion-dollar budget, 2,400 employees, wildly important to the operations of the Capitol campus, including campus security. We had not had an oversight hearing with the architect in at least two years.

We have opportunities to review the Capitol Police Board structure, making sure that’s operating to the benefit of the Capitol Police. We have opportunities as relates to election integrity, not to drive forward a one-size-fits-all approach, which we saw Democrats do under HR 1, but rather to highlight provisions that are working well. 

What were the real impacts of the Georgia law? We actually saw higher voter turnout. HR 1 would have gutted voter ID laws, but we have an opportunity to show why voter ID is actually a really good voter integrity provision. 

If you look at our first hearing, we had everybody there, minus one person. [Over the last couple years], you would go into some hearing rooms, and it would be like one person sitting there asking a question. 

Part of the dysfunction of Washington is that people stopped showing up and talking to each other. The more we get people in a room actually having adult conversations, the better off we’re going to be. I would say to anybody who wants to hide behind their computer and let their staff drive the process, “So sad, too bad.” 

Joe Morelle, the ranking member, we have a great relationship. We’re going to disagree at times, but our goal is to make this place work better. 

Q: What’s the biggest problem on the Capitol campus today?

A: We went through a handful of years where this campus was more or less closed to the American people. I think everyone in the United States has a First Amendment right to petition their government for redress, and that was restricted.

Before Republicans retook control of the House, you couldn’t come in for a meeting with your member of Congress unless they invited you in, you were escorted into the room. That’s over. 

We’re still working on bringing back the staffing levels of Capitol Police, which is going to be essential as we open the doors, but we’ve made great progress.

A few months ago, there would be a line going all the way down the Rayburn horseshoe, because it was the only point of entry for visitors to come in who did not have a badge. It was a massive choke point, and we’re seeing that change.

Q: I’ve heard you love photography. Do you take photos around the Capitol campus?

A: I had a previous job where I did a lot of travel, and I would take photos. I just think it’s a really spectacular form of art. You can’t freeze time, but photography freezes time. What you’ve captured exists, but you get to observe it in a way that doesn’t actually exist. 

When we’re in D.C. we just run around, which is disappointing in that regard. But when I’m in the district and I have a moment or a pause, I’ll take a photo. And southeast Wisconsin is one of the most beautiful areas in the country, with beautiful lakes. I love to do bike rides and snag photos on my rides.

Quick hits

Favorite concert? Ben Folds Five, when they played at the 9:30 Club more than 20 years ago. 

America’s best president? Washington. He set the stage for American democracy. Everything he did became tradition inside our democratic system. 

Last book you read? “Fewer, Richer, Greener,” a spectacular book about how economic growth can benefit not only all of us, but also the planet. 

Closest friend across the aisle? Dean Phillips.

Least popular opinion? That I’m ready for Jordan Love to start for the Packers. 

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