U.S. Representative Stephen Lynch '91
hot seats, cool heads
Does BC Law have a particular ethos—based perhaps on its Jesuit understanding of “people for others”—that has encouraged you to exercise political leadership in a certain way?
I do agree that BC Law fosters a particular brand of leadership that generally tracks the Jesuit tradition. I am not so sure that I succeed in following the example of St. Ignatius of Loyola, unless maybe you include his conduct prior to his conversion.
But I suppose I could find many instances where I think the Jesuit example has been instructive for me.
One, I take care to actually read through the substantive bills that I vote on. Frequently, I have to reread legislative proposals over and over to fully understand how they work at a granular level. That’s a discipline that was reinforced constantly at BC Law—Professor Tom Kohler, Professor Bob Bloom, and others were strong on that point. It’s definitely consistent with the Jesuit emphasis on education. It may not sound like much, but it does help a great deal. Oftentimes, I think lawmakers line up in support of or in opposition to a particular bill based upon their “general” positions along the ideological spectrum—liberal vs. conservative. It is enormously helpful to read the bills and determine whether that legislation will accomplish its goal. I think of legislation as the “software” which guides our government and our society. I have opposed some bills because I believe, mechanically speaking, they won’t work, or they do more harm than good. This is an especially important principle today where bills can weigh in at over 2,000 pages. (Sometimes I’m reminded of the Churchill quote, “this [bill], by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read.”)
The second example is also rooted in a “common sense” approach to the law recommended by my professor in Property Law at BC Law, Zygmunt Plater. In addition to the myriad of rules regarding adverse possession and other arcane topics that I have quickly forgotten, Professor Plater simply suggested, “walk the land,” the general idea being that there is no substitute for physical contact and face-to-face confrontation in obtaining a full understanding of a problem. “Walk the land” was also appealing in the sense that it contained no Latin and was easy to remember. This approach has been valuable in my work on the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs. As part of my work, I’ve “walked the land” in Iraq 14 times, Afghanistan 7 times, Pakistan a half dozen, Gaza, Gitmo, Haiti, Darfur, etc., all in an effort to better understand some complex problems.
Your definition of effective leadership?
Honestly, I don’t have a fixed definition. I guess for me, effective leadership is whatever the situation requires to move people toward a solution. There are many different methods of leadership. At times, it may require compromise, at others, refusing to yield, and lately just trying to stop bad legislation from succeeding.
On your own leadership style:
Again, it depends on the situation. In the House of Representatives, I need 218 votes to get anything passed or defeated. Democrats are in the minority. So I probably use a “shepherd-type” or coalition-building type of leadership. Since the Republicans control the legislative calendar, I’m playing defense a lot. It’s definitely a “hands on” style. It’s all about relationships.
On your leadership in action:
I sponsored the “Lynch Amendment” in the House as part of the Dodd-Frank bill. The purpose of my amendment was to break up the control of financial clearinghouses, of which 97 percent are controlled by the five largest banks.
I had to cobble together a coalition of liberal and moderate Democrats and rural/moderate Republicans; I had to go across the aisle and convince a number of respected Republicans to provide cover for other Republicans who were on the fence. It was a close vote but the amendment ultimately passed. We lost most of the Democrats from the N.Y. City area because of the influence of the big Wall Street banks, but we picked up some Republicans from rural, working class, industrial areas.
Of course, they later watered down my language during the Conference Committee with the Senate.
On improving as a leader:
Honestly, I need to improve in every vital area—I’m still learning. For the last few months, I’ve been consciously working on being more social, spending more downtime with my colleagues. We regularly deal with some heavy issues, and it can be deadly serious. I tend to be all business, and that can get old really fast for people that I deal with. My wife says I have to lighten up and socialize more, that it will help with getting the work done. She’s right, as usual.
In this era of congressional contentiousness, how do you use your BC Law training in the tradition of inclusivity and collaboration to bring people together?
“The ultimate foundation of political power, of course, has never changed: it is the leader’s willingness to resort to violence should the need arise.”—Arthur Miller (LOL?)
It’s been hard. A lot of the moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats were defeated in the “wave” elections in 2008 and 2010.
For the Tea Party Republicans, compromise is considered a weakness. They come to the table with a fixed position, that the richest people in America can’t pay any more taxes for any purpose. Period. They’ve signed a no new taxes pledge to Grover Norquist, and they are afraid to break that pledge because Norquist has threatened to run primary candidates against them if they break the pledge.
In fairness, on the Democrat side, there is also a small group that will not consider any changes whatsoever to any entitlement program—period.
Those opposing positions are difficult to work with. I think there may be a solution, but it will take courage on both sides. There are many Democrats who would be willing to entertain reasonable compromise if they saw some good faith movement on the Republican side.
That’s not happening so far.
How has your leadership approach changed in the last several years as Congress has become increasingly divisive and partisan, and more driven by money?
I’m not sure my approach has changed. I would say that normally in difficult times like these I would be open to compromise for the greater good. But the Republican leadership is boxed in by the Tea Party members who can be completely unpredictable at times. I’m not sure they are influenced by money; some of their positions are deeply held, but wrongheaded. Also, for me, there is a difference between “compromise” and “surrender.” I can’t ask seniors, veterans, children, and working people to sacrifice while the multi-millionaires get a total pass. Whatever happened to shared sacrifice?
The sad part is that we have some very serious problems that we need to address, but we have a dysfunctional Congress that, for now, reflects a divided electorate.
On exemplary leaders:
Theodore Roosevelt: More than any modern leader that I have read about, it seems that TR had a sense of the age of history that he was living in and a keen awareness of the remarkable changes in the world around him—such as the closing of the American west. TR preserved and conserved millions of acres of wilderness for future generations of Americans to enjoy.
Winston Churchill: Survived some withering early mistakes and defeats to emerge as an irreplaceable national and world leader.
General David Petraeus (with General Ray Odierno): Extremely capable problem-solver and implementer under tremendous pressure. Took great personal/professional risk to abandon a failed policy in the middle of an unpopular war and got his troops and a foreign insurgency to “buy in” and turned the war in Iraq into a military victory. I had a unique opportunity as an observer to provide Congressional oversight and have had a lot of direct contact with both of these generals during this period.
On the leadership process:
This would be a really long answer. The short answer is that for me the particular situation and the nature of the problem, the group dynamics, etc., really dictate the approach or process. There is no boilerplate process or one-size-fits-all formula. I don’t think I could come up with a matrix to resemble anything that could be replicated. The “process” is as varied as the circumstances, to a degree. Sorry. Congress can be like a giant conveyor belt with a new problem or issue coming along every 18 seconds. Some big, some small, all are important. I have found that physically and intellectually I cannot be the champion of every cause that comes along. But I can pick out the issues that I really care deeply about—where people have no champion—where I think I can make a real difference, and so I work really hard on those issues.
While I am reluctant to call this a process, I do have some habits that may be helpful to others—maybe not. Firstly, I constantly read. I am fortunate that I have a superb staff of bright young people who constantly feed me great material. I also have access to the Congressional Research Service. These folks are experts in their field. I constantly ask them for information. Best kept secret in Washington, they don’t get the credit they deserve. I believe most of their unclassified documents and briefings are online. So whatever decisions I make, I try to be sure they are informed decisions.
I am also constantly reading biographies and histories. Most issues we confront today have been dealt with by leaders in the past. There are valuable lessons to be gleaned from reading histories and biographies. The Pulitzer Prize winners in history and biography have been awarded since 1930. This is a good start. (I try to be disciplined in my reading. I rarely read fiction, with one exception—I try to read what my girls (ages 12 and 17) are reading in school—in the unlikely event they want to have a conversation about their studies with Dad).
On the risks of changing your position:
“Criticism” is to a politician as “wet” is to water. You have to just get used to it. Suck it up and keep going. Usually, if I do change my position, it is because of new data. I just try not to be an acrobat or a flip-flopper. It helps if you think through the issues, pick the ones where you can make an impact, stake out your positions, and then defend them. I represent 727,514 people. We’ve never had unanimity on any issue yet. You’ll never make everyone happy, especially the press. It is more important to be thoughtful, sincere, and solid on your positions. You get more respect as a leader when you are consistent—as long as you aren’t consistently wrong.