March 4, 2009

What’s Your Story? Neil Bradley

By: Lauren Winchester

Neil Bradley is not your typical wonk. As a top aide to House minority whip Eric Cantor, he spends hours digesting and formulating policy. But after a long day of foiling the Democrats’ legislative plans, Bradley doesn’t go home and browse conservative magazines while watching gavel-to-gavel action on C-SPAN. No, he’s probably surfing pop-culture websites like TMZ or Pink is the New Blog. Or maybe he’s watching Scrubs or listening to Top 40 hits on the radio.

But even while ostensibly blowing off steam, Bradley is always thinking strategy. “The vast majority of Americans are not reading the Washington Post every day, and they are not following the intricate details of public policy debates,” he explains. “What are the things that most Americans are talking about? TV, music, and Hollywood have a tremendous impact on our culture. And that has a tremendous impact on politics.”

Little known outside his milieu of fellow wonks and lawmakers, Bradley is one of the most influential backroom players on the Hill. Though he’s barely in his thirties, Bradley has held a number of high-ranking posts within the Republican party. At the tender age of 24, he became the youngest executive director in the history of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a caucus of conservative House members. Now, at 33, he’s policy director for Cantor, having previously served in that capacity for former whip, Representative Roy Blunt.

“Neil has that perfect blend of policy smarts and parliamentary know-how,” says Paul Teller, deputy director of the RSC. “Policy experts are a dime-a-dozen in this town, and there are enough parliamentary geeks on the Hill to fill the stands at a chess match. But Neil blends both talents into a wonderful concoction of strategic sorcery.”

Bradley began his political career in high school, working for a local candidate in his hometown of Sapulpa, Oklahoma. He moved to D.C. in 1994 to start his freshman year at Georgetown University. That fall, Republicans won majorities in both the House and Senate, and for the first time since the 1920s, Bradley’s congressman, now Senator Tom Coburn, was a Republican. Bradley ended up interning for Coburn the following semester, and stayed on as staff after he graduated.

Bradley soon got a crash course in House procedure. One of his first major assignments was to draft over 100 amendments for the agriculture appropriations bill as a protest against the big-spending ways of the Republican majority. It was a complex and time-consuming process. First, Bradley read the bill and identified all the appropriations that had been increased by $50 million. Then, he wrote an amendment for each appropriation, cutting spending back to the previous year’s level. If the amendment failed, Bradley went back to his computer, drafted another amendment—this time cutting back to only half of the new increase—and offered the revised version to the floor. The strategy was a success, and the appropriations committee managed to cut spending by $1 billion.

Since then, Bradley has relied on his knowledge of the arcane rules and procedures governing how policy gets made to undermine the Democratic majority. Bradley’s favorite procedural snare—the use of which he pioneered—is the motion to recommit, or “MTR” as policy wonks call it. The MTR is a maneuver that is used before there is a final vote on a bill. It sends the bill back to committee, which in effect kills the legislation. Sometimes the MTR comes with instructions for amendments. In this case, the MTR is used to improve the existing legislation or alter it in such a way that the opposition is forced to vote against its own bill.

“We use [the MTR] almost every occasion we can, either to try to stop the bill from moving forward, to highlight the kind of policies we would be pursuing if we were in charge, or frankly to highlight some really absurd, bad choices that are being made by the majority,” Bradley explains.

The Republicans have been especially successful harnessing the power of the MTR, Bradley says, noting that the party has passed more MTRs in the past year and a half than the Democratic minority managed in 12 years. Democrats are predictably frustrated that their legislative goals are being thwarted, and, “there’s a small amount of enjoyment in that,” Bradley says with a grin.

But there’s more to getting policy implemented than just garnering enough votes. House members will fight ferociously to pass or amend a bill, but when that battle’s over, there’s a whole new war to be waged in the federal agencies over how to interpret and implement the legislation. Bradley’s wife, Kiki Kless, worked as a deputy director at the Department of Health and Human Services, giving Bradley an illuminating view of what happens after a bill is passed.

“It is an incredible perspective talking to someone who’s on the inside at an agency,” Bradley says. “We have this concept sometimes that if we write a bill and it gets enacted into law, that’s it. It’s done. We spend a lot of time fighting over different phrases and different clauses in a bill. Well, after we do that, there’s an entire fight that goes on within the huge federal bureaucracy.”

Even if after the hours of intense debate and battles over semantics, the resulting policy is not as ideologically pure as would be preferred, it’s not a loss by any means. “In politics, no one wins 100 percent of the time, ever,” Bradley says. “You have to take the long view of things and understand that sometimes you’re going to take two steps forward and one step back. But as long as you’re taking more steps forward than you’re taking steps backwards, you’re making progress.”

The long view also means reconstructing some tenets of the Republican platform. With a new president in the Oval Office, it’s time for a little reflection, Bradley says. He points to the debate between limited-government types and reformers who want more activist policies to help the working class.

Bradley counts himself among the reformers. While he remains a vigorous opponent of big government, he thinks Republicans need to present an alternative agenda—one that applies traditional conservative principles, such as free enterprise and family values, to meet the challenges of the new economy and provide a measure of stability for middle-class families.

“It’s not necessarily time for a whole fundamental change,” he says. “But certainly after eight years of a president and losing Congress, it ought to be time to see what party policies are and if they adequately address the concerns of the American people.”

No matter the GOP’s current doldrums, Bradley is confident that the challenges ahead favor a conservative approach. “There are a lot of really big problems coming down the pike: entitlements and the threat of terrorism,” he says. “These aren’t simple come-up-with-a-new-government-program-slap-a-Band-Aid-on-it-and-we’re-done type of solutions that are going to be needed. I think deep down the majority of the country wants conservative solutions to these problems, and that’s going to be good for the Republican party.”

-Lauren Winchester is a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin.

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