Discussing Legislative Effectiveness
with Representative Will Hurd
Former Representative Will Hurd served as the U.S. representative for Texas’s 23rd congressional district from 2015 to 2021. Representative Hurd was identified by the Center for Effective Lawmaking (CEL) as being one of the top 10 most effective Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House during his first term in Congress, as well as being the third most effective freshman lawmaker within his class.
CEL Co-Directors Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman recently sat down with Representative Hurd to discuss his time in Congress. Among the topics discussed were the struggles that he encountered during his first year in office as he sought to figure out how to become an effective lawmaker; the challenges of representing a geographically large, politically split district; the importance of security for members and their staff; the advice he took – and ignored – while in office that helped him in advancing his goals; how his previous career as a CIA officer served him as a legislator; and how he dealt with a wide range of legislative matters—including a specific bill involving cats and dogs (!).
The Congressman engages with several themes that are at the heart of the Center for Effective Lawmaking’s mission in his own words, including:
Hurd on the importance and impact of bipartisanship in Congress:
- “Americans…want us to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. We can have a competition of ideas without being rude. And that’s what we did. And I think going back and forth and having a six hour debate about healthcare, you learn that the other side is coming from a position that they’re trying to help their community. They, you know, you’re both trying to help people. You just have different ideas on how to achieve that. And so the other side are not evil. And that they just have a different perspective. And then oftentimes you can find enough areas of where you can agree.” [For more information on the benefits of bipartisanship in Congress, see our related working paper]
Hurd on the importance of congressional staff:
- “The best piece of advice, I got: answer the phone, have a good mail system, and have a great scheduler.” [For more information about the benefits of experienced congressional staff, see our related working paper]
Hurd on the role and importance of specialization and expertise in lawmaking:
- “My suggestion is have an expertise when you come into Congress, work on that area of your expertise, because you’re gonna be even more effective…because we do have to deal with so many issues that having people that have an expertise in something, that means you’re a value for the rest of the Congress and the rest of the country because you understand that at a granular level.” [For more information on the importance of specialization in Congress, see our related working paper]
Hurd’s broader advice for members of Congress on the keys to being successful while in office:
- “I give current members of Congress the same advice. I tell them, do something that you’re gonna enjoy doing. That’s gonna be helpful for you, that you’re gonna be able to go back to the district and talk about, not because it’s something that helps you improve fundraising. Because if you’re a good member of Congress, you should be able to have the resources you need during your reelection. And if that only stems from what committee you’re on, then you’re doing something wrong.” [For more information about the importance of constituent connections in legislating, see our op-ed on five ways to promote effective lawmaking in Congress]
And many more, which are covered in the full interview (with complete transcript) below.
Alan Wiseman: (00:00)
Hi, my name is Alan Wiseman and I’m the chair of the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University and, along with Craig Volden at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, I’m also the Co-Director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking. And we’re very excited to welcome Congressman Will Hurd who represented Texas’s 23rd congressional district between 2015 and 2021 to sit down with us today and have a conversation about his experiences in the U.S. House of Representatives. As many of you might know, Representative Hurd was first elected to Congress in 2014 having spent almost a decade in the Central Intelligence Agency, which included serving as an operations officer in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Upon arriving in Congress, he quickly established himself as a serious legislator, and he was identified by us at the Center for Effective Lawmaking as being one of the top 10 most effective Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House during his first term in Congress, as well as being the third most effective freshman lawmaker within his class. He was especially successful during his time in Congress at advancing bills dealing with matters pertaining to government operations, immigration, and international affairs; and he continued to be a highly engaged lawmaker over his next two terms in Congress until he retired in 2021. For those of you who might not be aware, he’s also the author of the recently published American Reboot, an idealist guide to getting big things done, where he draws on a wide range of experiences, both inside and outside of the government to provide insights on what he thinks policymakers and elected officials in the U.S. Government in particular can do to enhance Americans’ confidence in the state of their government, as well as to help pave the road for continued prosperity for Americans in the 21st century. So Congressman Hurd, thanks so much for taking the time to join us for a Center for Effective Lawmaking conversation.
Congressman Will Hurd: (01:55)
Well look, the only reason I came on is I want to talk about y’all’s formula because why wasn’t I “Number One”? Okay. You know, we’re gonna have, we’re gonna have that debate. No, I’m joking. It’s great to be with y’all.
Alan Wiseman: (02:07)
We appreciate your aspirations in all forms. So, you know, as you and I discussed earlier, we’re gonna be asking you a series of fairly general questions, but you know, we’d love to hear from you with specific examples drawn on your own experiences in Congress, perhaps outside of Congress as they might come to mind.
Congressman Will Hurd: (02:24)
Alan Wiseman: (02:25)
Great. So with that, you know, why don’t we just take a step back, you know, basically about eight-ish years ago, when you first arrived as a freshman in Congress, you know, what were your biggest challenges in settling into life in lawmaking in Washington?
Congressman Will Hurd: (02:40)
Well, for me, my biggest challenge was my reelection already started. I had already been a, you know, this was a, a competitive seat, flipped back and forth every cycle for over a decade. And the person I beat was already talking about running for reelection and running again. And so you have that already hanging over your head that we have to be effective, then you start flat footed and have to outfit an office. So, because I had beat an incumbent Democrat, there was no staff to be left over. Some of the places where my office is, Texas 23, give you some perspective, 29 counties, two times zones, 829 miles of the border. It takes 10 and a half hours to drive across it. It’s serviced by three international airports and it’s huge.
Congressman Will Hurd: (03:38)
And so, so some of the places where the district offices were, they would not allow me to maintain a district office in that location. So I also had to go find new office space, right? So like this is all the things that, that you’re ultimately dealing with. And then building an organization from scratch. How do you build an organization that’s gonna ultimately meet what your goals are? And so you have to outline and transition from campaign goals to legislative goals so that you can meet, you know, so that you can achieve the value proposition that you gave the voters. And one of the things that I told voters, because I’d always heard this complaint, whether it was the previous Republican or the previous Democrat, they never saw their member of Congress. And I said, okay, number one, you’re going to see me.
Congressman Will Hurd: (04:35)
You may not like what I say, but you’re at least going to be able to see me. So how do you build an organization that covers those kind of distances? And then how, as a freshman, can you be effective when in basically a year and a half, when you have to go back to the voters and say, this is what I did in a year and a half. And, and so that’s kind of what is in front of you when you win and you’re starting off and, you know, you win I think it was the first week in November, two weeks later, you’re in Washington, D.C. having to pick out an office, hire people, and make all these decisions. So, that’s kind of what happens there at the very beginning.
Craig Volden: (05:22)
So starting up a small business with multiple goals, across many locations, with the threat of being closed down within a year and a half, sounds like quite the challenge, I assume a lot
Congressman Will Hurd: (05:35)
When you put it like that, when you put it like that. Yeah.
Craig Volden: (05:39)
I assume a lot of people were wanting you to do a variety of things and maybe offering you some advice. What advice do you wish you had received at that point in time that no one told you?
Congressman Will Hurd: (05:51)
You know what, I was lucky that I got some really good advice up front. And so one of the things, one of the pieces of advice that I got up front was always answer the phone and answer your mail. Right. And so we had a, a constituent contact organization from the very beginning that was always about “how do we respond quickly?,” “how do we always give everybody an answer?” So that was a piece of advice that I got, I got early on that I’m glad I was able to follow. You know I think, look, it’s a good question because I try to think about what was it that I had to change or pivot when I was in office that I didn’t do. Maybe, and this is super, this is super specific and nuanced, I would’ve made sure that my offices were in places where there was already existing security because security from my staff became a thing and every member kind of has to deal with that. It was not something I was thinking of early on and so the effort of changing offices was, is pretty tough. I ultimately had five offices across the district, full staff of 23 people.
Congressman Will Hurd: (07:23)
So that’s a super minor thing, but the best piece of advice, I got: answer the phone, have a good mail system, and have a great scheduler. And so, you know, my scheduler ran my life and being able to get back to the district was super important. And then I think the other advice that I got that was great, you know, people are always in your ear about which committees you should get on because certain committees are better for fundraising and all this kind of stuff. And, you know, I ultimately went against a lot of people’s guidance and did things that I thought I was gonna enjoy and gave me the ability to work on issues that mattered. And so I went on Oversight Government Reform, because I was going to be able to be a subcommittee chairman. Now, OGR, which is what we called this committee was usually the place that was super combative, right? This was Darrell Issa ripping President Obama, this is Jerry Nadler ripping, not necessarily now, excuse me…Carolyn Maloney ripping Donald Trump. Right. And before that, Elijah Cummings, right. And so people – that was kind of like, not my thing. But at the subcommittee level, I got to work on, you know, hold the first hearing on artificial intelligence and really is where I was able to leverage my expertise.
Congressman Will Hurd: (08:58)
So that was, I’m not answering your question directly, Craig, but I guess that would put that in the piece of advice I was given that I didn’t follow, and I’m glad I did . So that’s what I did. And I think I give current members of Congress the same advice. I tell them, do something that you’re gonna enjoy doing. That’s gonna be helpful for you, that you’re gonna be able to go back to the district and talk about, not because it’s something that helps you improve fundraising. Because if you’re a good member of Congress, you should be able to have the resources you need during your reelection. And if that only stems from what committee you’re on, then you’re doing something wrong.
Craig Volden: (09:45)
Yeah. That’s all really helpful and I appreciate it. I did wanna return, there was one point in there that we haven’t talked as much about in the past but it’s really important and that was the security element. Do you think the security concerns, threats, against members of Congress and so on, is that keeping people from running for office? Was that a consideration when you were thinking about running? How does that play out?
Congressman Will Hurd: (10:14)
So it’s gotten worse over time. It got worse over my time in Congress. You know, I actually held records for the number of town halls I did. And so, you know, we had a process at the town halls to make sure, you know, because of my background experience, I’m confident that I’m able to protect myself, but my young staff didn’t sign up for that. Right. And so is that something that prevents people from running? I don’t know if that goes into calculation, but there’s a broader issue that, you know, your business is in the streets. People are, you know, you’re criticized. I make a joke and say I’m professionally cyber bullied, right. I’m the target of cyber bullying. Right. And so I think that’s where the public criticisms is one of those things that prevents people from running. I think, where you are seeing the, people should have the ability to criticize their elected officials.
Congressman Will Hurd: (11:22)
that’s part of, that’s part of the great thing about our country, the fact that we can criticize our president without being afraid of being found in jail, right. Like, you know, you don’t have that in, that doesn’t exist in, many places. But there’s a line, right, that that can sometimes be crossed. And we all know the Gabby Gifford’s incident most, you know, understand what happened with Congressman Scalise. And then you see what happened recently to Lee Zeldon, who’s a current member of Congress, running for governor in New York, where someone tried to stab him, it’s increasing. But also what doesn’t get as much attention is that staff gets yelled at and gets targeted. You know, if somebody’s applying for something, doesn’t get it, or you don’t respond fast enough, you know, you can see a level that people take their frustration out on the person they’re interacting with in that office, the number of nasty calls that young, you know, people have to take when in the office, you know, that has an impact on people.
Craig Volden: (12:33)
Alan Wiseman: (12:35)
No, this is all really thought provoking Congressman. And, you know, since we’ve been
Congressman Will Hurd: (12:39)
Y’all call me, Will please. I’d like to be called Congressman when I was in Congress. I definitely don’t don’t need it when I’m out.
Alan Wiseman: (12:45)
Okay. Sounds great, Congressman. So having said that, you know, I actually wanna turn to this issue of staff, both in terms of, you know, the types of people you’re looking for in terms of qualifications, but I think you really laid out in a really nice way, the peculiar nature of your district, both in terms of geographic expanse, economic diversity and what not. And, you know, as Craig noted, you know, from the time you get elected until you’re running for, well, you’re always running for reelection, but you know, you pretty much had 18 months before you really in high gear for your reelection campaign. And as you’re trying to staff up your office, and more specifically thinking about your Capitol Hill staff in particular, how did you go about doing that, really to granular level? And by that I mean, you know, was it important to you that your legislative staff had prior experience on Capitol Hill or are you interested in relying largely on people you’d worked with prior to coming to Capitol Hill?
Congressman Will Hurd: (13:42)
Look, good question. And it depends, right – it depends on where you are in your journey. So my first staff had to have experience in Capitol Hill because I had none. Right. So after, you know, after my first term in Congress, right, I kind of knew the system. I knew what I needed to do and so I no longer needed someone that had, you know, crazy legislative experience and show me, you know, how to get from the Cannon Building to a Rayburn office, right. Or how to deal with, or what we’re gonna respond with, at a committee markup. I didn’t need that because I hadn’t had that experience. So as I evolved, the things that I needed, I needed substantive expertise. I needed people that were gonna work hard. I needed people that were gonna be able to fit within our silo of our office, but at the very beginning.
Congressman Will Hurd: (14:32)
And you said more on DC, but to me, the district office was super important because those are the people that are handling constituents and making sure we’re delivering when we’re back home. And so I was lucky to…my first district director had to be somebody that didn’t need any handholding and I can rely on getting offices, starting to do…to how you get people to handle case work, making sure the case work from my predecessor that wasn’t completed was able to get addressed. So I was able to get a senior staffer from John Cornyn’s office, the senior Senator from Texas to be my district director. And that was huge because he knew how to get off his space. Like I wasn’t involved in any of that stuff. He was able to staff up quickly.
Congressman Will Hurd: (15:28)
So I had that, now my Chief of Staff happened to be somebody who I trusted and knew very well, who also had a lot of experience, right. He had been on Capitol Hill, got off Capitol Hill, and he was the one that ruined my life by suggesting I run for Congress. So I ruined his by making him my first chief of staff. So he understood the Hill in a way and so that was valuable. My first legislative director was somebody that was super smart and thoughtful on how to move legislation, had helped his previous boss get bills, because one of the things that Stony, who was my chief of staff, and I said, we have to have a legislative track record already in and we have to do that basically in a year.
Congressman Will Hurd: (16:21)
And so having people that understood that and had the tenacity to pull these things off, those were critical. And then, I had to have a scheduler who could function because, you know, you’re in DC three nights a week, I’m flying in out of San Antonio, two weekends a month, Midland one weekend, El Paso the fourth. And I’m doing, you know, on the weekends, I’m doing 15 to 20 meetings in seven different cities. Right. And so having someone that was going to be able to manage that was important. So those were kind of the four primary places. The harder one was a communications director because you need someone who’s going to be able to make sure that you’re communicating on what you’re doing up in Washington, D.C., and how do you do that and how do you do it within my voice, which was unique because of the uniqueness of the district.
Congressman Will Hurd: (17:19)
So all that stuff mattered. And then as, you know, over my time in Congress, you know, I was lucky to be able to get fellows from the State Department from DOD, people that had been out in industry that worked in technology to come in and work with me because I needed help on nuance of the policy. Not necessarily how to manage the legislative process because I knew it, right, and I was the one that was executing on that. So that’s how…oh, and by the way, that you’re gonna operate within our framework, right, and early on, you know, personal effectiveness matters. Team organization matters. You know, I read Franklin Covey’s, or Steven Covey’s, Seven Principles of Effective Leadership when I was in high school, I’ve been following those all those time.
Congressman Will Hurd: (18:20)
And then they came, you know, Franklin Covey came up with, you know, what is it called? The Four Principles of Effective Team Leadership or something. And these are things I used when I was in the CIA, when I was building Crumpton group or helping Crumpton group build a Fusion X. And then I used in Congress. So we had a very, very clear guidelines. And if you were to talk to anybody in my has ever worked for me, you can tell them this today, what were the goals of team Hurd? And it’s real simple, be a leader on national security and the gold standard of constituent relations. Everybody would say it exactly that same way to this date. And so you had to have people that were willing to further those twin goals.
Craig Volden: (19:08)
That’s fantastic. Thanks for all of those details: bring a team together, get your goals aligned and then get to work, presumably.
Congressman Will Hurd: (19:16)
Yeah. And what are the metrics that you’re gonna measure? Right. Yeah. And so look, I knew, so the value proposition I had to the district was: you’re gonna see me and I’m gonna work hard on and they knew me as a national security person. So I wanted to go back and say, Hey, here’s all the things that I promised during the campaign and here’s how we worked about this. So we kept super, you know, track of how many town halls, how many events I was doing, how many pieces of mail we responded to, how many phone calls we had, how many times we closed out constituent cases, right? We needed to have those metrics to say: “Hey, we were different.” And if I’m not mistaken, I think in year one, I had seven pieces of legislation signed in the law.
Congressman Will Hurd: (20:07)
My predecessor had one, right, and it was a renaming of a post office. Now don’t get me wrong, I think I did a couple of renamings and so I’m not criticizing that, but the fact that we had significant stuff to include my first bill…helping border patrol with the pay issue was pretty significant. So we had to have an organization that was keeping score of what we were supposed to be doing on behalf of the district. And that’s what’s in those two guidelines of leader on national security and gold standard of constituent relations.
Craig Volden: (20:44)
Yeah and in terms of how you put together then what bills are we going to advance, and how are we going to set our legislative agenda? It sounds like you had some campaign promises to get to, but then you also had kind of your prior work and expertise. Can you tell us about how your work in the CIA and serving as a senior advisor on cybersecurity really informed your lawmaking agenda?
Congressman Will Hurd: (21:08)
Look it was..that’s what, you know, people cared about. The reason I got a gavel as a freshman was because of those experiences. People in the district love the CIA background, right? When you have more border than anybody else and, you know, my job when I was in the CIA was oftentimes, well, you know, look, my cover job was to stamp visas. So, you know, I think I’m the only, in the history of Congress, the only member of Congress that has ever stamped a visa. Right. So there has been three operators from the CIA that have been in Congress. I don’t know if the others, what alias documents they had, but I’ve crisscrossed, I’ve broken and snuck into borders across the world, right. So you have those two experiences, you’re gonna deal a lot,
Congressman Will Hurd: (22:04)
and the longest border, you’re gonna deal on board security. Right. And it was a public safety issue at home and so to me, I didn’t need expert guidance and opinions on those things because I did it right, but I also knew the people to supplement my expertise on this, talking about cyber security. I helped build cyber security company. I know who some of the top people were. So I was able to, I knew the people that I trusted to give some that would round out my experience. So that’s why a lot of the stuff that I did was around that expertise that I had and it was also stuff that benefited the district. When you look at the 23rd district, you know, there’s technically only two military bases in the district, but in reality, there’s seven.
Congressman Will Hurd: (22:58)
Right? And so what happens in that space matters. You had Blue Origin in far west Texas. This so space, actual space, mattered. And so these were…and then San Antonio is Cyber Security City USA, the largest concentration of cyber security professionals outside the national capital region. National capital region includes Maryland, Virginia, and DC. So you have Langley, the Pentagon, and Fort Meade, the NSA, but San Antonio is the largest outside of all that stuff, right? So these were all things that mattered back to the district and I had an expertise and so focus on the things that you know because you’re going to move faster. If you’re negotiating a bill with people, you don’t have to have as many back and forth because you understand the subject matter. And again, I’m getting in the weeds on this and I hope this is what y’all wanted because this is, you know, this is trying to take it beyond like how you actually do these things versus just talking in platitudes.
Craig Volden: (24:11)
No, that’s right. And you know, one thing that we point to in our research is this sweet spot. It sounds like you’ve touched on all of the elements, but if you could bring them a little bit more together, when you introduce legislation that’s on behalf of your district, builds in with your expertise, and aligns with your committee assignment, that you can really get something done there. I wondered if you could speak a little bit more about how the committee assignment then aligned with those other two.
Congressman Will Hurd: (24:36)
Yeah. So it does because you have a greater chance of getting your committee chair to move legislation on your own committee. Right. And so a committee chair is going to prioritize their own members over other people. And, and so that’s why if you’re on, if you’re doing work on those committees, you can move those things faster. Right. And I was lucky, Jason Chaffetz was my first chairman of OGR when Republicans were in the House. And then I was on Homeland with Mike McCall, two great members, super thoughtful. They liked, you know, moving stuff. And so I was lucky to have…and then Chairman McCall was a fellow Texan, so he was part of the delegation. So that was valuable. And then you can also find a partner, like look, I never started a piece of legislation unless I knew I had, you know, early on it was always, you gotta have at least, you gotta know who your Dem counterpart is gonna be,
Congressman Will Hurd: (25:45)
Democratic counterpart is gonna be on legislation. And then probably after year one, I started being like, okay, who we gonna be my Senate partners on this as well, because this is not just about moving it out of the House, you have got to make sure you can move it through the Senate as well, too. And so often a lot of the stuff that I introduced, there was Senate companions. And sometimes the Senate bill moved, just because, Hey, if you gotta do that, you gotta do that. So, but if you can get that within your own committee, you can do a lot more. And that even helped more when I ended up becoming on Appropriations because appropriators, again, people on those committee get kind of priority or special attention. And so if you can do that, it’s valuable. But after you’ve been there for some time and it builds relationships, that committee assignment issue, for me, didn’t matter as much because, you know, I had relationships not only with the committee chair, but committee staff in order to move and tweak legislation that made sense to them.
Alan Wiseman: (26:55)
And so will, this is great and in response to your thoughts a little bit earlier, we’re huge proponents of the weeds. So just let’s keep on moving. Okay.
Congressman Will Hurd: (27:02)
Alan Wiseman: (27:03)
Sure. That’s great. You know, as I alluded to earlier, the Center for Effective Lawmaking scored you as one of the top 10 most effective Republican lawmakers in the house in your first Congress. Beyond that, if you dive deeper into the legislative agenda you were advancing, you were also actually identified as one of the most effective Republican lawmakers in areas pertaining to government operations, immigration, international affairs, as well as in your first term and you continue to be successful in advancing bills in these areas and subsequent terms. More broadly speaking across the three terms you had in Congress, where you served in Congress, pardon me, it seems that most of your legislation basically fell into about four to six of the 21 major issue areas that we measure and we generate scores for, rather than being more spread out. So I really appreciate your response to Craig’s question regarding the ways in which you tie your legislative agenda to your committee assignments or areas that you have at least some more fingerprints on the process.
Alan Wiseman: (28:09)
But I’d like to push you a little bit further, because I, given that you clearly pursued a pretty focused legislative agenda, I’d be curious to get your perspective on what you see as the benefit in maintaining such a focused portfolio of legislative ideas, as opposed to advancing perhaps a more expansive legislative agenda across multiple issue areas, especially given as you described. I mean, you have this massive district in terms of geography, economic diversity, different industries, and the like – you could easily imagine yourself being pulled in so many different directions. You know, and I guess in asking this question, I’m also implicitly asking to give advice to either current or future lawmakers. What does and doesn’t work?
Congressman Will Hurd: (28:51)
You know it’s funny in preparation of this conversation, I found my first like strategy document that I had for when I was in Congress…and this is, you know, when we had kind of our full team of senior leaders…that I presented to them. And this was, you know, where I outlined the leader in national security and gold standard of constituent relations and we talked about what does national security mean? And with everything from agriculture issues, right, because food security matters to education because I think education is a national security issue. If we don’t have the educated workforce for the future to build the next rockets and planes, we’re going to have a problem. And so, so that phrase “national security,” we had our own definition and there was about 10 or 12 things. Now, people in the district cared about healthcare, right?
Congressman Will Hurd: (29:51)
And what is my unique perspective on healthcare ? EHRs – electronic health records. Right, now, and electronic health record is not in sexy topic, but when you go back and you explain to people that your ability to move your information about something from one doctor to another, can improve your health outcomes. Right? And then if we anonymize that data and aggregate it, the ability to virtualize research, to provide, you know, services to a broader set of people is pretty significant. Oh, and by the way, who has the largest EHR community? The VA. Guess what subcommittee I was on, you know, in appropriations? The VA. Right. And so there were other areas, but if there were broader issues about healthcare or health insurance, I would go to a doc – John Burgess from, from North Texas, right. He was a doctor.
Congressman Will Hurd: (30:55)
Right. I would talk to Buddy Carter who was a pharmacist, right? Like there were people that had had a working knowledge of these things that could I get involved in and help on those initiatives. So even though we’re talking about my own personal legislation, but trying to help and help others that were working on things that were broader and had an impact on the district, I did it. A story I often tell is about, and my staff always gets mad when I use this story: should it be allowed, “should Americans be allowed to eat cats and dogs?”
Congressman Will Hurd: (31:37)
That was an issue that came up, you know, there was a piece of legislation, you know, we had some constituents write in about it. I reviewed every letter that went out on a topic and sometimes, you know, everybody knew what my position was gonna be, but other times it’s not, and you’re like – eating cats and dogs is weird for sure, but should it be illegal? Why should it be illegal? What is the principles around that? Right. And so that was…now the news flash: it was already illegal when this bill came up and this was one of these examples of a bill where you’re stamping your foot and being like, “we’re gonna double down on this thing,” because you’re appealing to some group of people. But that was, you gotta have an opinion on that.
Congressman Will Hurd: (32:30)
And so what are those principles that you’re basing it on? So even though the bills and the stuff that I worked on focused on national security, you still have to have common and opinion on all these other things. And my advice to legislators is have an expertise because that’s gonna allow you to be effective and be a go-to person. The number of members that had technology issues or questions, they were able to come to me. Because I did so much work on IT procurement in cyber security, I got asked, I was able to then translate that into doing the first hearing on artificial intelligence and doing work on AI and then ultimately passing a national strategy on artificial intelligence. And so my suggestion is have an expertise when you come into Congress, work on that area of your expertise, because you’re gonna be even more effective…because we do have to deal with so many issues that, you know, having people that have an expertise in something, that means you’re a value for the rest of the Congress and the rest of the country because you understand that at a granular level.
Craig Volden: (33:47)
You’ve offered a number of examples of who you would work with on different issues, kind of those networks or partnerships, largely informal in many cases, but presumably more formal in others. I was thinking, you know, during your time in Congress, you were a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, the Republican Main Street Partnership. What do you see are the roles of such caucuses playing in Congress and did your membership help you achieve your legislative goals?
Congressman Will Hurd: (34:15)
So I think those caucuses, their role and influence have ebbed and flowed over the years. Yeah. It is a great place for informal connections with people that you may not have met or known. When I look at the relationships that matter, it starts with committee chairs and staff of committee chairs. If you’re gonna move legislation, then it has to go through the committees. Then you have to have relationships with leadership of both parties…because the role, you know, if I were to say, one of the criticisms I have of the institution is that too much power has been centered in leadership. 20 years plus ago, and y’all can disagree with me, committee chairs had a lot more power. The committee chairs were able to tell a speaker or a majority leader to, you know, to take a jump in the lake because they’re the ones that moved the legislation.
Congressman Will Hurd: (35:19)
They’re the ones that created the legislation. That process has ultimately moved to leadership. So you could have a committee chair and be supportive of something, but if the majority leader is not gonna put it on a docket to move, that’s difficult. Even trickier for someone like me because I was always a target. Since I was a target, my Democratic colleagues in leadership would not want to give me any victories that I can go home and beat my chest about. So you had to…that was a process that you had to deal with. And ultimately, because I helped when Republicans were in power, you know, if somebody was more on the issue and the right person, I didn’t care if they were in a tough race or not. This was about moving legislation. So I worked with Republican leadership to move bills.
Congressman Will Hurd: (36:12)
And so people were were paid that kindness. When Democrats were ultimately in power, a big piece of legislation I worked on a co-sponsor was Steny Hoyer, right? And this was, you know, I always laugh, Steny Hoyer came to San Antonio to campaign for my opponent. And I think I put out a welcome tweet, welcoming my partner Steny Hoyer to San Antonio. We always had a good laugh about that. But yeah, so for me, those relationships were critical. The caucuses helped you find and identify people that were like-minded on something and so that would be able to help you get co-sponsorship or who your lead was goin to be on the Democratic side. And then when it came time to trying to pass legislation, and for me the toughest one was probably immigration, those caucuses played a different…more of a role because instead you had to get a vote count in order to see whether you can get that legislation moving or not.
Alan Wiseman: (37:27)
Well, I wanna,
Congressman Will Hurd: (37:27)
And look, on the Senate slide was equally important, right? Because that was, you know, difficult. And over there, the chairmanship matters even more, you know, to ultimately move something, you know, a great partner of mine was always John Cornyn. John Cornyn is a great legislator. He’s a great individual. He’s been a mentor of mine…somebody that…and having such a senior leader in the Senate was valuable in helping to make sure you knew how to navigate the Senate side.
Alan Wiseman: (38:03)
No this is great. I want to shift gears slightly and actually revisit a point you raised a little bit earlier about the importance of communications and whoever on your staff is navigating communications. You know, Craig and I, and some other scholars who are tied to the Center, have found something of attention between those members of Congress who appear on the media regularly, and those who are effective lawmakers, or those are more effective lawmakers…something of perhaps a show horse versus workhorse distinction. You know, coming back to your point about the importance of having just the perfect staff member to navigate communications for you and your office. Do you see communications in lawmaking as separate and distinct activities, or how do you think they work together to help you achieve your goals?
Congressman Will Hurd: (38:48)
They are separate. They are distinct capabilities because they require different muscle movements, but they have to be in coordination. Right. You know, you should be talking about the things that you’re doing and then if you’re working on those things people care about then they’re gonna want you to talk about it. And ultimately it’s your responsibility to articulate to your district what’s going on and what’s happening. Your title is representative and so you’re representing other people. And so if there is, you know, a service that your office is providing, you’ve got to be able to know it. If you’re having a town hall where people have problems. Like a lot of people go through their life and never have to be in a situation when they’re like, “I gotta call my member of Congress to help me with this problem.” But there’s a lot of people that do.
Congressman Will Hurd: (39:36)
And when you’re in that situation, it sucks, it’s hard, it’s tough. And so you have got to make sure that you’re available. So now the problem becomes, if your constituents only see you on television…I was on TV a lot. I had a super aggressive media schedule. I was constantly talking about, you know, especially issues of national security importance. I spent a lot of time there, but I was also back in the district and I remember I was, I think it was in, this was in Uvalde – everybody has come to know Uvalde because of the horrific events of three months ago. I was at a high school game and I was flipping the coin for the football game and I’m in the crowd watching a little of the game and some dude welcome me
Congressman Will Hurd: (40:25)
He goes, “Hey, I just saw you on CNN”. Right. And so part of it is, your constituents are okay seeing you on TV, but they better see you back in the district as well too. And I think we did a really good job of doing both so that people didn’t think, “oh, you’re always on TV” versus, you know, no, one’s gonna question how much time I spent in the district. And so, but if you can’t communicate, if you can’t talk about the issues that are going on, if your district doesn’t know who you are, that’s a problem. And look, I’m still proud of the fact that I’m at HEB…and HEB is a grocery store it is kind of like our Wegmans, you know, down in south Texas, popular grocery store chain, one of the more iconic brands in Texas…and I’m pushing my cart and people still come up be like Congressman, you know, I got this issue.
Congressman Will Hurd: (41:19)
I’m like, man, I’m not in office anymore. You know? But here’s how you sort that out, right? Call this person, tell them this, they’re gonna respond to you with this, this is your response to that, do this thing. Right? And so part of that is having a comm shop where you are, you know, being effective in communicating what you’re doing. And look, when I look at problems in our country, it’s an erosion of trust in so many of our institutions, our federal government, our state government, academia, the media, and that erosion of trust starts because people don’t understand what’s going on and they haven’t been communicating that. And so I was happy that, you know, people knew what I was doing while I was doing it and was able to talk about why these issues were important.
Craig Volden: (42:06)
So some of that erosion of trust as we view Congress, seems to be all of the bickering, and then worse than bickering, that we see Democrats against Republicans and then you’ve given examples of how you’ve worked across party lines. Can you kind of give us the insider versus outsider balance there, to what extent is bipartisanship available? Does it work in Congress and why don’t we hear more about it if it does work?
Congressman Will Hurd: (42:30)
Yeah. And so I will say this, I think after the event of January 6th, things got more difficult for people to work together. I remember, first committee hearing, Homeland Security Committee hearing, the Homeland Security Committee room was near my personal office. And it was my first time, never been in Congress, and I’m presenting an amendment and my staff was like I guess what’s gonna happen. So I do it, a Democrat like goes bananas on me, and I’m kind of like, “what is happening?” This is, I was kind of like, I was befuddled.
Craig Volden: (43:17)
Congressman Will Hurd: (43:18)
After it was over, that member comes out to me, he’s like, “Hey”, he introduced himself. He goes, “your office is right around here right?” And I’m like, “yeah”, he’s like, “I wanna come see your office.” And I’m like, what the heck? And he comes in my office, sits down and he’s like “how are you handling your mail program? How do you handle your phones?” He’s like, you’re new. And I’m just like, dude, like you just yelled at me in this committee room and now you’re giving me office and we ultimately became friends. And so there was a fellowship and comradery that happened that you didn’t see, that, that most people didn’t see – it’s gotten more difficult. And part of the problem is our primary process. When, you know, I was in a district that if every Republican voted for me, I would not win.
Congressman Will Hurd: (44:10)
I had to get independents. I had to get Democrats. And so I had motivations and reasons to interact with people across party lines. There are many districts where the decisions made in the primary, and that’s made by 3% of the population, and that is the only people that those representatives are gonna talk to. And that creates that problem. And then if you’re in a competitive seat like mine, how do you win an election? You win an election by creating contrast. And if you win an election by creating contrast, what are you always doing? Creating contrast. And so that makes it difficult to work with people. But it’s also harder to fight with people that you know and spend time with. That’s why, you know, oftentimes congressional delegations, or CODELs, get a bad rap where you’re going overseas
Congressman Will Hurd: (45:05)
for some reason. Now, you know, I had to do it a lot from my responsibilities on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. But those are oftentimes the only time that you have interactions with your members. And so you get to know them, you get to know their families, you get to know their hopes and dreams and what they’re working on and the things that they care about. And so we gotta increase those levels of interactions because the only way we can get big things done is by doing it together. There’s this notion over the last 20 years, that the only way to get legislation passed is through unified government. Unified government is actually the worst way, unified government meaning one party controls the House and Senate in the White House. That’s probably the worst way because what happens when you pass a, you know, one party only legislation that stuff tries to get repealed in the next Congress. And so it’s a lack of…you’re focusing on old stuff rather than trying to improve stuff. And so I don’t know if this if this answers your question, Craig, but there’s a possibility it starts with having relationships. And it’s gotten harder. Yeah. It’s gotten harder to do because of the polarization of districts.
Alan Wiseman: (46:24)
Well, thanks that I actually wanna return directly to the first point that you raised and that being, you know, noting how, you know, given the events of January 6th, the subsequent impeachment inquiries, you know, it sometimes seems that many members of both parties really aren’t even willing to talk to each other, at least in public forums, let alone work together. You know, my assumption is that there’s a lot of Americans who might have first heard of you when you took the road trip that you chronicled in your recent book with then Representative Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat who was representing Texas 16th, you know, all the way from Texas out to Washington DC. So there’s obviously some great anecdotes in the book, you know, feel free to talk about them here. But you know, if we take a step back and think about some big think issues that emerge, or big think ideas that emerge, from your time on the road with him, you know, I was wondering, you know, what do you think are some lessons that you gleaned, you know, basically being stuck in a car on this road trip from Texas to DC, that you think think could be applied more generally to members of either party who really are looking for partners across the aisle.
Congressman Will Hurd: (47:29)
Sure. So what we did was Beto represented, Beto, and I both represented, parts of El Paso. So we had worked together on border trade issues, border security stuff, veterans health issues. And he was in San Antonio – I had invited him to San Antonio to do some meetings with some veterans. He was the only Texan on the VA Committee and some of my veterans groups, say he’s someone. And there was this, one of the snowpocalypses in Washington DC and our flights got canceled and we said, let’s drive and we’ll live stream the whole thing. And so we did, so we drove from San Antonio to DC, 35 hour trip, 31 hours in the car, 29 hours live streamed. And we talked about everything. This was in, this was hot in the middle of the repealing replace of the Affordable Care Act, right.
Congressman Will Hurd: (48:21)
There was, I think there was a, I forget, there was some school violence that had just happened. There was a lot of issues, and look, the things that I learned from that trip confirmed a few things that I’d already known being in a 50/50 district – meaning 50% Republican, 50% Democrat of the voting population – way more unites us than divides us. Right. The first 90 minutes when we did this was pretty rough because Beto was driving. We were on his socials and I was reading this stuff and people were rude, man. They were like, they were nasty. And there’s one time, there was only like twice when we turned the camera off and it was when we talked to our families and then this first time at the beginning, I was like, bro, if this continues, I’m not gonna be able to, I’m not gonna be able to handle this kind of nastiness.
Congressman Will Hurd: (49:18)
Right. And he, after about 90 minutes, people got awesome. They were like, this is amazing. I wish more people would do this. You know, we ended up having like 25 million people watching us on socials throughout the, throughout the trip. And the other lesson I learned was that Americans want us to agree without being… Want us to be able to disagree without being disagreeable, right. We can have a competition of ideas without being rude. And that’s what we did. And I think going back and forth and having a six hour debate about healthcare, you learn that the other side is coming from a position that they’re trying to help their community. They, you know, you’re both trying to help people. You just have different ideas on how to achieve that. And so the other side are not evil
Congressman Will Hurd: (50:12)
And that they just have a different perspective. And then oftentimes you can find enough areas of where you can, where you can agree. And unfortunately, we often build legislation through subtraction, other than addition. You know, somebody starts with: these are the hundred things we wanna do. And then the other side’s like, uh, no. And then you whittle it down to like five things. So you’re never excited about those five things. You’re only like, man, we dropped 95 things in order to get to those five things. If people started with one thing, I want this one thing, the other side’s gonna be like, well, that one thing equals these two things. Okay. Well, those two things actually equal these couple of things. And so you end up building through addition. And so you started with one and get this one thing done, but you ended up doing seven things. It’s like, wow, that’s awesome. Right. And so, so that was some of the things that I learned on that road trip that we took.
Craig Volden: (51:14)
Yeah. I really appreciate all of those perspectives. I wanna take a step back now since our time is running short, our research has shown that freshmen who are effective in their first terms, as you clearly were, are more likely to continue to be effective lawmakers across their careers. They’re also more likely to seek higher office soon thereafter, running from the House to the Senate, for example, or for governor or even president. How do you think about what you accomplished in your lawmaking career in the House and what influence does that have on how you think about next steps?
Congressman Will Hurd: (51:52)
Well, when you have, when you demonstrate an ability of knowing how to get things done, you want to leverage those skills in other ways. And so you also, the same principles and theories in passing legislations, the same kind of principles and theories that you would apply at any other level. Right? And so I think, this is my assumption, that y’all’s research has showed that people that like to actually solve problems want to be able to continue to solve problems, and solve bigger problems, and take on more difficult challenges. Right. And then when you have the capacity of knowing how to do that and have been successful at, it gives you the confidence to try to bite off more, right…is probably the way I would probably assume that’s why your research is, is it found what it found.
Congressman Will Hurd: (52:46)
And so, look, you know, a lot of people, I, look, I ran, I can’t tell you why everybody ran. I ran because I got pissed. Right. I got pissed when I was in Congress, when I was in the CIA, when members of Congress were doing things that were countering what all my friends and I were putting ourselves in harms way in order to do. And that’s why I ran. I thought I could help the intelligence community a different way. And then you start learning that you’re fighting for people, you’re fighting a bureaucracy for people that need help fighting. Right, and so when you’re able to, when you’re interested in solving problems, you know, that stays in your system.
Alan Wiseman: (53:33)
Appreciate that. Okay. So for the record, you’re not running for presidents in 2024. We’ll just get that out there.
Congressman Will Hurd: (53:41)
Look, if I have the opportunity to serve my country, I’ll evaluate it.
Alan Wiseman: (53:48)
So that’s not a no though. I just wanna put that out there as well.
Congressman Will Hurd: (53:50)
Alan Wiseman: (53:51)
Okay. So as a final point, and like Craig said, we’re mindful of time, because the Center for Effective Lawmaking is a joint research and engagement enterprise, which is housed at both Vanderbilt University and the Batten School at University of Virginia, you know, and especially given all the points you made in your book about the importance of education, in its myriad forms. You know, we wanted to see if you had any particular advice that you, or insights you really wanted to share with college students today.
Congressman Will Hurd: (54:22)
I wish that before they got to college, right, I wish when they were 9 and 10 years old, and when they were asked, “what do they want to do?” And they said, “I wanna be a fireman,” or “I wanna be an astronaut” that people say, “I wanna be a member of Congress,” “I wanna be elected official.” Because it’s, it’s an honorable role and it’s something that has, having people in those positions is what has enabled this experiment called America to work and exist. And there’s a number of different ways to serve your country and having effective legislators matter. If you’re interested in doing that, go get experience, right, have a career, have an expertise, and then figure out how to use that expertise to improve other people that are in that area of your expertise. And that’s how we’re gonna make sure that we continue to be the greatest country on the planet and make sure that this experiment continues for another 247 years.
Alan Wiseman: (55:32)
Well, thanks for that. I mean that’s really helpful and thoughtful. You know, unfortunately our time’s essentially up, we really appreciated you taking the time to really just flesh out some of the ideas, both in your book and going well beyond the scope of what you wrote about. As we wrap up, however, we also just want to offer you the opportunity to tell us anything that you feel, you know, is important to really understanding effective lawmaking in Congress, both from your perspective or in general, that we might have left out, or anything else you feel you wanted to comment on.
Congressman Will Hurd: (56:03)
Well look, I just appreciate what y’all are doing because when you shine a light and keep score, people act differently, right? And so, you know, if you want more effective legislators, define what effective is, you know, highlight that and people behave differently when there’s a score card. So I think y’all’s work is important and it’s also something that people that are coming in can learn from so that they can be more effective. So I appreciate the initiative and what y’all and your teams and staff and students are doing because I think this is something that matters to improve Congress.
Craig Volden: (56:47)
Thanks so much, and again, thanks for taking the time to talk – it was really insightful. Appreciate it.
Congressman Will Hurd: (56:52)
My pleasure. Thanks y’all.
Take care. Bye.