Q & A with an Accountability Expert

Jonathan Bydlak, Director, Governance Program & Fiscal and Budget Policy Project, R Street Institute.

The Q&A below has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you tell us about the R Street Institute and your role at the organization?

The R Street Institute is a center-right think-thank that basically works to provide policy ideas for lawmakers and the general public on essentially how to make various areas of public policy work better. Our motto is “Free Markets. Real Solutions”. We are right of center but we are also very pragmatic in trying to present solutions that are actually politically feasible. I am the director of the governance program which deals with a number of important questions largely centered around how to make the government itself operate better. That takes a number of different fronts, which could be: How do we improve the budget process? How do we make the courts work better? How do we ensure that the legislative branch exercises adequate oversight of the executive branch? We look at a lot of these big picture questions and generally present a libertarian or conservative or center-right perspective, if you will, on a lot of these questions of governance. That is my role within the context of R Street.

What are some of your organization’s recent accomplishments and which are you most excited about?

We have been doing a lot of work addressing outdated Authorization for Use of Military Force. As you know, there have been a number of AUMFs from previous conflicts in 2001 and 2002 (and actually going back into the 1950s). Congress authorized them and never actually repealed these measures. There has recently been some advancement of a couple of measures related to repealing these AUMFs that I think is really encouraging. It’s the first time we have seen Congress willing to flex their authority in this way. In the last Congress, as the co-founder of the Power of the Purse coalition, a left-right coalition of groups, we worked with some of our fellow good government groups on a number of reforms. One of those items was a bill originally introduced by Senator James Lankford (R-OK) called the Taxpayer Right-To-Know Act, which basically would have created for the first time a comprehensive federal inventory of all programs. That piece of legislation that had been hung up for years ended up getting attached to the last National Defense Authorization Act and became law. That was a very exciting and pragmatic win. I think there are other broader things that are not necessarily legislative wins but are really valuable from the standpoint of public discussion of issues. We have done a lot of work with the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which has put forth dozens of recommendations on ways to make Congress work better. Some of those ideas were implemented by House Rules Changes at this Congress. There are other ideas that are getting a lot more attention than they did in the past. I think there’s a lot more possibility that many of the reforms we have advocated for could end up being passed into law. We also do work on electoral reform issues which I think is a very hot-button topic. All of these are exciting in many different ways because it’s very hard to have change occur. Obviously, the gold standard is having an idea passed into law. However, I think all of these ideas are changing the public conversation and that is a precursor to positive changes.

What does a typical day look like for you? 

A typical one doesn’t exist. It could be anything such as writing op-eds or commentary about a particular issue that’s salient in the public discourse. It could be working on a larger scale policy study, exploring an in-depth issue that maybe has not been explored by others in quite the same way. It could be strategizing with other organizations about how to work to advance issues that of shared priority to our various groups. It could be meeting with Members of Congress or staff to discuss our priorities or figure out ways to assist them in their own legislative priorities. There is also fundraising and interfacing with investors who are interested in our reform ideas and would like to see them implemented. It’s a hodgepodge of all those things on top of managing our staff and handling administrative stuff too.

What is the most challenging part of your role? 

I think most roles come down to prioritization. When one talks about dysfunction in government that can take many different forms. It can be the way the branches interact with one another, the way they operate, or things that are exogenous to the daily governing structure, such as the electoral system. I think working to really figure out where we can have the most impact – like any organization, resources and time are limited – to improve the status quo. I spend a lot of time thinking about that in terms of setting our department a program-wide agenda.  It requires a strategic and policy planning process that’s driven by a fast-changing political scene. New people are elected, power switches hands, the presidency switches parties, etc. Those types of changes can happen very quickly and can as a result change which type of reforms and which ideas are the most important to talk about. Thinking through and trying to be nimble and account for all those moving parts are probably the biggest challenges that I deal with on a regular basis.

What issue areas would you like the Biden administration and this Congress to prioritize? 

At the start of the administration, I published an article where I talked about a handful of different reforms I thought were bipartisan and made a lot of sense that the administration should prioritize. The issue that everyone has talked about the most is COVID-19, and I think making sure that decisions that are being made are driven as much by science as much as possible, but at the same time being as fiscally responsible as possible. I think you can acknowledge there’s a federal role for involvement and dealing with the pandemic while also acknowledging that we shouldn’t just go and waste dollars unnecessarily. It’s an area I’d really like the Biden administration to think about. I think there are things that have come out of the pandemic that are really important like how we deal with healthcare. We have seen an increase in telehealth and there’s sort of a silver lining in the last year and a half. I think there are other things in the healthcare space that Congress and the administration should prioritize. I mentioned earlier the issue of oversight, we have a system of checks and balances for a reason. There’s this tendency of depending on which party controls the presidency to flip on whether or not you are pro or against oversight of the executive branch. I think it is very important that Congress take its oversight role seriously and that the administration recognizes that they are made stronger by having good congressional oversight.

I am also particularly passionate about Pentagon spending. We are seeing the winding down of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. I think that is a very important and welcome change after nearly 20 years. I would really like to see the administration and Congress continue to rethink our role in the world and how we can it impact it positively rather than in an aggressive, military-first way.

You previously commented on the January 6 Commission and the need for an investigation that is not politically skewed. What is your assessment of how things currently stand?

I wish I could be more positive. I think that any time you are talking about an issue like this there is an incentive on both sides to make it partisan because Democrats want to signal to their base that they are taking it seriously. Republicans want to signal to their base that it’s all a political witch-hunt and it’s not actually been driven by a search for the truth. I certainly would have liked to have seen an independent commission where you would have people who have specific expertise in a wide variety of areas and who would have been committed to getting the truth out. Maybe we wouldn’t have had these partisan, political concerns dictating their perspective on what happened on that day. I think that day was a tragic day in our country’s history and frankly, an unacceptable day. As someone who is on the right side of the political spectrum, I think that it’s very important that we talk about the marketplace of ideas, I think it’s critical that the best policy ideas win out in that context, not by engaging brutality, violence and disrespect for our existing institutions. It’s hard to say what will come of it but I think the most important thing is that whatever process ends up happening is one that has credibility among the American people. If it becomes this sort of signal to the extremes of each party’s base, the results will be a waste of time and they won’t actually go and have a real impact. Unfortunately, over the last couple of months, it has become clear that’s the direction things are moving and I think that is a shame.

What projects are in the works for R Street in the next year?

I built a tool called Spending Tracker, which you can find at spendingtracker.org that looks at in real-time how much Members of Congress are voting to spend. We are in the process of making a number of improvements to that tool and one of those improvements is to begin to incorporate a congressional calendar so lawmakers and staff will begin to see what bills are upcoming and get a sense for what the fiscal implications of voting for or against those bills might be. Rather than just measuring how much spending they are voting for, you are able to say, well how would that change if they vote for or against these new pieces of legislation? There are many different updates to that site that makes it a unique tool so we are not just producing commentary but providing interactive tools for Congress to engage with the real impact of the decisions they are making. I think there’s a tendency in the policy arena to have a playbook of just putting out the papers or doing events. But there’s a broader question about how do you make these policy issues come alive and how do you create tools that are actually helpful so that it’s not just writing a report that people forget about a month later. I think it’s really important that the products we produce as a policy organization have a timeless component to them. We have a similar tool at modernizecongress.org, which basically takes the recommendations from the Select Committee primarily and puts a flashier face on them. It highlights issues that are a priority for us so that when we talk to congressional representatives and their staff they are able to go to the site repeatedly to see the ideas and interact with them. I am a big fan of these types of tools. 


What is the most beneficial part of being part of the Open The Government coalition? 

I think it is great to have coalitions organized around issues that are important. We are in a time where our politics is so polarized that people view things through specific partisan lenses. I think it’s easy to ignore the fact that there’s actually a lot more agreement across the political spectrum than many people commonly assume. I think OTG is an instrumental coalition that basically says this idea of being as transparent as possible is not one that either the left or the right has a monopoly on. There are plenty of people in both parties who are opposed to increasing transparency and there are plenty who are in favor. I think OTG has a huge value from a messaging standpoint to show that these ideas are good regardless of where they come from. It also just helps facilitate conversations to have groups and people who are working on these issues from different perspectives and unite around worthwhile policy goals. That network is very valuable and it makes all of our work even stronger.

When you are not busy working, what hobbies do you enjoy?

My first love is actually astronomy. I have had a telescope since I was in the eighth grade or maybe even earlier than that. I love observing the stars. I’ve also been involved in genealogy for a long time, both traditional genealogy and genetic genealogy so I am active in those communities, researching my own family tree, and have helped a lot of others do the same. I think it’s important to know where you come from.