Heard on the Hill

How a ‘Card-Carrying National Security Nerd’ Got to Congress

Mike Gallagher applies the ‘lance corporal test’ to everything he does

On working on Syria issues, "you peer behind the witness curtain and no one’s there. It’s just you," Gallagher said. (Courtesy of Gallagher)

Mike Gallagher preferred to be locked in a room, away from the cameras, writing white papers.

After the Wisconsin Republican got out of the military, he went to work for the Senate Foreign Relations panel, handling Middle East, North Africa and counterterrorism issues under Chairman Bob Corker.

That was just five years ago. Now he’s a first-term congressman, thinking of young people at the “tip of the spear.”

Q: What did you do as a staffer?

A: The very first full week I had on the job was the debate about the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Syria. … I was thrown directly into the crucible. It was fascinating debate because [President Bashar] Assad had gassed his own people in Eastern Ghouta earlier that month, and then finally, the evidence became too overwhelming to ignore. So the president had requested Congress act, and we had this debate in the committee. And most people forget, but the Foreign Relations Committee actually passed the authorization.

Two things that I remember from that: One, it was like this moment that happens periodically in your life when … you peer behind the witness curtain and no one’s there. It’s just you. I was sitting there and part of a group, and we had to think about writing an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which seemed like a very weighty thing. I couldn’t believe I was involved in it.

The second thing was just to see how that dissipated because the Obama administration then struck a deal with the Russians. I believe it was a flawed deal, and that undermined any momentum there was to have a debate on the Senate or House floor.

It’s just a fascinating discussion about war powers. Chairman Corker was always of the opinion that Congress should we clawing back a lot of its authority on foreign policy. I agree with that, and I still agree to this day that we need to do our job of AUMF.

[The Investigation Will Be Televised]

Q: Did you feel like you needed a military background to be able to work on these issues?

A: It definitely helped me. My portfolio was Middle East and Africa, so it was a very chaotic time for the region. I had deployed to Iraq, so I knew a certain part of the region. I was an Arabic linguist, but I think my military experience, more than anything else, just gave me a respect for unintended consequences. It gave me a sense that all of these decisions that senators and members of the House make in air-conditioned offices in Washington, D.C., eventually have to be implemented by some 19-year-old lance corporal at the tip of the spear.

I try and apply what I called the “lance corporal test” to everything I do. In other words ... what are the unintended consequences, and what can we do to make sure that asking that 18- or 19-year-old kid to do a dangerous job, we can give them the full support they need? Not just in terms of money and weapons, but the support that comes from having the elected representatives of the American people actually vote affirmatively to authorize our military activities around the world.

[Pete Olson on Respect in Congress: ‘We’ve Lost That’]

Q: Did you ever think to yourself, I could be in Congress?

A: No. Not at all. I was the policy nerd that you just kept locked in a room to write white papers and do boring work. I never thought about being someone in front of the cameras. I really love the Middle East. I was fortunate enough to use my G.I. bill to do some academic work and got my Ph.D. in international relations. At that time, I thought I would pursue a career in policy or academia and then, perhaps, the private sector.

Then, I was asked to work for Gov. [Scott] Walker as his national security adviser when he ran for president. That’s what brought me back home to Wisconsin and, through a series of events that I did not anticipate, led to me running for Congress. But really, up to that point — even years in the military, two years on the Foreign Relations Committee, and even a year working for the governor, I was a full-on, card-carrying national security nerd.

[Gomez on What He Learned From Being a Staffer for a Latina Member]

Q: What is your relationship with Corker like?

A: Usually he makes fun of me for being single and takes every opportunity he can to make jokes at my expense to the press. But no, we still have a great relationship. He’s obviously retiring from the Senate, and it will be interesting to see what he does next.

Q: Does your time as a staffer affect how you treat your staff?

A: I would hope so. I certainly think I have a better understanding of how the committee process can and should work and how important that relationship between personal offices and the professional staff is. And I also understand just how much members of Congress rely on and ask of their staff. You’re not making a ton of money if you’re a congressional staffer, but the flip side is, if you have a boss who’s willing to empower you, you can do some pretty rewarding and gratifying work. 

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