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Beyond the Thunderdome

Given the name of this blog, you might think I see bourbon wherever I go. But some places don’t bring bourbon to mind very naturally. For example, most of you, like me, probably consider Wisconsin a beer-drinking state, so naturally when I chatted with Congressman Mike Gallagher recently, I wanted to get his take on Wisconsin’s drinking history.


He laughed and said, “in the last few years, of the top 10 drunkest cities in America, 7 have been in Wisconsin, and 2 have been in my district,” he continued, “and Wisconsin Senator John Blaine is responsible for repealing Prohibition. So, we have a proud history in that regard.”  


He then shared with me the (un)official cocktail of Wisconsin—the Brandy Old Fashioned. He explained that because of this unique Wisconsin cocktail, the Badger state accounts for the majority consumption of brandy in America. I double checked him on this and it’s true—Wisconsin consumes more brandy than all other 49 states combined.


I was first introduced to Mike Gallagher by a mutual friend at the White House Congressional Ball in late 2017, and at the time he was nearly one year into his first term representing Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional district. While we didn’t trade drinking stories that evening, we did engage in a conversation about the current tax reform bill and the attempted repeal of Obamacare—and that 33-year-old freshman Congressman left an indelible impression on me. I remember saying to my husband as we drove home that evening that Mike Gallagher was going to be leading the next generation of conservatives in Congress.


Flash forward to 2021, and Mike Gallagher is now in his third term in Congress. While he has cultivated an independent reputation among his Congressional peers, he is even more well-respected for his expertise in national defense and foreign policy. Frankly, given his background as a Princeton and Georgetown-educated Marine who served two tours in Iraq, studied Arabic and has a PhD in foreign policy, one might think he is on a fast-track to becoming the next CIA director in a Republican administration.


Because of his independent nature, he is coming to be seen as a maverick of sorts. In my opinion, maybe that’s because he seems to be using his time in Congress like a military deployment, and not as a career. And he manages to keep his head above the fray, because he wants to effect real change despite the dominance of tribal politics these past few years.


Gallagher’s main policy focuses have been primarily on national security—modernizing and rebuilding the American military and fighting the rising threat from China. None of that is particularly surprising, Gallagher after all has a PhD in foreign policy and is a former Marine. So those focuses are understandable and could be predicted.


But there is one underappreciated wild card in the Congressman’s deck, Congressional reform. If there is ever an orphan issue in Congress—this is one.


It has been over 25 years since Gingrich and the ’94 Republicans took Congress under the banner of the “Contract with America”, a series of Congressional reform proposals both small and large. Although the Congressman doesn’t necessarily agree with the ultimate results of all of those reforms, he is a serious student of and advocate for Congress reforming itself.


As opposed to the ’94 reforms which were focused largely on abuses within Congress, Gallagher is looking to restore Congress to the Founder’s original vision for the institution. Prior to our conversation, I read an article he had written in the Atlantic on this topic. I cannot really do justice to this excellent article, and I am going to resist the temptation to summarize his argumentation, but I really suggest you read it. But in short, Gallagher poses the important question, “How did an institution that was once admired around the world become so toothless?”


When he and I spoke, he focused on a couple of big ideas in regard to Congress. First the seeming paradox of, as he says, “if you want to reduce the size of government, you have to increase the size and capability of the Congressional branch.”


For example, if Members of Congress were able to be more empowered through a better committee structure and could spend more time actually in Congress and less time attending to activities like fundraising, then Congress would be able to go toe-to-toe with the Executive Branch. And ultimately, prune back the overgrowth of Administrative power.


Second, Gallagher proposes term limits for Members of Congress. He says, “it would incentivize Members to spend more time actually doing their jobs as opposed to thinking about how I raise $2 million so I can be subcommittee chair in 15 years and then I can be committee chair in 25 years and then maybe in 200 years I can be Speaker.”


Gallagher’s proposals stem from his vision of what Congress is at its best and could be again.


“I want to enter the House floor and I want it to be intellectual Thunderdome,” he said to me, “Congress should be the place where people have a real exchange of ideas with the goal of learning what works and what doesn’t.”


As a self-professed student of Congressional history, Gallagher concludes, “American history is a history of original mistakes. And Congress is the institution that helps us learn from those mistakes and experiment with other things and improve over time.”


While Gallagher’s approach to reforming Congress might seem unorthodox, so is putting brandy in your old fashioned. But all joking aside, right now we are searching for rising stars to lead us in the Republican party—and I think the Congressman from Northeast Wisconsin has a promising future.

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