Why you should care
These under-the-radar leaders have some big ideas to help make government, and ultimately our lives, better.
This is the third in a three-part series examining Washington at work.
America’s capital swarms with people who excel at rubbing shoulders, slapping backs, greasing palms and pretty much any other form of human political contact. But Washington, D.C., also attracts dreamers and wonks who have visions for a better future.
Political animals get the hype, but Big Thinkers may be more important to D.C.’s ecology.
Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development
Education: BS, University of Michigan; MD, University of Pennsylvania Medical School; MA, Wharton School of Business
Previous Employment: Director of strategic opportunities at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Since his swearing in as the USAID’s top executive at the ripe age of 36, the Detroit native has taken steps to overhaul America’s sclerotic foreign aid agency and how the U.S. assists the developing world. USAID had developed a reputation in Washington, right or wrong, as a wasteful, slow-moving bureacracy that dumps money into foreign countries with little accountability. Hard to know if all that money actually helped to alleviate poverty or improve health.
Shah arrived in 2009, determined to shake things up. The agency is embracing a new culture that puts a premium on monitoring outcomes and measuring impact. Under Shah, USAID has also narrowed the focus of its programs — both the types of assistance and where it’s given — and expanded partnerships with the private sector and local nongovernmental groups. It’s too early to make a final call on effectiveness, but hopes run high.
He’s earned the support of not just Democrats in Washington, but also conservative Republicans, too.
Mike Lee, Republican senator from Utah
Education: BS, Brigham Young University; JD, BYU Law School
Previous Employment: Attorney in private practice
Lee is best known as the able sidekick to GOP gadflies Ted Cruz and Rand Paul during fierce ideological debates on the Senate floor. But away from the klieg lights, Lee emerged as a prolific — and unexpectedly pragmatic — legislator since his election to Congress in 2010, thanks to a tea party-backed challenge that unseated longtime Republican Sen. Bob Bennett.
His legislative efforts include conservative priorities like ending the government-backed Export-Import Bank, a flash point in Congress this year, but also teaming up with one of the Senate’s staunchest liberals, veteran Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, on issues like patent reform and restricting NSA spying. He’s also been among a bipartisan group of senators pushing for improvements to American prisons and sentencing laws.
The son of a solictor general for President Ronald Reagan, Lee clerked for future Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City. He professes unyielding devotion to the American Constitution. But as he told the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in March, that doesn’t mean letting ideology stop the dirty work of making policy. Instead, he said, conservatives need to start “applying timeless principles to timely problems to pivot from purges to persuasion, from protest to reform.”
Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Education: BA, Michigan State University; MA, University of Oxford; JD, University of Chicago Law School
Previous Employment: Ohio attorney general
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was the brainchild of liberal hero and now-Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but it was lawyer, longtime Ohio pol and (no joke) five-time Jeopardy! champion Cordray who took the reins of the new agency in 2012 (after a protracted Senate confirmation fight against Republicans who hate the very idea of the agency). Warren herself was considered “unconfirmable.”
It’s a powerful post. The CFPB aims to protect American consumers from financial industry abuses rampant before the last decade’s financial crisis. As it’s first director, the Columbus native has wide authority to shape the agency, putting to use his experience combatting fraud and mortgage foreclosure practices in Ohio. That has liberals cheering, and banks and free-market advocates — who call his record “anti-business” — very nervous.
There’ve been hiccups. Most seriously, the CFPB was accused of workforce discrimination and intimidation, which is still under investigation.
But Cordray has moved ahead on his mission, shepherding through new mortgage regulations that require lenders to make a good-faith effort to ensure borrowers have the means to repay their loan. The requirement gets to the heart of what caused the 2008 mortgage crisis and should have major impact on the industry.
David Cohen, under secretary, and his team at the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence
Education: BA, Cornell University; JD, Yale Law School
Previous Employment: Assistant Treasury secretary for terrorist financing
When President Obama announced stepped-up sanctions on Russia earlier this week, he was touting the handiwork of Cohen and his Treasury Department office. It’s just one more sign that they have become an integral part of the White House’s national security brain trust, in a world where financial warfare is often viewed as more effective — and a heck of a lot less bloody — than shooting guns and dropping bombs.
With his years of experience tracking money laundering and terrorist financing for the Treasury Department during both the Bush and Obama administrations, Cohen has both the technical knowledge and leadership chops for an office of international finance wonks created in the wake of Sept. 11.
America is increasingly using sanctions and other financial maneuvers to target evildoers (e.g., Bashar Assad, Kim Jong Un, Hezbollah) and to discourage behavior it doesn’t like. Iran is Exhibit A of the innovative tactics that the U.S. has started using to amp up the pressure overseas.
Cohen didn’t invent them, but he is leading the office that’s taking this economic combat to a new level.