“My primary responsibility is to advise my boss on how to approach big, tricky national security and foreign policy issues and work on behalf of the State of Utah. So my role is divided into a couple buckets of policy. So most people, if they’re on a policy team in a senate office have a couple key committees that they track, things that they work on. So mine is foreign policy, my boss is on the senate foreign relations committee. So he also runs the Middle East, North Africa over through India and Bangladesh subcommittee and the counterterrorism subcommittee, so we do a lot of work related to that.”

That’s Megan Reiss, this week’s guest on Why Public Service?, speaking about her role as national security policy advisor for Senator Mitt Romney of Utah. She previously was a senior fellow in national security at the R Street Institute and a senior editor at Lawfare, an online publication that explores the nexus between national security, the law and legal institutions. Reiss has worked for Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and earned her doctorate in national security studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Transcript:

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Why Public Service?, a podcast of the R Street Institute, a free market think tank in Washington, D.C.. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar and each episode, I speak with an individual who made the choice to participate in governing our nation. Some of my guests have worked for the government. Others have toiled and various private sector organizations, including think tanks, philanthropies, and political groups. All of them share the same goal, however, which is to improve our country through public service.

Kevin Kosar:

Today’s guest is Megan Reiss, national security policy advisor for Senator Mitt Romney of Utah. Megan previously was a senior fellow in national security at the R Street Institute and a senior editor at Lawfare, an online publication that explores the nexus between national security, the law and legal institutions.

Kevin Kosar:

Megan has worked for Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and she earned her doctorate in national security studies at the University of Texas at Austin. You could learn more about Megan and connect with her on linkedin.com. Megan, welcome to the Why Public Service? podcast.

Megan Reiss:

Thanks for having me here today.

Kevin Kosar:

You trained as a scholar yet you work on Capitol Hill, not in a university. What was the path that led you to the US Senate?

Megan Reiss:

Well, I actually never had the intention of becoming a professor when I started my PhD program. Even on my application, I wrote that I wanted to be in the policy world someday. I wanted to work at the state department, or DOD, or at the White House. I found out only later as a very young scholar in a PhD program, that that is not the norm. Do not write that on your applications to a PhD program. The professors who admitted me into the program later told me that I was young enough that they expected that they’d be able to convince me to want to become a professor.

Megan Reiss:

So public service and going into government was my dream from the very beginning. I thought that my education going through a public policy PhD would actually make me a better policy maker in the end. After I graduated, well actually right around the time I defended my PhD, I managed to get a fellowship to go work on Capitol Hill in the office of Senator Ben Sasse. I got to spend a year just learning what it was like to be a Senate staffer. I was helping with committee work. I was shadowing the national security advisor in the office, and I was basically getting a deep dive into what it looks like to be a policymaker, or to work in policy on the Hill.

Megan Reiss:

It was a particular opportunity that not everyone gets. Most people on the Hill have to work their way up from a really low level, staff assistant to a legislative correspondent, working on letters, but I got to jump into an office and work on policy right away. So I was lucky in that way, that because of my PhD, I got to skip ahead a little bit in a way that not everyone gets to do.

Megan Reiss:

I did go off the Hill for a little bit after that experience with Senator Sasse, but I ended up being recruited to go back and work as a national security policy advisor for Senator Mitt Romney from Utah, the junior senator from Utah. I absolutely jumped at the opportunity because I just really align with his views on foreign policy and national security and knew that we could do really interesting things in that office. So, that’s how I ended up back on the Hill.

Kevin Kosar:

What are your responsibilities as a national security policy advisor in the Senate?

Megan Reiss:

My primary responsibility is to advise my boss on how to approach big, tricky national security and foreign policy issues and work on behalf of the State of Utah. So my role is divided into a couple buckets of policy. So most people, if they’re on a policy team in a senate office have a couple key committees that they track, things that they work on. So mine is foreign policy, my boss is on the senate foreign relations committee. So he also runs the Middle East, North Africa over through India and Bangladesh subcommittee and the counterterrorism subcommittee, so we do a lot of work related to that.

Megan Reiss:

He is absolutely engaged with China, all aspects of the China challenge. So that is an overwhelming … our central focus in foreign policy for the office. I also am more or less the military liaison, or military legislative aid for the office, the MLA. So whenever the National Defense Authorization Act goes through, which has every single year, it’s the standard moving vehicle for the Senate that funds the military and funds our national security policy and decides what Congress does in the national security realm.

Megan Reiss:

Then I also do some on veterans affairs, although because I’m not a healthcare or retirement specialist, I do less work on that. I mostly work on VA stuff when it overlaps with the national security and foreign policy side. But beyond just the committee type of work, the bill type of work, my boss is just a really intellectually curious person, so we will do different efforts to get smart on issues with him and outside scholars, outside experts.

Megan Reiss:

We will also, if he needs to travel to go overseas to meet with foreign leaders, or to do different big conferences overseas, I’ll help with that organization and serve as the person who takes notes and informs him and writes memos on how to approach big issues overseas. Then of course, just the day to day part of the staffers, that if there is something that needs to be dealt with right away, you’re just always on call to respond to a big international event.

Kevin Kosar:

Discussing your responsibilities. You’ve given us a hint of what the day in the life of a national security policy advisor looks like in the senate. Can you add a little more details to that? What’s the average day look like? Is it lots of phone calls? Is it meetings? Is it … what?

Megan Reiss:

To be honest, it really depends on the day. So because my boss is on the senate foreign relations committee, often on legislative day when we’re not in recess, it will start by perhaps a phone call with the boss during COVID times, an actual in-person meeting during non-COVID times. Then that will go into a hearing where I’ll be on the dais as he is asking questions or listening to witnesses during hearings. During the afternoon, it would turn into meetings with someone from the military, someone from a foreign embassy, and then anything to do with legislation, whether it’s drafting, you fit all that stuff in as well. So, that would be a really typical day. A nontypical day could weave in just a zillion different directions.

Megan Reiss:

So, I don’t think that … I know a lot of jobs have pretty set schedules, you know what’s going to happen over the course of the day. With the exception of when hearings are happening, a lot of stuff can be up in the air.

Kevin Kosar:

Yes, we could for example, have a international crisis or incident or something like that, which I presume could scramble your day.

Megan Reiss:

Little bit, yes, yes. That’s good, you need flexibility when you’re working in this sort of world, you want things to be as smooth and easy as possible, but you don’t get to decide when bad actors do bad things.

Kevin Kosar:

That’s right, or when bad things simply happen.

Megan Reiss:

Or when bad things simply happen. Exactly.

Kevin Kosar:

You’ve had an unusual perch from you can observe the policymaking and governing process. What lessons have you taken away from your experience thus far?

Megan Reiss:

The lessons I’ve taken away from working in this job so far is to be extremely responsive to your boss. He is the one who is putting his voice out on a topic, and he is the one who will take responsibility for the positions that he is putting out there. I’m very lucky that I’m working for someone who knows a lot about a lot of different issues, primarily because he ran for president. So he has well-formed opinions on a lot of different things. It would be hard for me to put him on a ledge he did not feel comfortable walking out on because he does know topics just as well as I do, even as I come from a specific educational background and have specific expertise. That’s, for me, really lucky. Not everyone in my position has a boss who knows quite as much on a topic and their responsibility to shepherd them is maybe a little more acute or extreme than mine is because my boss does have really well-formed views on so many different national security and foreign policy issues.

Megan Reiss:

The other thing that I’ve learned both from my boss and honestly, almost every job I’ve had since I graduated undergrad, is to just be extremely honest and transparent, or else it’s going to be as disastrous. So the world of politics, there’s this mantra of just assume that lobbyists and all of these other actors are trying to get what they want and they won’t be completely honest with you. So you have to look at everything with a skeptical lens. But with the people you work with that shouldn’t exist, you should be able to be really transparent and clear about what your goals are, what you’re trying to get done. Outside actors may not be completely forthright, but your work will be so much easier if you’re just really clear about what you’re trying to do, any mistakes you’ve made along the way, just the end game will be a lot better the clearer you are.

Kevin Kosar:

So as a national security policy advisor, no doubt you and the senator deal with some very difficult problems, but for you, what’s the toughest part of the job? Balancing the priorities? Is it the schedule? Or is it problems themselves that the senator’s trying to solve?

Megan Reiss:

I am very, very issue-driven. So when something is not going well policy-wise, when I see the U.S. going in a direction I wouldn’t necessarily think is good for long-term US national security or foreign policy interests, or if I see another country going in a really bad direction, it really impacts me. I actually think that’s the hardest thing to watch. I like big picture things. I really like the grand strategy and the, how is this foreign policy decision going to change this issue over the next 15 years? I really like that stuff, but I also … I have a lot of empathy for people who actually deal with the negative repercussions of bad actors.

Megan Reiss:

It absolutely breaks my heart to see the Syrian people who have been abandoned and destroyed by their government. I cannot fathom what it is like to be a Uighur woman right now in China. So when I see these policies that seem so sterile when they’re talked about normally, what they actually mean for people on the ground, seeing bad things happen in Hong Kong, I have a hard time with it and I just always want to be doing more, which is not always the best thing for the US. So I hold off, but I do have this strong empathy that I want to be able to fix things.

Kevin Kosar:

Yeah and I guess that would be a lesson you’ve taken away from your experience in governing, which, is you can only do so much. WE’re a pluralist representative democracy, there are a lot of other interests at play, other people with other priorities who also have a vote or sit in positions of power. So, no matter how desperate certain situations might seem, you can’t just wave a wand and make it happen. You can try, but disappointment is … I don’t want to say the norm, but it’s not a unusual, is that right?

Megan Reiss:

It’s absolutely part of it. I make it sound like I’m a little bit despondent, I have to say that even though the world has taken some weird turns, not everything is ideal right now, I’m still generally an optimist. I definitely believe that the fundamentals of the US value system is a good thing and it’s a good thing for people to believe in, not just here in the US but around the world. The fact that we have a constitution that enshrines fundamental value of each individual is really unique and really wonderful. If other actors that, I actually think people would be better off. So I am still a true believer in the US and us US policy that is founded in that belief, even as things are clearly imperfect right now.

Megan Reiss:

So, I walk away still being an optimist about how things will hopefully go, because I think that’s also how people view themselves. They really do value themselves and working and living under authoritarian regimes is not good for the general interests of the individual.

Kevin Kosar:

You’ve nicely set me up for my concluding question. With your advanced credentials and other skills, you could have chosen another career path. Why public service?

Megan Reiss:

You give me far too much credit, Kevin Kosar. No, I think that public service is honestly the most exciting thing you could be doing right now. That sounds a little strange, obviously I’m never going to make a ton of money, but hopefully working in this office, working for my boss and working for someone that I believe is trying to do good things will actually lead to better lives for people in the US and people elsewhere. As much as working at a big firm and making four to five times my salary would be interesting, I guess, I just can’t imagine feeling as fulfilled, or that I was getting to do things that mattered in the same way in any other job right now.

Kevin Kosar:

That sounds pretty compelling to me. Megan, thank you for joining me on the podcast.

Megan Reiss:

Thank you Dr. Kosar.

Kevin Kosar:

Thank you for listening to Why Public Service?, A podcast of the R Street Institute. Please subscribe to the podcast and share it with your friends. Even better, rate and review us on iTunes so we can reach more listeners. Tell us what you thought about it and who we should interview next by finding us on Twitter @RSI. If you want to know more about R Street, sign up for our newsletters at www.rstreet.org. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar. Thank you to producer William Gray and editor Parker Tant of parkerpodcasting.com.