After watching collegiality decline in the nation's capital during his decades of work there, Stephen Ryan has some tough love for the people who send elected officials to Washington, D.C.
“That’s our fault as voters,” Ryan said. “If we send the signal 'don't compromise,' then they don’t compromise.”
On Monday morning, Ryan was the guest at Morning Fill-Up, a free-to-attend series of public conversations sponsored by The Numad Group and Bush Foundation and hosted by The Garage, a co-working space in downtown Rapid City.
Ryan is a partner in the 1,100-lawyer Washington firm of McDermott Will & Emery, where he lobbies, litigates and counsels for clients ranging from high-tech firms to people being investigated by Congress. He formerly worked as general counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, as deputy counsel of the President’s Commission on Organized Crime during the Reagan administration, and as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Last year, he was frequently in the news for his representation of President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, who ultimately switched lawyers and pleaded guilty to crimes including campaign finance violations, tax fraud and bank fraud.
Ryan said his time in public service was inspired by his father, who was a union officer in New York City, and by Robert F. Kennedy, who served as U.S. attorney general and then as a U.S. senator for New York. Kennedy crusaded against organized crime, and Ryan’s desire to do the same led him to become a federal prosecutor.
Later in his career, while serving as general counsel to the Senate’s Committee on Governmental Affairs, Ryan worked with and came to revere Sen. John Glenn, the former war hero and astronaut.
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Ryan said senators including Glenn, D-Ohio, Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, shared a bond as military veterans. They lived in Washington, D.C., rather than returning to their home states every weekend, Ryan recalled, and they socialized together and got to know each other’s families.
“You can’t call someone an S.O.B. if you’ve met their children and their spouse,” Ryan said, “and I think that’s what’s missing in Washington, to some degree.”
Ryan said Republican and Democratic members of Congress today are afraid — with good reason, based on electoral results — of being ousted by primary challengers from the more extreme wings of the parties.
“Republicans are being drawn to the right, and Democrats to the left,” Ryan said. “When I was in government, there was a much greater group in between, like John Glenn, who was a perfectly good Democrat but would work with his Republican colleagues.”
If voters want more public servants like Glenn, Ryan said, they have to start voting accordingly.
“It’s our fault as voters that we’re not sending the right signals, that when people shut down the government for 35 days for absolutely no reason, we don’t punish the people who do that,” Ryan said. “We say, ‘Oh, they’re screwing up in Washington. We hate Washington.’ And you can’t hate Washington. You have to decide who’s responsible for failures and hold them accountable.”