Lessons learned from Washington, D.C.

Originally published in the Deseret News.

I visited our nation’s capital last week with a delegation of community leaders from the Salt Lake Chamber. The chamber puts on a remarkable program, including face time with members of the Utah Congressional Delegation, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, the Secretary of the Air Force and policy experts with the U.S. Chamber. We also visited the Federal Reserve, toured the Pentagon and witnessed a profound Honor Flight ceremony hosted by Herbert. D.C. is teeming with activity right now; I took abundant notes so I could share highlights.

The most important lesson I learned is that we frequently ask the wrong questions in public policy discussions. This is especially evident when talking about health care. We are constantly asking and debating who will pay for it. We shift costs around from the provider, to the payer, to the patient and to the taxpayer. We then spend most of our time debating who pays. The question we should be asking is this: “How do we reduce the cost of health care.” The “Repeal and Replace” debate is meaningless without cost containment.

The quote of the week came from Michael Connolly, Sen. Mike Lee’s deputy chief of staff. Connolly’s words struck at the heart of Washington’s problems. He said, “The easiest answer to every problem in Washington is to keep everything the same and spend more money. We will get it wrong by doing the easy solution.” This wisdom is a great lens with which to view and discover policy solutions.

Connolly, who is a public policy guru and knows Capitol Hill well, said something else that stuck with me. He reflects the views of his boss when he says Republican thinking needs to be constantly questioned and updated. He admonishes his conservative colleagues to beware of nostalgia in the Republican mindset. I think this type of thoughtful self-reflection is positive no matter which side of the aisle you sit.

I made a personal visit with a few colleagues, on behalf of the public policy institute I lead, to the American Enterprise Institute. There, we met with Nicholas Eberstadt, an expert on demographics as well as the Korean Peninsula. While we only scratched the surface, his read on the North Korea situation sent chills down my neck. He stated that Kim Jong-un’s ultimate aim is to restore unity to what he would call the “Korean race” on the Korean Peninsula. Eberstadt believes North Korea is on, what he has called in congressional testimony, “a steady, methodical and relentless journey” to develop the capacity to hit major U.S. cities with nuclear weapons. He said our objectives are diametrically opposed and opined that things will get worse in our relations before they get better. Sobering news.

The high point for me was a brief, but poignant, visit with Heather Wilson, the United States Secretary of the Air Force. This woman represents the best of America as she oversees a $132 billion budget and 660,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian forces. She’s a former congresswoman from New Mexico, staff person for the National Security Council during the fall of the Berlin Wall and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. She was also in the third class of Air Force cadets that included women.

Wilson oozed with confidence and knowledge as she answered questions about Hill Air Force Base, our nation’s defense readiness, North Korea and serving in the Trump Administration. Impressed by her command for policy and leadership presence, I asked her what advice she would give to young professional women. She looked me straight in the eye and without hesitation said, “I would tell them to find a dream they are passionate about that is larger than themselves and do it. Don’t do what someone else dreams for you, do your dream.”

Wilson represents the best of America, and I’m grateful I had the experience to meet her. I left Washington continuing to feel alarmed about our politics, hopeful about some of our policies (like tax reform) and grateful for the talented people who work there.

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