This week, another exceptional TFAS alumnus joins us on the Liberty + Leadership Podcast: Kurt Couchman, Senior Fellow of Fiscal Policy at Americans for Prosperity. Kurt has had an impressive career in Washington. From Capitol Hill to think tanks to lobbying, he’s become an expert in understanding the money that makes the world go round.
In this week’s episode, Roger and Kurt discuss the accelerating rate of inflation, debt, deficits and the Congressional budget process. Tune in to hear Kurt’s take on the damaging effects of inflation (and the real cause of it), the decision making of international bonds and what really goes into decisions on taxes. You’ll also learn about Kurt’s start as a TFAS student and how he’s stayed involved as a mentor and volunteer throughout the years.
The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.
Roger Ream [00:00:12] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty and Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS Alumni. We’re making a real impact in politics, public policy, government, business, philanthropy, law, and the media. Today, I’m excited to be joined by Kurt Couchman, Senior Fellow of Fiscal Policy at Americans for Prosperity. Kurt is a longtime friend of TFAS, having participated in our summer internship and education program then at Georgetown University, now at George Mason. He has also served on the Board of Regents Alumni Committee.
Roger Ream [00:00:50] During Kurt’s career, he’s worked closely with congressional members and committees, both as a staffer on the Hill and from external capacities. His legislative work has covered budget amendments, major housing finance, banking regulation, legislative transparency, advancing free trade, house rules reform and insurance industry reform. Kurt is with us today to discuss lessons in liberty and leadership that he’s learned. His commitment to public service and how his experience with TFAS has led him to where he is today. Kurt, thanks for joining us.
Kurt Couchman [00:01:28] Thanks for having me, Roger.
Roger Ream [00:01:29] Well Kurt, let me begin just ask you a little bit about your TFAS experience. I know you first attended as a college student at Indiana University in Pennsylvania. We’ve had some other great alums of our program from there, a few over the years. I know it’s the home of Jimmy Stewart.
Kurt Couchman [00:01:44] That’s right.
Roger Ream [00:01:44] I had the chance to visit there and see a statue in the town square. That’s really neat. And the Oscar actually in the hardware store, at least it used to be a restaurant by his father. Do you know if that’s still there?
Kurt Couchman [00:01:56] The hardware store is gone now, I think. And, you know, even though I was there for many years, I have never been to the Jimmy Stewart Museum. I’ve got to go back sometime.
Roger Ream [00:02:04] Yeah, I’ll go with you because I haven’t been there either. And he’s one of my favorites. But how’d you hear about our program when you were a student there? And kind of what led you to come down to Washington?
Kurt Couchman [00:02:14] Absolutely. I was a student at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Robert E. Cook Honors College. And it’s sort of like an academically rigorous subcomponent of IUP. And some of my friends had done the program. They were political science majors. I was actually a music performance and education major when I started. And I did that for five semesters and then realized that I wanted to do something more public service focused, like, you know what I’m doing now, essentially. And I changed my major and my first semester as a political science student was the semester before coming to the TFAS program in 2002. And some of my friends were like, Hey, you should do this program in D.C. and I’m like, What’s it all about? They told me and it sounded great and they had great experiences. I don’t know if you remember Micah Savage or Megan Lively.
Roger Ream [00:03:09] Yeah, sure. Yeah, yeah.
Kurt Couchman [00:03:11] So they recommended it. And Robert, you cook it, also endowed a funding program so that students could get some assistance to do, you know, achievement or enhancement sorts of activities. And so I was able to benefit from some of that and that helped me come down here and learn from you all.
Roger Ream [00:03:32] And you interned you told me earlier at the Ethics and Public Policy Center with TFAS alum, I guess, Eric Cohen.
Kurt Couchman [00:03:40] Right. I was so new to the world of political science and public policy that I didn’t actually find out where I was placed. I guess maybe you guys had a hard time figuring out where to put me until I think the weekend before I came down, I didn’t know anything about think tanks. I didn’t know much about D.C. I knew that’s where a lot of policy and legislation happened, but it was a great opportunity. I really enjoyed my time there. The focus there that Eric Cohen was leading on was the American Democracy and Biotechnology Program. So it was all about bioethics and it was really fascinating. He was an advisor to the President’s Council on Bioethics, so I got to hear some really amazing thinkers and scientists debating those issues and where we should go in different areas.
Roger Ream [00:04:28] Well, I suspect that you didn’t hear about your internship until a weekend before, because we had so many organizations bidding for your services as an unpaid interns.
Kurt Couchman [00:04:36] Sure, we’ll go with that.
Roger Ream [00:04:37] And you had an economics class when you were at TFAS. Had you had economics before at Indiana?
Kurt Couchman [00:04:46] Yeah, I had one class. The prerequisite for the program. But the more I took economics and I had George Viksnins for the program here. And he was just incredible. Imperative approach of looking at different countries and seeing what’s worked, where and what hasn’t. Was really powerful to me. You know, he had come from Lithuania I believe.
Roger Ream [00:05:09] Latvia.
Kurt Couchman [00:05:12] And so they had experiences with, you know, a command and control economy and how it just didn’t serve the people. It served the rulers, but it didn’t serve the people. And contrasting that with the it’s not just American approach, but the free enterprise approach and letting people prosper and find their own way. We’ve seen what the results have been. And so that was sort of my first comparative experience with all of that. And it’s really powerful.
Roger Ream [00:05:39] Yeah, well, one thing that a lot of students of Dr. Viksnins remind me years later is his emphasis on Joseph Schumpeter and concepts like creative destruction, and I’m sure he incorporated that into the course looking at other countries and whether capitalism would survive in this country.
Roger Ream [00:05:58] In your career, you’ve had a very interesting career. You’ve moved around a little bit, but working on the Hill for two members of Congress, working off the Hill and think tanks trying to influence Congress, which you continue to do today, you’ve become one of the city’s own leading budget experts and dealing with issues of the national debt and deficits and the budget process. And reflecting on that kind of a question that relates to advice you might offer. Is it good to become an expert in a particular area as you have? I know you know, I’m not trying to narrow your expertise down just to a narrow area because you’ve worked, you know, as you mentioned, a bioethics and a lot of other issues, as I mentioned, my introduction. But does it help in this town to become an expert in a particular area?
Kurt Couchman [00:06:47] To a degree. I mean, it depends on what you want to do. If you want to be a lobbyist and have a lot of different clients then it helps to have a lot of knowledge about a lot of different things. If you’re more interested in figuring out how to fix something, then you really do need to dive in, go deep and figure out exactly what’s wrong and then how to fix it. And those are two separate skill sets, the diagnosis and then the prescription. And, you know, if you’re working for a member of Congress and, you know, as I worked for two members of the House, you have a really broad issue portfolio. And the truth is that almost no one is an expert in almost any of those issue areas. What they become expert in is figuring out where to get the information so that their members can make an informed decision.
Roger Ream [00:07:27] And in your first few years out of college, you worked very extensively on energy and issues, right?
Kurt Couchman [00:07:33] So I came to D.C..
Roger Ream [00:07:34] And those continue to loom large in discussions, particularly the role of fossil fuels and issues of climate change that are talked about a lot. Do you still follow those issues very closely?
Kurt Couchman [00:07:47] I mean, some yeah. We have a true cost or an Americans for Prosperity where I am now and we’re focused a lot on all of the things that are driving up the costs of living for the American people. And energy is obviously a big part of that right now. The price of gas is up 60% or in June it was up 60% from where it was a year before that. Fuel oil and heating oil is almost double. It’s 98.6 or something like that. So that that’s definitely part of the conversation that I’ve been involved with. Inflation is another huge discussion topic and I’ve been brought into that quite a bit. So I’m doing a lot of general economics work in addition to the budget process and, you know, reviewing budget related legislation as well.
Roger Ream [00:08:31] Well, let’s talk a little bit, not a little bit. I liked to dive into some of these issues about the budget process and just the whole fiscal situation our country is in. Now, COVID obviously had a big impact, but even putting COVID aside and that impact, you know, there’s been no fiscal discipline in Congress for decades. The entitlement programs have grown with very little reform over the years. A little bit here and there. Let’s start with the basics here, because many people get confused between the debt and the deficit. Of course, both have hit records in recent years. But where’s the national debt now and does it matter?
Kurt Couchman [00:09:11] Well, it’s a little bit shy of our annual economic output as a country. It’s, I think, around $31 trillion right now. And it does matter when the debt burden exceeds somewhere between 70 and 90% of GDP in this country because we have the world’s reserve currency. Well, the primary one, it’s not the only one. We can be a little bit more lax than some of the European countries. But that’s when the economic growth starts to slow. And we’re already above that and we’re going north. So that’s slowing economic growth. It’s putting pressure on the rest of the budget. I think it’s making our politics more difficult because there’s sort of this scarcity that’s being imposed on the programs that have the the most political interest, and that’s the so-called discretionary programs that I call appropriated programs.
Roger Ream [00:10:04] What percentage of budget are appropriated programs each year?
Kurt Couchman [00:10:07] About 30% of spending.
Roger Ream [00:10:09] 30%.
Kurt Couchman [00:10:09] What is annually considered regularly. Yeah.
Roger Ream [00:10:12] You’ve got this 31 trillion in debt. Is that mostly funded by foreign borrowers, the Chinese? Is it funded by people who buy T-bills or is it the Fed kind of monetizing it?
Kurt Couchman [00:10:25] Oh, it’s been all of those things. China alone has about a trillion of U.S. debt that’s owned, which is about 3%. And then the Federal Reserve traditionally didn’t have that much. Their balance sheet was about $800 billion before the financial crisis. And then it wasn’t about $4 trillion during that time. And then over the course of the pandemic, it ballooned even further to about $9 trillion. And so when the Fed buys things, it’s expanding its assets, and that increases the money supply depending on how fast money turns over in the economy. So that’s a lot of the reason why we have inflation, which is another reason why the debt matters, because it has driven the Federal Reserve to do things that are driving inflation. And now we’re going to see if they’re able to reverse course in a sustainable way and, you know, take the inflation out of the system.
Roger Ream [00:11:17] When the government decides it’s got to spend more, as it did during the pandemic. Leaving aside whether it should have spent more or not, how is the decision made as to how to obtain the money? Whether to sell bonds to the public? Or whether to monetize that debt. Is that decision made by Congress? Is it made by the Fed? The White House, the Treasury, you know, how do they decide? Because, as you said, it has an impact on inflation. I assume that they just sell bonds to the public. You might not have the impact of inflation like you would if they monetize it at the Fed.
Kurt Couchman [00:11:51] Right. So the creation of debt is a fiscal policy decision that’s made by the political branches. So Congress and the White House and then what the Fed does in response to that is whether or not we get inflation. My view is the Fed felt pressured into buying a lot of that because they weren’t certain there’d be enough demand from the public. And they felt that they needed to step in and buy a bunch of that new debt. I think about 80% of the $6 trillion in new debt that was created over those couple of years. And, you know, that’s what drove inflation. And now even though inflation is here and Congress is continuing to deficit spend, the Fed is trying to raise the interest rates and to reduce its assets enough to control inflation. But it’s unclear to me how long that strategy is going to work if the Fed is simultaneously rolling off $4 trillion in debt every year and kind of putting that back in the hands of the public while Congress is also adding to the debt by the tune of about a trillion dollars or more every single year. Can it be absorbed? That’s the question.
Roger Ream [00:12:56] We had a speaker come talk to our students this summer who was a colleague of yours, of sorts, I think, at the Cato Institute. Steve Hanke from Johns Hopkins. And he gave a great overview of this whole topic of how the Fed monetizes the debt and touching on some of the things you said about, you know, it matters what the velocity of money is, how fast it circulates in the economy. He touched on some of the biggest inflation, well, currency debacles in history from Nazi Germany to Hungary or the pre Nazi Germany I guess started it. The Weimar Republic. I think he touched on several others that have occurred and it’s interesting because every example he gave that massive inflation, hyperinflation and destruction of the currency, it was a country by country process determined by their central banks, basically. There’s this view today, I think, that inflation is a global phenomena caused by either the war in Ukraine and the higher prices for oil. But yet you do see countries now that Japan, Switzerland, I think, and others that don’t seem to have this problem of inflation that we’re experiencing in other countries. So is it really just a country specific problem that is based mainly on the central bank’s decisions?
Kurt Couchman [00:14:18] It’s a spectrum. I mean, Milton Friedman famously said that inflation is always everywhere, a monetary phenomenon. But then he goes on to say in the same quote, that it’s really about the money supply growing faster than economic growth. And there have been real shocks to economic growth over the last couple of years. The pandemic, the war in Ukraine, those are real factors and those are undermining growth. But, you know, ultimately, it is the money supply that’s driving this. The money supply grew by more than 40% from right before the pandemic until a few months ago when I last looked at it. While the economy has only grown about 3% in real terms, so that delta is the inflation we have seen and the inflation we’re going to see over the next few years.
Roger Ream [00:15:03] So you don’t anticipate this being a very temporary thing that’s only last a few months?
Kurt Couchman [00:15:08] And it didn’t last year either. I did not think it was going to be temporary based on the fundamentals. I hate to be like I told you so, but when you look at the fundamentals and they tell a story than denying that is sort of being out of touch with reality. And I’m not keen on that.
Roger Ream [00:15:22] Now let’s shift slightly toward Congress and the budget process. Congress has a lot of control over these issues with its spending habits. It’s got a broken process from what I know. How does Congress come about putting together a budget? Harkening back to Milton Friedman here, I remember Friedman used to be a strong advocate for some sort of tax limitation amendment that would require Congress to not spend above a certain percentage of the economy. And that would force members of Congress, I guess, to set priorities, whereas now it’s just a wild spending spree. Tell us about your work with the budget process and what type of reforms might help improve things.
Kurt Couchman [00:16:04] Sure. So I used to think that all we needed was a balanced budget amendment. And I wrote the business cycle balanced budget amendment for Congressman Justin Amash when I worked for him. I actually started working on that when I was at the Cato Institute in a conversation that mostly Bill Niskanen had with David Malpass. And I was just sitting there. So that kind of inspired me to play with some spreadsheets, and that turned into that proposal. And then I realized that constitutional provisions are more kind of principles, and you leave the details to statutes, the implementing legislation.
Kurt Couchman [00:16:35] So then I wrote the principles based BBA for Dave Brat when I worked for him. And then that led me to think about what does implementing legislation look like? And so I’ve been working on that for a couple of years. And I finally realized just, I don’t know, a couple of years ago that you can have your destination, you can set your goals, whether it’s balance or something else. But if you don’t have a vehicle to get you there, then it’s not going to happen. So this is what I think is fundamentally the most important fix to the federal budget process. Congress doesn’t have a budget. It has 30% of spending that goes through the appropriations process. That’s also broken up into 12 different bills that range from about $7 billion leg. Branch to $700 billion. And that’s not even all of the national security spending that’s kind of scattered and some other ones as well. So it’s not necessarily coherent on the entitlement programs that are driving the long term deficits and debt and the spending growth. Those are not considered on any sort of regular basis right now. Revenue is not in there either. And there’s a lot of nonsense in the tax code. There’s corporate welfare. There’s stuff that just doesn’t work well. There’s this church parking lot issue that came about through some oversight in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that can’t be cleaned up in like a regular process where members offer amendments and the committees are all contributing to the same thing.
Kurt Couchman [00:17:57] So what we want to see is for Congress to have a real budget, and we call it a unified budget, where all of the spending and all of the revenue is in one annual budget bill, where appropriations is the core of that. That’s the most politically sensitive stuff. But all the committees are contributing, and there’s an opportunity for all the members to kind of start with that expertise that the committees have and putting the thing together and say, well, you know, our priorities are such and such. And that’s the value conversation about we want to have amendments to, you know, do less of this, do more of that, whatever the case might be. It creates an incredible vehicle for kind of rejuvenating Congress as an institution while also controlling our long term deficit and debt and just making programs sort of more coherent and cohesive. We’ve got a ton of overlapping and duplicative programs that the current process has helped facilitate because it’s just really hard to get to an omnibus or a C.R. or actual appropriations, which we haven’t done in a while, in ways that actually involve anyone feeling any kind of pain.
Kurt Couchman [00:19:00] So they’re all bloated. The programs are sort of build on each other and they’re not coordinated with this sort of a everything together process. You can actually wrap your arms around it and manage the whole thing. We’ve talked to a ton of congressional offices Republicans, Democrats, House, Senate leadership, appropriations, authorizers, and there’s a lot of excitement about this because people just intuitively get it. They see what happens in a lot of states and how much better it works, and they want to bring that up here as well.
Roger Ream [00:19:24] Now, you worked for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget Defense Priorities. Speaking of those, and there are some others out here to the Concord Coalition, I think. There are groups that are made up of Republicans and Democrats, moderates, conservatives and liberals that seem to want to. They recognize that we’re going to head toward disaster if we don’t tackle entitlements, if we don’t reform the budget process yet, nothing gets done. Why is that?
Kurt Couchman [00:19:54] You know, a lot of these organizations do really incredible work. The trick is, again, diagnosing and then prescribing solutions. And different organizations have different areas of focus to figure these things out. You really have to spend a lot of time reading and thinking and analyzing and, you know, that competes with publishing. And so if your model is to do a lot of writing and publishing and kind of analysis of current legislation, then that doesn’t necessarily leave a lot of time for doing the deep dive that you need to. There are some people that are doing that and it’s great to see, but I think there’s a lot more opportunity to bring folks together across, you know, the spectrum of people that are working seriously on budget issues. There’s some people that aren’t serious that, you know, you don’t necessarily want to include.
Kurt Couchman [00:20:44] But also there’s not enough focus on making it worthwhile to members of Congress because, you know, people at home, they have busy lives and they are interested in health care and inflation and taxes and things that sort of directly affect them primarily. They do want the system to work. They don’t necessarily know what is broken specifically and how to fix it, but they want it to work. So there is some appeal to people throughout the country on that. But if you’re a member of Congress, you know, you’ve got to get elected every couple of years and you’ve got to raise money. And as Peter Van Doren of the Cato Institute has talked about, good public policy is a public good that is under provided by the political marketplace. And so you have to have organizations that are specifically subsidizing of sort, not in the monetary sense, but to members of Congress, giving them benefits for doing the good stuff. And I don’t mean like campaign contributions.
Roger Ream [00:21:46] Recognition and boards.
Kurt Couchman [00:21:48] Everything. Podcast, you know, give them quotes when they do cool things that they can, you know, circulate with their colleagues, put their legislation in your reform agenda. Things like that, so that they’re getting recognized and honored, frankly, for doing the good work. And that kind of encourages them to keep doing it. And for other members to see that they, too, can get recognition for doing good things. But it has to be an intentional effort.
Roger Ream [00:22:12] Just in the last I think two months, there was another report they get issued annually, I think, or fairly routinely that show the unsound nature of our entitlement programs Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. But, you know, it’s the news for a day or two and then it disappears. What is the possibility of some reform in the entitlements? Is it the third rail that won’t be touched until we’re too far gone? Or can we hope for some sort of reforms that combine, you know, all of its means test, raising the retirement age or what it is, could be higher taxes, which won’t be popular with young people. But how do you see those programs going?
Kurt Couchman [00:22:56] There’s no shortage of options for fixing them. Social Security is easier. The options are known. It’s sort of a political will question a lot of people say. Medicare and Medicaid and other health programs, it’s more difficult because then you’re getting into very different visions of what health care should be or what health care policy should be. But under the current process, all of these programs that are out of balance and and honestly just need to be updated because it’s been so long. They are out of sight, out of mind and out of reach for policymakers that want to do much about it. If you try, then, you know, the appropriators don’t want to have that in there because they see how difficult it is politically. And they they want to get their appropriations work like across the finish line.
Kurt Couchman [00:23:42] So the the great hope has been fiscal commissions. And people point to the Greenspan Commission in 1980, something that led to the 1983 reforms for Social Security, particularly time and place. So Senator Romney has a bill that would create bipartisan, bicameral commissions, rescue committees. He calls them for each of the major endangered trust fund programs so that Social Security, Medicare and highway that would be insolvent or depleted within the next 15 years. There’s another proposal, Representative Ed Case from Hawaii and Senator Cynthia Lummis from Wyoming of the Sustainable Budget Act. And that’s sort of an everything’s on the table fiscal commission with the goal of getting the primary balance, which is balance other than interest costs within ten years. I think the more important thing is to have an opportunity for members to become more educated about these programs. And that’s only going to come if everything is part of the annual budget. Some members can have that debate, have that discussion, learn things, and then kind of find a way to kind of chip away some of the problems so that we don’t have to fix it all in one year. We can fix a little bit here, different program a little bit next year and just sort of keep having that conversation and then eventually we’ll come to some some mini bargains. Maybe there’ll be a grand bargain. But we don’t need that. We need a series of mini bargains to figure out how to move forward as a country.
Roger Ream [00:25:09] Well, you mentioned earlier that the national debt, what the government owes from accumulating deficits is about 31 trillions from accumulating deficits is about 31 trillion. On top of that are these unfunded liabilities of these programs. Right? Is there an estimate of what the unfunded liabilities are?
Kurt Couchman [00:25:27] There are estimates and they’re huge. Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute has done some really great work talking about the direct unfunded liabilities and then also the interest costs that will accrue in the future over that. And the fact is, you’ve read about this almost all of the fiscal gap in the future. That’s the difference between future spending and future revenues comes from a handful of programs and Social Security and especially major health care programs. So we’ve got to get a hold of.
Roger Ream [00:25:59] Them that’s like 100 trillion or something. Right?
Kurt Couchman [00:26:02] It’s about that. The estimates vary. It depends on the discount rate and all that kind of thing. Larry Lakoff has estimated that the the total dollar amount of the difference between future spending and revenue, including current debt, is about 100. No, it’s north of $200 trillion, I believe. Of course, that’s very sensitive to policy. If we were to change a little bit now, then that could reduce it pretty dramatically. So the sooner we act, the less painful it’s going to be to do it. But of course, that means pain for current members. And, you know, it implies that they’re not kicking the can down the road for future members for it to be their problem.
Roger Ream [00:26:39] And you said this is all dependent on interest rates and interest costs and things like that. And right now, interest costs are going up considerably with higher interest rates. That’s kind of a big impact on federal budget, right?
Kurt Couchman [00:26:53] Absolutely. We could very easily get into an interest rate death spiral, essentially, where, you know, if markets start to lose confidence in the federal government’s ability to make good on its promises, then that’s a really ugly world. So I am desperately hoping we can avoid that. And the key is to really put a bunch of the fixes on the table, on the shelf, ready to go, like introduces legislation, people aware of them. So when the moment of opportunity comes, then we can fix these problems and, and change the path that we’re on because the path we’re on is really dangerous. And, you know, the consequences for the American people would just be devastating.
Roger Ream [00:27:31] Yeah, I saw a piece recently, I think in the Wall Street Journal that suggested interest costs in the annual budget of the federal government could top. There was 900 billion. If interest rates go up to where we’re seeing them go.
Kurt Couchman [00:27:45] If they go up as high as CBO is projecting, and some people think that that’s a very low end estimate. I mean, certainly if we get into a fiscal crisis, interest rates are going up way more than that. So we need to get ahead of this before we lose control.
Roger Ream [00:27:59] And that puts pressure on that 30% of the budget that Congress appropriates every year.
Kurt Couchman [00:28:04] Including defense. There’s some missions that may not make sense and we should have those conversations. But like, that’s not the thing that is driving the long term. I mean, every little bit helps. There’s some stuff in the discretionary part of the budget that doesn’t make sense. And we could get some savings there, but we’ve got to have a way to grapple with all of it.
Roger Ream [00:28:25] Well, let me ask you to shift gears a bit now and go back to a few things related to your career. I know. First of all, remind those listening that you attended our summer program in 2002 when you were a student. You were later selected as a public policy fellow for our close to a yearlong program, which we’ve been expanding and growing the last few years. And then you served on our Board of Regents Alumni Committee. We’re grateful for that, of course. Could you talk a little bit about your interactions with TFAS? I don’t know whether you’ve had the opportunity, have interns from our program, but I know you’ve mentored students and influence students. But has TFAS, you know, had a direct role in your career today?
Kurt Couchman [00:29:15] Absolutely. So I’m grateful for The Fund for American Studies and I have been involved. It’s been a great series of experiences. I have met a number of really amazing people and learn from them and just enjoyed, you know, a company of people. There are some that I’m still professionally connected to. I don’t know that any particular job that I’ve gotten has been directly from TFAS connections, but the reality is that this town is a lot smaller than people think and lots of people know lots of people. So I’m certain that my network overlaps considerably with anyone that’s considered working with me. And hopefully I’ve, you know, made a good impression on people. And, you know, people have positive vibes when they think of me, and I’m sure that like that has had an impact.
Kurt Couchman [00:30:09] But the other thing is, you know, I have mentored any number of times since about 2005, the year that I came back to D.C. And I’ve also had interns in places where I’ve worked that have been TFAS interns, even if I haven’t directly mentored them. And you learn so much by sharing your experiences with people, you know, you’re imparting advice and you’re like, you know what? I should probably take my own advice on that. Like, I need to be better about following up with people. I mean, there’s only so much time in a day, but, you know, the people, that’s what we’re all about, right? Connecting with each other and sharing.
Roger Ream [00:30:49] Well, I may have you impart some advice today, but let me first ask you to tell us a little bit more about Americans for Prosperity. I mean, a lot of us have heard of the organization or what it does. We’ve had other of our graduates work there. I think we have some others working there now. What’s their mission and kind of what do they do?
Kurt Couchman [00:31:09] Americans for Prosperity is a nationwide grassroots organization. We have a lot of capabilities. We have a pretty good sized policy team that we’re helping, I’m on the policy team, I do budget stuff there and our job is to help advise the federal affairs team and the different state teams. We have 35 state chapters and they range all over the country. We don’t obviously have them in 15 states and there’s a variety of reasons for that. But we’re trying to make sure that the investments go in places where they can have some real return. In terms of improving public policy. There is a related organization AFP Action that is more involved in the political side of things. But what we’re trying to do is advance freedom and prosperity and peace. We work on economic progress issues. That’s the group that I’m part of. And that’s part fiscal, it’s part regulatory. We work on health care reform, criminal justice, immigration, foreign policy, free speech, education. So lots of different things going on. I’m sure that I forgot someone and they’re are going to be mad at me.
Kurt Couchman [00:32:18] Well, yeah, we’re involved with a lot of different things and our state teams are involved with federal policy, but they also have state policy portfolios. And we were talking about the budget things before and it turns out that there are states that do things better than Congress does for sure, but every state can improve what they’re doing. And so I’m talking with a lot of those folks as well about where the opportunities are and states to improve things. So it’s a pretty broad spectrum organization with a lot of different capabilities. We have an incredible donor network. I’m not so looped into that. But they they don’t just like give money to, you know, good causes. They are actively involved themselves in talking about policy and working with organizations to, you know, advance the principles that we all share.
Roger Ream [00:33:08] And there have been some, I guess, people living or dead in your life have had a strong influence over you, either in terms of your ideas or just in as mentors or in terms of your career path.
Kurt Couchman [00:33:22] Yeah. There are a lot of dead people that have had and influence, you know, and do a lot of reading and then try to pick up some of the wisdom that’s been passed down over the millennia, really. But within my life, I mean, certainly my parents huge influence and my sisters. You know, it’s great when we all get together and talk about whatever doesn’t have to be like what we do professionally, but just, you know, all that. In the professional context I think the Robert Cook and Janet Goebel, the former director of the Honors College at IUP, made a huge impact in terms of like helping me shift from this very rural, sort of isolated background that I grew up in.
Kurt Couchman [00:34:08] I mean, my parents are educated and all that, but like when you grow up in an area like that, there are things that you just can’t even imagine being possibilities. And now I can’t imagine those things for me. To some degree, I’m sort of well on my career at this point, so my path is pretty well set. But for my kids, like I can imagine, the sky’s the limit for them. And so that’s really cool here in D.C.. I mean, I’ve had a lot of great experiences, worked with a lot of wonderful people. I think working for Justin Amash was a really formative time. I worked for him for almost exactly four years, and the way that he does business or did business as a member of Congress is he needed to know exactly what a piece of legislation would do a bill, an amendment, a resolution, whatever it was before he would take a public position on it. And so that meant that those of us on his policy staff, we read every bill, we checked all the cross-references, we found obscure laws that were somewhere buried in the statutes at large. And so it was like a actually a really intense apprenticeship in statutory law, essentially. So people often ask me, are you a lawyer? And I said, No, I’m an economist, but I worked for Amash. So like, I’ve got kind of an apprenticeship there too.
Roger Ream [00:35:22] So there was actually a congressman who read the bills before they passed them?
Kurt Couchman [00:35:25] Yeah, absolutely. There’s a couple that that try to do that, but it’s hard.
Roger Ream [00:35:30] You don’t have time, right?
Kurt Couchman [00:35:31] There’s not time. Sometimes they give you a multi-thousand page bill with, you know, a day to review it.
Roger Ream [00:35:39] A lot of sleepless nights?
Kurt Couchman [00:35:42] Yeah, for a while. And then like it became clear that in certain contexts there was no way he was going to vote for a certain kind of bill. Process was really important to him and it’s become really important to me as well, I think, because of that experience. And so we didn’t have to read massive bills that were dropped on us with no time because he knew he was going to vote against them anyway, not only because of the process, but also because, like he was familiar enough with how they shake out that the policy was going to be problematic for him as well.
Roger Ream [00:36:11] Yeah. And he was, as I recall, from the Grand Rapids, Michigan area.
Kurt Couchman [00:36:15] That’s right.
Roger Ream [00:36:15] Did he serve for three terms, four terms?
Kurt Couchman [00:36:19] Five.
Roger Ream [00:36:19] Five terms.
Kurt Couchman [00:36:21] In his final term, he became an independent for a while and then he became the first Libertarian member of Congress ever.
Roger Ream [00:36:30] Okay.
Kurt Couchman [00:36:31]So I worked for him when he was a Republican. Libertarian, but you know how they name play.
Roger Ream [00:36:36] Right. I’d like to ask our guests before we conclude this podcasts about advice they would give to young people today. You’ve shared some already, but a lot of the students who come to our program, I’m noticing at least the last year or two, are less ready to engage in, you know, the heated political arguments of the day. But they’re more career focused. They’re thinking perhaps because of the pandemic that, you know, maybe opportunities will be more limited than in the past. But they’re here to kick their tires on different professions, government agencies versus think tanks, careers. You know, we have a journalism program. A lot of journalism students, of course, are worried about opportunities in the media in the future because it’s been shrinking so much. Can you offer some general advice to young people as they complete their college education about what they should look at if they want to come to Washington and make a difference.
Kurt Couchman [00:37:32] The first thing is to figure out what it is that you like, because if you are doing something that you enjoy, then you’ll be motivated to become good at it and talk to other people, get to know other people that are doing that. If it’s something that you hate or sort of lukewarm about, then it’s hard to get up every day and do that and continue with that.
Kurt Couchman [00:37:55] So I worked for Defense Priorities for a couple of years. Great organization, great people, great mission. I fully agree with it. I just found that I kept wanting to do budget and economics related things. Those components of foreign policy and it was more of a grand strategy organization. So, you know, it just dawned on me that I should probably get back to budget economics. That’s how I’m wired for whatever reason. I think that’s the most important thing for students to learn. But that took a while to figure out. So, you know, you might come to D.C., you might go somewhere else and try something out and then find out, Oh, I really don’t like that. I interned for the public defender’s office when I was in college. And boy, our criminal justice system is sad in some ways is really a miscarriage of justice. But that’s where I realized that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. And I knew that, like, there’s a lot to potentially being a lawyer outside of the criminal defense space. But it just it didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to kind of shape policy rather than kind of implement policy or sort of be within the system. I wanted to sort of more shape it. And so I guess people have to figure out what they like and and go from there.
Roger Ream [00:39:10] As I recall, you mentioned at the outset of this that you had gone to school with a focus on music.
Kurt Couchman [00:39:18] Yeah.
Roger Ream [00:39:18] So you made quite a change from that. Did you complete school with a major that involved music?
Kurt Couchman [00:39:24] No.
Roger Ream [00:39:25] Was a voice, as I recall?
Kurt Couchman [00:39:26] It was voice, yeah. I was at one time going to be an opera singer or hoped to be an opera singer.
Roger Ream [00:39:30] Sound like you have a voice that would be good for that.
Kurt Couchman [00:39:33] It’s resonant at least.
Roger Ream [00:39:34] Yeah.
Kurt Couchman [00:39:35] But I’m a bit out of practice.
Roger Ream [00:39:39] I got to stop you for a second because isn’t Indiana University. They have a great opera program there, don’t they?
Kurt Couchman [00:39:46] That’s Indiana University, Bloomington.
Roger Ream [00:39:47] Okay. But there’s a there’s a famous opera singer from Indiana, Pennsylvania.
Kurt Couchman [00:39:53] Renee Fleming I believe.
Roger Ream [00:39:54] Yes that’s it, Renee Fleming. But that’s not connected with the school.
Kurt Couchman [00:39:58] Up here, I think.
Roger Ream [00:39:59] Okay. Sorry, I’m familiar with her and I remember she was from Indiana, Pennsylvania.
Kurt Couchman [00:40:05] Yeah. I mean, I love music. I still do sometimes. If you’re ever driving by me on 395 or the Beltway, you might see somebody in a white car just like singing at the top of his lungs. And that might be me, but, you know, it’s about the right balance in life as well. I, you know, I love the arts, but I didn’t think that making a career out of it was the right fit for me. I have a lot of different interests, obviously, politics and economics, but also history and sociology and psychology and lots of different things. And so I feel like what I’m doing now is able to harness a lot of that stuff, whereas if you want to have a successful career in the arts, then you need to be pretty laser focused on it.
Roger Ream [00:40:47] Well, this has been great because you’re the example of advice I give to students, and that is that you can focus in a career on something as you’ve done a number of things, but you can also be a lifelong learner and stay involved, keep your interest. I’m sure you keep not only your interest in music, but history and these other things. So that’s advice I like to offer students. I was, you know, be a lifelong learner, keep improving your skills and pursuing your passions, even if your day to day job is maybe focus in another area.
Roger Ream [00:41:19] Well, any parting words of advice or thoughts before we conclude this? Kurt, it’s been a great discussion here and a little bit depressing when we get into talking about the deficit and these debts. But we certainly, I admire the work you’re doing. I think it’s vital.
Kurt Couchman [00:41:36] Oh, thank you. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you, Roger. I guess my parting words would be to have hope, to persevere. There are problems. There’s always going to be problems and human organizations and society. But if you figure out, not alone typically, but with other people that are also interested in finding solutions, then you can figure out how to make things better. Problems don’t solve themselves. That requires human action to figure out what’s wrong and how to go about fixing them and how to make that salient to the people that are actually making the decisions. But, you know, budget has not been an issue that has been at the top of the agenda for a while now. It was in 2011, 2012, and frankly, we missed that opportunity. The Budget Control Act was not that great, but I think the window will open again next year. And that’s true with every issue. Immigration kind of goes in and out, criminal justice goes in and out. Health care, I mean, the landscape is always changing. And if you want to be ready for the opportunities, you have to have hope that it’ll come back around and you’ve got to keep working on that stuff and persevering so that you’re ready to strike when the iron is hot.
Roger Ream [00:42:49] Well, that comment encapsulates the purpose of this podcast being on liberty and leadership, because that is the trait of a leader and you’ve demonstrated it here and that you’re focused longer term you aren’t jumping on. It’s not the kind of person who runs to get in front of the parade that’s coming down the street. You’re focused on issues that will be coming back that are extremely important, and you’re preparing for offering solutions that we hope will eventually return fiscal responsibility to our nation’s capital. So thank you.
Roger Ream [00:43:20] Thank you for listening to the Liberty and Leadership Podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it, and if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at TFAS@podcast.org. The Liberty and Leadership Podcast is produced at K Global Studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host Roger Ream and until next time show courage and things large and small.
About the Podcast
TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.
Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.
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