A Conversation with Owen Urech of AU's Roosevelt Institute
When thinking about policy, it's all too easy to get discouraged and assume nothing can really be done. For so many Americans, Congress seems stuck in gridlock over every single hot-button issue, and local government looks unable to address any real problems that the average person faces. If you're a young person with big aspirations, it's easy to look at politicians as unhelpful at best, utterly useless to create change at worst. But Owen Urech sees things differently. President Owen Urech of the student-run Roosevelt Institute at American University sat down with me earlier this year to discuss how students are making real policy achievements at the local and State level, and what that means for young people in politics. In our conversation, we discussed how the Roosevelt Institute at American University gets students involved in the policy process, but also how policy matters for politics in general. The following transcript has been significantly edited for brevity and clarity.
Avery James: Thank you for coming to speak Owen. Let me start by asking this; what is the Roosevelt Institute at American University and what does it do exactly?
Owen Urech: The Roosevelt Institute is the only student-run think tank on our campus. What we do is bring students in and teach them about the policy process. We explain to them how to formulate an idea, identify a problem, and go through the writing process, all while trying to take away the intimidation factor. People sometimes assume you need a doctorate in political science, but really if you have the tools available and the will, you can write policy. So the Roosevelt institute is all about empowering students to be able to do that, hone their skills, and work on what they're passionate about.
Avery: Sounds great, can you give me some examples of what the Roosevelt Institute has been doing recently?
Owen: Yeah, absolutely. We did a lot of work last year, especially when our former president pushed for DC to publicly finance the elections. The idea was to get money out of politics. So you emulate what they did at the federal level in the 1970's, ensuring public matching for small donations. There's a fund that you set up, and then for every five dollar donation that's given, the government will add five dollars. So there was a bill that we worked on, and that's actually going through DC's council right now. It passed its first procedural vote, and it goes for a final vote sometime in the next couple of months. Another example is more local. We've also worked on the campus towards a carbon pricing initiative. The plan is to get the campus to commit to not necessarily a carbon tax on campus, but some sort of recognition that leads to a push for action at the local level, and there are a couple bills on the way right now. Another thing we started to work on was broad-ranging criminal justice reform in D.C. There's still a lot to figure out but we're working with people in other interest groups around D.C. and another chapter in G.W.
Avery: So walk me through this. Let's say you want criminal justice reform, how does that process pan out?
Owen: Usually it starts with someone at the local level recognizing the problem and taking action. A good example of this is down at George Washington University, they had an opt-in system for student healthcare which made it more expensive. The reason students took action is because people came to them and said "my health insurance is too expensive." Well why is it so expensive? So you apply this to criminal justice. People say there are poor conditions at the county jail, well why are there poor conditions at the county jail? You see an issue where there's an impact, and then get to the root of it, and find people who are actually impacted by it.
Once you get that process, you get a coalition going, and you get a lot of ideas in the room. That's when the policy writing comes into it, because once you've got a formal proposal written out you can go to a local politician with your coalition's proposal and tell them what you want. Most of the time at the local level it turns out politicians really care because these are their local constituents. It's definitely harder at the Federal level. But at the state and local level, people have been surprised by what they can get done. So it happens, and it happens on a regular basis. It's just taking the first step that's so important, which is what Roosevelt is for.
Avery: It's never too early for some 2018 midterm speculation. What do you think turns people out to vote?
Owen: You have to have a policy base to turn people out. That's my biased opinion because I'm a policy person, but of course you also need charisma. Hillary Clinton was no slouch on policy, she turned out dozens of policy memos, she's been doing that since she was First Lady of Arkansas. But you need to convince people the policy is the best thing. If it's just a top-down process and you just sat in a room to decide it, that won't fly. People will ask why they weren't heard. Of course, interest groups also matter, so you'll want to bounce it off them. Not necessarily corporate lobbyists, but you know, advocacy groups in general. You have got to get that investment, and that's the key. Roosevelt has a tagline; because it matters who writes the rules. You can see it on all our laptops, we've got stickers with that line. Something you've got to do with a policy is sell it, and if you do that, people get excited about policy! If you don't, it's just a piece of paper that gathers dust.
Avery: We've talked a lot about policy. One writer I enjoy reading, Michael Brendan Dougherty at National Review, has given what I think is a pretty decent charge against the policy process. He suggested that if you have a society where policy wonks decide everything that matters, celebrity candidates like Donald Trump or potentially Oprah Winfrey are an inevitable outcome. Celebrity personality is going to dominate when there's no actual political influence that voters can exert. What do you make of that critique?
Owen: Well that's one of the reasons the Roosevelt Institute was founded, because so many young people felt that way. Young people have spent so much time as the ground soldiers, doing the knocking on doors and passing out flyers. Or they were the advocates, telling people about the issues, but there was still a divide between them and the actual policymakers. We need young people of all walks of life to be a part of that. When Roosevelt Institute started, we set out immediately to make sure young people were invested, writing policy, knew how to lobby, and that applies to so much. That's our mission, to bridge that divide. And if more groups did that, you'd have less Washington insiders and moneyed interests, and more people would get the ear of politicians.
Avery: I'll wrap up with some trivia, why FDR in particular as the namesake of your organization?
Owen: Well it's not just Franklin, our name is also about Eleanor. That duo is who we draw our influence from. FDR certainly did a lot as president, but First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was not just economically policy-minded, she also focused on race and gender, things where she had to push Franklin to keep in mind. It's true that the New Deal consensus is gone today, but people often look back to that and remember it because Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt reshaped the government at every level. At the Roosevelt Institute, we want to improve on that ambitious vision of government in a lot of ways.
Avery: Thank you so much Owen for the conversation today.
Owen: My pleasure, thank you for having me.