From the Hilltop to the Hill: Jonathan Burks (SFS’99) on his journey to becoming Chief of Staff to Speaker Ryan

(Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

March 23, 2017
by Margaux Fontaine

Last December, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan named Jonathan Burks (SFS’99) his new Chief of Staff. Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service invited Burks back to campus as part of their “HIPPSter” (Hoyas In Politics and Public Service) series to discuss his journey from Georgetown to Capitol Hill. The event was co-sponsored by Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, the Office of Federal Relations, and the Georgetown University College Republicans, and was moderated by Professor Bob Lieber.

Burks completed his bachelor’s degree at the Walsh School of Foreign Service in 1999, and received his masters’ degree in International Affairs and Economics from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in 2010. Since graduating from Georgetown, he has had an impressive career in public policy, serving in the White House under George W. Bush and holding policy positions in both chambers of Congress.

As Burks explained, his professional journey started off at Georgetown, when a meeting with Professor Lieber his junior year turned into a job opportunity. Lieber asked him what he was doing the following summer, and upon hearing that he was looking for an internship, called now-SFS Centennial Fellow Mark Lagon, who was at the time the deputy staff director on the Republican Policy Committee. Thanks to the phone call, Burks spent that summer as a foreign and domestic policy analyst.

Lessons from the Hilltop

Besides the concrete impact that the SFS had on his career, Burks discussed other parts of his Georgetown experience that have stuck with him. The Jesuit concept of “men and women for others” remains a motivating factor, he explained.

“I think the commitment to service that is so much a part of the Georgetown ethos is one of the things that really drives me in a lot of ways, and informs the way I think about public policy and public service,” Burks said.

He also said that Georgetown offered him a diversity of perspectives, challenging him to think about his own viewpoints.

“A good university really exposes you to things that challenge what you think, and challenges you to not just accept the commonality or the common opinion,” Burks said. “And so Georgetown really forced me to think hard about what I believe, what do I think of my work, why do I think that, in a way that has really served me well.”

Serving under Speaker Ryan

Burks has worked for Paul Ryan since 2010, when he served as policy director of the House Budget Committee which Ryan chaired. Burks has enjoyed his time working for now-Speaker Ryan, describing him as policy-focused and allowing politics take a back seat. This, he says, is evidenced by Ryan’s ultimate goal being Chairman of the Ways and Means committee, as opposed to Speaker of the House.

“He is entirely a person who first and foremost cares about policy, cares about what it is that we can get done to help people,” Burks said. “That really policy-driven approach, you know, ‘politics be darned,’ is really one of the things that makes working for Paul such a pleasure and such a fun environment.”

Moving forward, he says that the Speaker prioritizes being accessible to other members of the House, working with them to hear their ideas.

Working with the Trump Administration

Audience members inquired about the challenges that come along with working with the Trump administration. Burks noted that there is the potential for them to work together on many policy goals.

“With President Trump, we’ve got, for the first time in my career – or at least first extended period in my career – we’ve got a Republican president, a Republican senate, a Republican house,” he said. “So that’s a big opportunity for us to get things done.”

The President is not the only one that the Speaker needs to work with to get things done. While the political climate is increasingly polarized, Burks discussed the potential for both sides of the aisle to come together on certain issues.

“I think there will be some places where you find bipartisanship,” he said. “The infrastructure initiative that the President has announced I think is one place where you’ll find a bipartisan coalition.”

Advice to Georgetown Students

When asked what advice he would give to Georgetown students hoping to pursue a career in politics or public service, Burks had a few suggestions. He stressed the importance of internships, not just as a way to network and meet people, but also to help discern what kind of career one would actually be interested in pursuing.

“I can remember back to when I was living in New South, the ideas of what I thought working in government would be,” he recalled. “And you’ll have that first internship, and you’ll get a different sense of what the reality is.”

Careers in politics or government, he noted, are not for everyone.

“The challenges are many, not least that unless you go into elected office, you’re always going to be working for someone, and you’re always going to work for their agenda,” he explained. “Being staff is the opportunity to provide your advice, but ultimately you salute and follow all the guidance of the elected official.”

Another piece of advice he offered was to stay up-to-date on current events, reading in depth about policies and other issues.

“It’s a complex world and a complex job, and if you really want to be good at it you have to have that passion and willingness to go beyond the surface,” he said.

For Burks, at least, these efforts have been worth it.

“Government service is something that I feel passionately about, and think can be a force for good,” Burks said. “And it just takes people willing to put in the effort, willing to put in the time and make the sacrifices.”