The House Democracy Partnership (HDP) is a bipartisan commission of the U.S. House of Representatives that works directly with over 20 partner parliaments around the world to support the development of effective, independent, and responsive legislatures. HDP is proudly implemented by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI).
In this month’s alumni profile, Thomas Kahn, HDP expert speaker and former and longest serving Staff Director of the House Budget Committee, shares his experience participating in HDP programming.
What is your background in legislative strengthening programs and/or in your country’s legislative institutions?
I worked as a senior staff member in the US House of Representatives for 33 years. For 20 of those years, I was the Staff Director of the House Budget Committee, the longest serving staff Director in the committee’s history. Moreover, before coming to Capitol Hill I practiced law in New York.
My experience with IRI goes back 30 years when I was privileged to serve as an international election observer with IRI in Honduras.
What HDP program(s) have you participated in?
I have participated in more than 30 HDP programs, mostly remotely, for nations on every continent except North America, Australia, and Antarctica! As part of HDP, I have had the privilege to travel to Armenia, The Gambia, Macedonia, North Macedonia, and Kenya.
What is your favorite thing about HDP programming?
It gives me a great sense of pride knowing I’m playing a tiny role in the fight for freedom and democracy around the globe. I love meeting people in other countries dedicated to democracy and strengthening their legislative institutions. These are people who are so courageous and dedicated to the mission of serving their constituents and country.
I also love working with the U.S.-based HDP staff. They are among the hardest working and smartest professionals I’ve ever dealt with.
In advising our partners, I often learn a lot from them about ways we can improve our own institutions.
Why did you decide to become a staff member of the U.S. House of Representatives?
I love legislating: the policy, the politics, and the people. Working in Congress allows you to shape legislation which improves the lives of millions of Americans.
Looking back on HDP programs, what has been most impactful for you?
Honestly, my experience in each nation has been incredibly impactful. It’s hard to pick the best.
What advice would you give to new parliamentary or congressional staff?
Spend most of your time listening. Listen especially hard to the people with whom you disagree because you can learn the most from them. Remember that you work for lawmakers who are elected by the people; nobody elected you to anything.
Also, make friends with people from your opposing party. They may sometimes be your adversaries, but never your enemies. And oftentimes they can become your best friends. They have certainly in my case.
What accomplishments through HDP are you most proud of?
In Kenya and in The Gambia, I was privileged to work with the chairs of their respective budget committees to develop and strengthen their appropriations and oversight processes. The budget is probably the most important document any parliament passes. It determines how many children get vaccinated, seniors receive pensions, and veterans get healthcare. We discussed what techniques have worked in our Congress with a goal of making better spending decisions.
What would you like your HDP legacy to be?
I try not to think about legacies because it’s for people long gone. I’m not planning to go anywhere soon. I hope to continue working with HDP to strengthen democracies for many decades to come.Top