Phil Kiko Helped Build the International School of Law
Please describe your current position.
The Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) is one of three non-partisan House Officers elected by the House at the beginning of every Congress. Established in 1995, the CAO oversees financial and administrative functions, all of which are critical in helping members of Congress fulfill their Constitutional duties.
As someone who has spent most of my career in positions of public service, the most rewarding aspect of this job is that I get to serve the American people in what we refer to as “the People’s House.” Every day, I lead an organization of more than 700 talented and dedicated people whose only job is to make sure that our elected representatives can effectively and efficiently represent the American people. Many of the services we provide to the House take place behind the scenes, but they are critical to making sure the House functions. For someone who has dedicated his career to public service, I can think of no better way to spend my day.
Our commitment to service also means that we must constantly stay ahead of the curve, anticipating the needs of our members and finding new and creative ways to support their offices. In everything from blocking cyberattacks every year to ensuring that the House uses taxpayer dollars efficiently, with transparency and accountability, the Office of the CAO constantly strives to exceed expectations.
Did you always know you would be a public servant?
I was always interested in public policy and current events, but I took what many would consider a different path to public service. I moved to Washington the day after I graduated from Mt. Union College and my first job was in a factory in Beltsville making water beds and stuffing pillows. For a time, I also worked at Giant Foods and was constantly on the Hill circulating my resume. I didn’t have existing contacts in member offices so finding my first Hill job was difficult. Finally, I happened to share my resume with a Congressional staffer who noticed that I’d been a DJ at the college radio station, and the staffer forwarded my resume to a Hill office that ultimately hired me to do press.
The country is going through a period of polarization. How do you work across party lines?
Throughout my career, I’ve been honored to have colleagues and friends on both sides of the aisle. We’ve worked together on important legislation and, most importantly, recognized and respected that each of us were committed to serving the American people.
With that said, the Office of the CAO is an explicitly non-partisan entity that serves the institution. We support all 441 Members (435 Representatives from the 50 states, five non-voting Delegates and one non-voting Resident Commissioner), as well as 23 Committees and nine House Leadership Offices without any regard for or consideration of party affiliation or political ideology.
How has Congress changed since you started working there?
Congress has changed in many of the same ways and because of the same factors as the country has changed. Technology, social media and the 24-hour news cycle have made Congress far more accessible – and I think most would agree that’s a good thing. It also impacts the way we support Member Offices and the kinds of services we offer. One of the most notable examples is the way in which we help the institution and Member Offices leverage technology. Another example is the increased emphasis on serving close to 900 District Offices across the country and making sure we’re providing the best solutions for members when they’re back home.
Please share with us memories of your time at George Mason Law School.
I was a member of the third graduating class of the International School of Law, which was the predecessor of GMU Law School. We had a lot of pride and understood our role in helping to get the law school off the ground. During my three years, I attended three different locations - two in DC and one on the site of the current law school. I had some construction experience, so I was part of a crew of fellow law school students who helped to renovate the classrooms when we moved. You could say we literally helped build the law school. I also worked every day and attended law school at night so, as you can imagine, with the pace of a full-time Capitol Hill job and the rigors of law school, it was a challenge. But I remember the sense of excitement we all felt at being a part of something so special. This was also around the time of the Watergate scandal, when 29 lawyers went to prison. The founder of the law school, John W. Brabner-Smith, emphasized the importance of putting ethics back into law. That was a major factor in his decision to establish the law school.
Do you remember a class or a professor who particularly influenced you?
One of my most memorable instructors was Professor Dean W. Kalivas. He taught Property Law and also served as Chief of Staff for Congressman Floyd Hicks of Washington. We connected because we were both working on the Hill at the time, and he helped me understand how our law school studies could apply to our Congressional work.
How did law school prepare you for your career?
I think the most valuable skill I took away from Law School was the ability to think critically and problem solve. Law school taught me to step back and look at the big picture before tackling a new challenge, and that’s certainly a tool that has been useful in my current position.
Law school also taught me about advocacy. The ability to be a strong and persuasive advocate is at the core of what we do as lawyers. It is also applicable in virtually every job on Capitol Hill – managing press, writing Member statements, drafting and promoting legislation, and engaging with constituents, stakeholders and other Members. But most importantly, being an effective advocate requires that you also be a good listener, which helps you understand an issue before you tackle it.
What advice would you give a law student who wants to pursue public service?
A career in public service is much more than just a job. It requires a sincere commitment to the greater good and a desire to serve. As someone who has spent time in the public and private sectors, I can tell you that public service has been by far the most challenging. Candidly, there are much easier ways to earn a living, so if money and financial success are your primary goals, I’d counsel against a career in public service. But it has been the most rewarding part of my career in more ways than I can count.