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Watchdog for the public

Jul 31, 2009
by Brian Thompson, '95

Alumnus John Krieger works in Washington, D.C., to safeguard public interest issues

Want to know what it’s like to testify before Congress? Alumnus John Krieger, ‘02, will tell you in one word: terrifying.

“They make the chair that you sit in two times too low so you feel like a kid at the adult table,” he said. “The senators all sit extremely high up. It’s a very daunting experience. It’s something that I’m extremely proud of, but it was just so scary.”

A staff attorney for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington, D.C., Krieger was asked in 2008 to speak as an expert witness before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The bill his testimony supported came in the wake of the Minnesota I-35 bridge collapse that killed several motorists and prompted organizations like Krieger’s to call for federal transportation spending to prioritize failing infrastructure.

“The bridge collapse in Minnesota should serve as a wake-up call,” Krieger said at the hearing. “We urge this committee to embrace an approach to highway spending that prioritizes maintenance and repair of our existing roadways and bridges. Our country can no longer afford the cost of inaction and misplaced priorities as our bridges continue to age and deteriorate.”

Looking back on it, he still calls giving his testimony “the scariest proposition.”

“I mean, the thought of it. The hearing was covered on C-SPAN. It’s kind of a sense like you dread it going in, but when you leave you can’t wait for the opportunity to do it again.”

His seat at the table before a Senate committee has been just one of a number of highlights in Krieger’s short, but already impressive career — a career that won him the Flagler College Young Alumni Award this past spring. He’s been quoted by The New York Times, the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and National Public Radio, and is a featured contributor to the National Journal’s expert blog on federal transportation policy.

He’s lobbied congressman on a number of tax and budget issues, mainly related to transportation, and even worked with former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry on a bill that is now law.

Not Some Ordinary Corporate Lobbyist
These days lobbyist is a dirty word, but Krieger draws a big distinction between what he does and what other lobbyists who represent big industry and major corporations do.

“We work on health care, higher education, toxic-free communities,” he said. “A lot of those places where the public interest comes into direct conflict with big special interests and the places where the public doesn’t have a voice.

“We’re going in representing the public and without any ties to large corporations or government interests. Our organization is mostly funded by small donors — by hundreds of thousands of people who contribute to our organization so we will go and talk to members of congress, local officials and state officials to look out for the public benefit.”

Krieger’s area of expertise is in tax and budget policy including government contracting, public transportation and infrastructure spending. It’s a big area to cover, and one rife with fraud and waste, especially with so many billions of dollars
being doled out for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continued rebuilding of Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and now federal stimulus spending on all manner of projects.

“I look at where our taxpayer dollars go to try and eliminate waste, fraud and abuse,” he said. “Two areas where that’s needed most are transportation funding, things like the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ and other large-scale, earmark projects that don’t benefit a lot of people. It’s kind of a big chunk to bite off.”

Krieger said his organization started zeroing in on transportation funding after the 2007 I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed 13 people when it tumbled into the Mississippi River.

“We’re trying to make sure that those things are getting attention before the more developer-driven projects do,” he said. “These are large sums of money and it’s sometimes hard to keep the public’s interests in mind.”

Going After Offshore Tax Havens
One of Krieger’s proudest accomplishments was working with Sen. Kerry’s staff to write a bill that helped close offshore tax havens for corporations receiving federal contracts.

“He (Kerry) took to it and we started writing a bill,” Krieger said. “We went over to Rahm Emanuel on the House of Representatives side and started working on a bill on that side.”

To get attention for the issue, Krieger worked to build major media coverage. “I knew this was outrageous, so every week for six weeks I tried to get a major story in the national media about a different contractor who set up these offshore tax havens,” he said. “One week it was USA Today. And then one week it was the Wall Street Journal, and then it was CNN-Money. So you just kept seeing it.”

The bill passed through both houses of Congress and was signed into law in 2008 by President George W. Bush. Called the Heroes Earnings Assistance and Relief Tax Act, the closing of the tax loophole helped pay for permanent tax relief for
military families.

“By reining in tax-dodging private contractors who use gimmicks to avoid their basic responsibilities, this Congress chose good governance and accountability over cronyism and favoritism,” Krieger said at the time. “We applaud Congress for having the good sense to pay for this reward for military families by closing sham tax havens for private defense contractors.”

What does it feel like to see so much hard work payoff?

“It’s absolutely exhilarating,” he said, “and it reaffirms the belief that the government is actually built to respond to the people — that we are the boss of our Congress. It’s something we get pretty cynical about and forget about, but it really is true. It makes me think this is the way it should be.”

Navigating the World of D.C. Politics
Krieger calls D.C. a daunting and intimidating place, filled with big egos and crawling with high-powered lobbyists whose only interests are for the corporations who pay them. But he said working on behalf of the public makes dealing with Washington actually rewarding.

“There are obviously big problems when we look domestically, when we look at our health care system, the state of our education system,” he said. “There are just these kinds of enormous problems, but on top of that, this is the time when people are extremely optimistic and they’re tuned to what’s going on in government.”

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