Keith Ausbrook ’73: GUARDING THE GUARDIANS
On the Oversight Committee, Keith Ausbrook '73 Held Government Accountable
Whether or not you think Big Brother is watching you, someone is watching Big Brother. Namely, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, on which Keith Ausbrook ’73 served as Chief Counsel and later Republican General Counsel from 2003 to 2008. “Mrs. Rose will be proud of me,” says Keith, remembering his venerable Potomac Latin Teacher. “There’s a Latin phrase, ‘Quis custodes custodiet.’ It means ‘Who’s guarding the guardians?’ And that is what the committee does.”
As legal counsel to the committee members, Keith helped uncover government waste, fraud and abuse. And yet he has an unusually positive outlook on America’s democracy in action. He has seen government at its worst — and he’s seen it work, too.
“The committee really is there to make sure that our government programs are operating effectively, efficiently — doing what Congress wants them to do,” says Keith. During his service, the committee investigated controversy related to Hurricane Katrina, private defense contractor Blackwater USA , the death of Corporal Pat Tillman, and the 9/11 Commission Report, among other issues. The committee has oversight of everything the federal government does, as well as things it doesn’t do but perhaps should.
For example, in 2005 the committee launched an investigation of illegal steroid use in Major League Baseball. Although many questioned why drug use among elite athletes should be a matter of Congressional concern, Keith explains that this trend was having a negative impact on the health of the nation’s children. “We had estimates that anywhere between 500,000 and a million kids were taking performance enhancing drugs,” he says. “We had reports that at major universities kids were showing up saying, when do I start my [steroid] program?”
Prior to the committee’s investigation, the MLB-imposed penalty for a positive drug test was a $5,000 fine and up to a 10-day suspension. “The average salary was probably about 2 million dollars, so what is that? It’s nothing.” When the committee proposed legislation to impose a stiffer punishment, the league upped its penalty to $50,000 and a 50-game suspension for the first failed test, and a lifetime suspension for three failed tests. Ultimately, the committee achieved results by putting pressure on the private sector to change voluntarily rather than setting up a government enforcement program.
In Latin class at Potomac, Keith says, “I learned how things work.” Mrs. Rose taught him to see language as a complex puzzle, and he relished the challenge of piecing it together. “That’s part of the reason I went to law school. How do we make society and all its different parts work together? What laws do we need to make it work?” For Keith, serving in the public sector has been the ultimate challenge. “There are so many more moving parts, so much you can’t control.”
Keith got his start in government as Staff Assistant for the Senate Republican Conference a year after college. “There were 12 new Republican Senators who did not know anything about Senate procedure, and back then nobody had their own VCR. I pushed around a TV cart…with taped seminars on Senate procedure. That showed up on my resume as ‘administered video tape library.’”
From these humble beginnings, Keith went on to a variety of high-profile positions in public service, including Special Counsel to the House Select Committee on Hurricane Katrina. “The investigation was not a happy time for many people. I went to the office every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, between October and March. But so many good things came out of it,” says Keith, who years later, as Executive Secretary of the Homeland Security Counsel, saw his committee’s recommendations put into action. “The [policies] that came out of Katrina worked in our response to Hurricane Ike and Hurricane Gustav. They just worked. And I saw a lot of other things working as well.”
In Keith’s experience, government does get things done. But it’s not because Republicans and Democrats are working together in perfect harmony. They aren’t. And, according to Keith, they shouldn’t.
“There are major philosophical differences [between the parties],” he says. “One of the problems is that people look back on the good old days when everyone got along. Yes, everybody got along, but this whole philosophical divide was essentially ignored.” Keith points to the decades between 1954 and 1994 when Democrats held the majority of seats in the U.S. House. “If you're resigned to the fact that you're never going to be in a majority, then you can go along with things you wouldn’t otherwise go along with.”
“There are major philosophical differences [between the parties]. One of the problems is that people look back on the good old days when everyone got along. Yes, everybody got along, but this whole philosophical divide was essentially ignored.”
Now that the country is engaged in a robust political debate, it’s up to everyone involved to think and act independent of party affiliations. “There’s a lack of leadership [in Congress],” says Keith. “People need to stand up and do the right thing even if it’s different from what their party says they should do. Even if it’s different from what they think their constituents want. Then it’s their job to explain to their constituents why they did it. Not to say, ‘I can’t do anything because I’m a victim.’ No, you’re not. You’re a member of Congress; you're a Senator. You’re not just a victim of some system that you can’t control.”
Keith is Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Civil Defense Solutions, LLC. He is also a Potomac board member and parent, father to Mary Kate ’18, Charlie ’16, Max ’13 and Rebekah ’12.
"[In Latin class at Potomac] I learned how things work. That’s part of the reason I went to law school. How do we make society and all its different parts work together? What laws do we need to make it work?”Keith Ausbrook '73, former Counsel on the House Oversight and government reform committee