Jonathan Burks began his career as a congressional staffer in a windowless office buried inside the Rayburn House Office Building.
Eighteen years later, he’s risen to become one of the most powerful staffers on Capitol Hill, taking over as a historic chief of staff to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) at a critical moment in Washington as President-elect Donald Trump vows to change the way the nation’s capital does business.
Ryan announced Wednesday that Burks, 38, is taking over for David Hoppe, replacing the longtime veteran of Washington battles with a trusted policy specialist who has been at the speaker’s side most of the past six years.
Burks, whose career includes stints inside the George W. Bush White House and at the highest policy levels in Congress, now has the mandate of trying to implement the sweeping agenda that Ryan has tinkered with for more than a decade. Before Trump came to town, Ryan’s proposals — some of which are quite controversial — might as well have been academic exercises because President Obama would always be able to veto any of them that landed on his desk.
Now, however, with Trump soon to be president and publicly praising Ryan after months of jousting, Burks has been charged with crafting serious proposals that have a real chance of becoming law as Republicans control both wings of Congress and take over the White House.
“The last many years of Paul’s career have been all about preparing for this moment, of putting together a conservative policy agenda that we could enact if the political stars aligned, and that’s really what’s happened now,” Burks said Wednesday morning in an interview inside the Capitol.
Despite one-party rule, enacting Ryan’s agenda is no easy task because the House Republican Conference has been deeply fractured and Republicans hold a tenuous 52-48 majority in the Senate.
Burks’s rise to the pinnacle of staff power comes with an added historical impact: He is the first African American to serve as the top aide to a speaker of the House. The chief of staff position has existed 30 years, and no speaker, Democrat or Republican, has ever had a black chief of staff. Before that, the top House aide was called administrative assistant, and there is no known instance of a speaker hiring a black administrative assistant. Congressional directories of past decades do not include pictures or cite the personal backgrounds of aides.
“Race has never been an issue in any of the jobs that I’ve ever held,” Burks said Wednesday. “I’ve succeeded or failed, and thankfully mostly succeeded, and race has just never been anything that’s been discussed or been at issue in those jobs.”
Burks’s appointment marks another historic first, as the majority of the chiefs of staff of the four top party leaders are either a woman or a minority: There is Burks; Nadeam Elshami, chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who is Egyptian American; and Sharon Soderstrom, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“No one is better suited to step into this role at this time than Jonathan Burks. Simply put, he can do it all. Jonathan is whip-smart, determined, and just knows how to get things done,” Ryan said in a statement.
Burks is already serving as Ryan’s top liaison to the Trump transition team, holding daily talks with the president-elect’s top officials. From his time working on the House Budget Committee, Burks counts Stephen Miller as a longtime ally. Miller, who once served as the Republican spokesman on the Senate Budget Committee, is going to be Trump’s senior policy adviser.
The speaker framed Hoppe’s departure as long planned, saying that he asked Hoppe “to take a year of his career and put together a speakership almost overnight.” That was in October 2015, when John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) resigned as speaker and Ryan was drafted into the post.
Hoppe seemed like a natural fit with Ryan, both Wisconsin natives with ties to the same mentor, the late Jack Kemp. But Hoppe, 65, hailed from the congressional wars of the past. His deepest experience was at Trent Lott’s side when the Mississippi Republican was Senate majority leader battling Bill Clinton’s White House.
In tapping Burks, Ryan is making a generational shift to an aide well-versed in recent political battles, both within Republican circles and with congressional Democrats.
From 2010 through 2014, Burks served as Ryan’s policy director on the House Budget Committee, giving him deep knowledge of the speaker’s passion for fiscal policy and willingness to take on difficult political tasks — including revamping Medicare, which Ryan has proposed turning into a premium support system rather than its current federal guarantee.
Burks said proposals shaped for the 115th Congress will not be “a surprise to anyone.”
“We’ve been introducing these ideas over years. I mean, you go back to the first budget that the speaker offered back in 2011 and started making the case for entitlement reform,” Burks said.
Democrats have already signaled they are ready and hoping for Ryan to renew his push on Medicare, believing that any effort to vastly change the popular health program will be politically deadly for Republicans.
Burks grew up in Boiling Springs, Pa., outside of Harrisburg, in a family that wasn’t overly political. He fell in love with government watching television news at the kitchen table and then attended Georgetown University for Foreign Service undergraduate studies.
After a couple years working for then-Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) inside the Rayburn building, Burks joined Richard B. Cheney’s vice-presidential staff on economic policy, shifting over to George W. Bush’s policy staff a few years later. After the Bush White House, he received his master’s from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in 2010, when he joined Ryan’s staff.
In 2015, he worked on what he jokingly calls a “study abroad” program, serving a year in the Senate as McConnell’s top budget adviser, his only stint in the Senate. Once Ryan took over as speaker, Burks returned to become his top foreign policy adviser.
Burks is clear-eyed enough to know that both that job and his new one come with big expectations.
“It’s the difference between one set of problems and trading them for another,” he said.