Washingtonian: Washington’s Most Influential People

February 25, 2021 Media

There’s an old story about a senator being honored at a big gathering. He asks the waiter for an extra pat of butter for his roll. The waiter refuses. The senator explains that he’s a powerful man and this gathering is in his honor. So the waiter explains that he has power, too. He’s in charge of the butter. One pat per person and he moves on. Power. Everyone in federal Washington thinks they have it, and most want more of it.

Influence, unlike power, can be more subtle. It resides all over our capital city, for better or for worse. Our goal in this list was to highlight people who have significant influence over policy, the stuff that shapes our country. We avoided those in government who actually write and execute laws: Their authority comes from the voters, and as we’ve learned, voters can be fickle. Instead, we sought out people with deep subject-matter knowledge, the ones who understand the nuances and complexities of how and where laws affect business, government, and society—the ones who are going to be maintaining that knowledge no matter who gets voted in or voted out of office.

Nels Olson, who heads the search firm Korn Ferry’s Global Government Affairs Practice and often gets retained to help trade associations and corporations find leaders, has a way of describing the sort of influence clients are looking for: “No matter the type of organization, the most sought-after candidates can formulate both policy and strategy from the ground up as well as communicate effectively to all audiences.”

Of course, policy areas vary from mainstream to obscure. We couldn’t include them all. We tried to select areas on which we felt the new administration and Congress would focus—the subjects that will dominate the next few years. Our roster includes denizens of Washington’s think tanks and universities, former public servants as well as those who have always worked in the private sector. We’ve included people from across the ideological spectrum. But we’ve tried to avoid “hired guns,” whose influence might derive purely from their Rolodex or their communications skills. Instead, we’ve sought out those whose advocacy derives from policy expertise within their sector.

Finally, we didn’t include people entering the new administration, a group that changed daily as we went to press.

Policymaking changes as governments come in and out of power. But the bedrock underlying it—expertise that enables public service and good-faith debate and explains why idealists still come to Washington—remains.Here’s a look at who’s wielding that influence right now.

Sarah Miller

Executive Director, American Economic Liberties Project

When Sarah Miller began working on monopoly issues in 2015, she became an expert in what blank stares look like. “It was hard to get meetings with congressional staffers,” she recalls, laughing. When a friend learned she was studying monopoly power, he replied: “I haven’t heard the word ‘monopoly’ since the Microsoft case.”

Miller has come far since then—and so has her cause. Once considered a crusty policy backwater, corporate concentration and monopoly power are now pressing economic issues. Just ask Facebook or Google, both of which face cases from the federal government. The public support for those federal interventions got a big boost from Miller, whose previous work under Washingtonian Influencer Barry Lynn included leading a campaign called Freedom From Facebook, which argued that the Menlo Park tech giant should be broken up years before the idea would reach the policy mainstream.

But Miller, whose time in Washington has seen her ascend into a series of elite policy circles, is hunting larger game than just Big Tech. Her concern is how corporate concentration affects all sectors of American life. “The incredible amounts of economic and political power that now sit on the top of virtually every industry in our economy,” Miller charges, have effectively become “engines of inequality.”

She senses this might be the movement’s moment. Miller wants Congress to expand its work around Big Tech into finance, agriculture, telecoms, and healthcare. “It’s a chance that I don’t know we get again if we fail,” she says. “We’re feeling very ambitious.”

—Benjamin Wofford