From learning on his feet to policy director

From learning on his feet to policy director
© Greg Nash

In July, 31-year-old think tank researcher Shai Akabas achieved something that hordes of well-funded lobbyists and power players in Washington often fail to do: He got Congress to take action.

Akabas, the director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, released an analysis of what he calls the “X Date,” the day the Treasury Department runs out of legal authority to pay its bills.

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Congress, still reeling from a 35-day partial shutdown earlier in the year, had planned to work on reaching a deal on the debt limit into September, hoping to package it up with a stopgap measure to prevent a shutdown in October, but Akabas’s analysis showed that they didn’t have that kind of time.

In recent years, the Treasury Department had been using a process of internal borrowing known as “extraordinary measures” to buy time after the technical debt limit was reached.

But unlike the debt limit written into law, it was harder to estimate precisely when those extraordinary measures would be exhausted. A change in interest rates, an unexpected turn in the economy, a meager showing from corporate taxes or a sudden spike in spending could mean the Treasury would hit a hard limit weeks earlier — or later — than estimated.

Outside of the Treasury Department, Akabas’s X Date analysis was perhaps the only estimate of what the Treasury’s real timeline was, and it was widely seen as the most reliable.

Talks moved into high gear, and before the month was through, Congress had agreed on a spending deal and passed legislation that would prevent a default.

“It’s thrilling to be able to see the work that you put in go towards a good purpose in terms of impacting public policy,” Akabas said in a recent interview with The Hill.

“The only disappointing thing in the whole debt limit element is that I most enjoy informed public policy that is proactively helping people achieve better economic and financial outcomes that improve their lives. This is more about preventing a catastrophic outcome,” he added.

Born and raised in New York, Akabas had always had a knack for math, but it was a family connection in the form of census expert Terri Ann Lowenthal, an aunt, that helped direct his interests toward the public sphere.

“We used to visit her down in D.C.,” Akabas said of Lowenthal, who at the time was the staff director for the House census oversight subcommittee.

“It was thrilling to sort of see how public policy works, and so I knew that that was an element of interest to me,” he added.

After graduating from Cornell and working on New York Mayor Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergPress: Another billionaire need not apply Ex-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick mulling 2020 run: report Biden allies shrug off Bloomberg bid as 'laughable' MORE’s reelection campaign, Akabas planned to stay in New York, but a job at the Bipartisan Policy Center caught his eye.

“I sort of knew what a think tank was, but not exactly, and it was gonna be doing economic research — that was sort of the extent that I understood about it. I knew it was related to fiscal policy and debt reduction,” he said.

The year was 2010, and the sudden rise of the Tea Party had thrown fiscal issues into the spotlight. Akabas was put onto a task force headed by former New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici (R) and Alice Rivlin. She was a towering figure in the world of budget policy who had been the first director of the Congressional Budget Office, headed the White House’s Office of Management and Budget and had served as vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve.

Shortly after Akabas started, then-President Obama had appointed Rivlin as one of 18 members of an official debt-reduction group known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission, giving Akabas’s work a direct line to government policy.

Akabas, who had no previous expertise with the federal budget, had to learn on his feet.

“It was effectively getting a master’s degree in economics,” said Akabas, who later got his actual master’s from Georgetown.

He recalled meeting Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetPress: Another billionaire need not apply Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows MORE, then a Democratic candidate for his current Colorado Senate seat, at a fundraiser. They talked about some of the issues facing the federal budget. After Bennet was elected, he embraced the types of fiscally sustainable policies the two had discussed. That, Akabas said, was the moment he realized the impact of his work.

“I don’t work for a member of Congress. I’m not an elected official. I don’t work in the administration, but I love being able to have those conversations and educate and inform people about the decisions that they’re making and oftentimes getting to see the work that we’re producing embodied in whatever gets put forward,” he said.

Akabas’s next project at the Bipartisan Policy Center focused on the debt ceiling and paired him with Jerome Powell, now the chairman of the Federal Reserve. Akabas said Powell, who had served as a Treasury undersecretary in the second Bush administration, saw the issue of debt ceiling becoming more politicized and worried that lawmakers were not well-informed on the issue.

“Jay, much to his credit, realized that this was going to be a problem,” Akabas said.

It was through that connection that Akabas began working on the so-called X Date, a term he credits Powell with coining.

“We were in the position of effectively explaining to people: Here’s what the debt limit is, here’s why it matters, here’s our independent estimate, which was generated from either Congressional Budget Office data, Treasury data combination, and other sources of when that X Date would arrive. And we were learning on the job,” he said.

Republicans were skeptical of the Obama administration’s estimates, he said, thinking they were being fed politicized information to add pressure in negotiations. That left an opening for independent analysis.

Soon enough, leaders such as then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFrom learning on his feet to policy director Is Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush MORE (R-Ohio) were briefing their caucuses with Bipartisan Policy Center data as the debt ceiling increasingly saw mainstream media attention.

Since then, Akabas has risen to lead the economic department at the center, continued to refine the X Date analysis and turned much of his attention toward issues such as retirement security.

While he has no plans to leave the think tank that launched his career nearly a decade ago, Akabas says he would be open to switching gears and serving on the government side of the ledger, should the opportunity arise.

Akabas credits mentors such as Rivlin and Powell with much of his achievement.

“If you sort of attach yourself to people who you see as visionaries, leaders in a particular realm, it’s sort of endless, the amount that you can glean from following them around on a day-to-day basis,” he said.