In a time when many people change jobs after just a few years, we at PAI feel extraordinarily lucky to have Director of U.S. Government Relations Craig Lasher, who is celebrating more than 30 years with the organization. Believe it or not, Craig started at PAI as an intern in the 1980s, and has been a fixture in the international family planning movement ever since.
In celebration of his 30th anniversary, PAI President and CEO Suzanne Ehlers sat down with Craig to give us all a peek into his many experiences over the years.
Suzanne: You’ve worked at PAI for more than half of your life. What’s driven you to stay in the international family planning movement, and why PAI?
Craig: It’s probably three-fifths. I measure my tenure as 32 years, with my internship. So, 32 out of 54. International family planning, reproductive health, population… is arguably one of the most challenging issues to work on if you’re interested in public policy in Washington. It’s a fascinating issue. I like to say it combines the three topics not suitable for polite dinner conversation – sex, politics and religion. And if you want to work on this issue, there’s no better place than here at PAI. The organization has been around for almost 50 years. I guess I’ve been here for three-fifths of PAI’s existence, too.
Suzanne: How has the issue and movement changed over your time in the field? What has stayed the same?
Craig: The people that I worked with here at PAI – PCC at the time—were the most influential in shaping U.S. government policy. Sharon Camp was my first boss. In the 1980s, up on Capitol Hill, decisions on international family planning funding and policy were being made by a much smaller set of players. The chairmen and the ranking members of the Foreign Operations Subcommittees in the House and Senate have always been key. The power was much more concentrated in fewer hands. There are more people now that you have to try to influence than there were.
There are a lot more actors and organizations involved in the issue. That’s not only in our field. In the last 20 years, there’s been a blossoming of civil society around the world. The nature of Washington has changed too – growth in the number of organizations and registered lobbyists working on any issue you can think of.
Over the years, our issue has been, in a number of fiscal years, one of the last issues to be resolved in final appropriations legislation. Even now, when there’s a negotiation, appropriators will try to reach agreement on most of the other differences between the two bills before they turn to us and consider our issues.
Suzanne: Was there anything in particular that brought these changes? When did you notice them?
Craig: What really propelled the growth in the number of organizations involved [in international family planning] was a congressional vote in February of 1997. As a result of the 1994 elections, just after the Cairo population conference, the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. So even though we had President Clinton in the White House, we had a really challenging political environment.
Once the Republicans came into office, a series of attacks on the program were launched. These were efforts to reinstate the Global Gag Rule legislatively and cut off the UNFPA contribution, blocking bilateral funding. It all culminated in 1996 when President Clinton steadfastly resisted Republican efforts to impose the Gag Rule in a continuing resolution. During the endgame negotiations, an elaborate parliamentary procedure was set up where the release of family planning funding was blocked until both houses of Congress had a vote to agree with a presidential determination that found—not surprisingly—that continued delay in the release of the funds was harming the programs. Because this whole complicated procedure was set up, with a date certain that there would be congressional votes in both houses, a massive lobbying campaign had to be organized. And that brought in a lot more groups, and increased the diversity of those working on the issue. It was a watershed event.
Suzanne: Regarding Congress, how would you characterize the battles going on now compared to the battles of the past? Have we made progress?
Craig: We’ve been fighting the same battles since 1984. The outcome all depends on the alignment of the political forces – which party controls the White House, who controls the House, who controls the Senate. The one constant over the years, regardless of which party controlled the Senate, is that we’ve always had majority support on the substance of the issue.
The last several years we’ve had to redefine victory. Maintaining the status quo—level funding, no policy riders—is considered success these day, unfortunately. We certainly have had a diminution in the level of bipartisan support that we used to enjoy. Really, in the House, we have about three Republicans that we can be fairly confident will vote with us on policy issues. As late as 1999, Republican votes exceeded 45 on gag rule and UNFPA amendments. The partisan divide has really grown.
Suzanne: You’ve worked on Capitol Hill for decades. In that time, are there any lawmakers that really stood out for you?
Craig: I could list a number. There is always a danger when you start to single out individuals for recognition. But I always had a lot of respect for Mark Hatfield, a Republican from Oregon. He was part of a—it’s not even a dying breed, a dead breed perhaps–of anti-abortion Republicans who recognized that if you’re concerned about abortion, you need to support access to contraception. He acted upon that moral conviction. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the 1990s, he was a key champion. We have great champions on Appropriations now too in Nita Lowey and Patrick Leahy.
Suzanne: What does it feel like being one of only 3 men at PAI? Have you always been this outnumbered?
Craig: Certainly when I started, the ratio was probably more equal. Of the PAI presidents since I’ve been here, three out of five have been men, and those were the first three. So it’s definitely changed. In the movement, the top leadership is more evenly divided these days than it was. I don’t really think about it, to be honest with you. Most of the meetings that I’m in, coalition meetings, it’s probably at least 75 percent women. I don’t even see it.
Suzanne: What is your one of your most interesting PAI experiences?
Craig: Way back in 1982, when I was still an intern, a number of our board members— former generals, ambassadors, Senators, Congressmen, and World Bank Presidents sent a letter to President Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz, who many of them knew personally, in support of continued U.S. leadership on population and family planning programs. I was going around and collecting the signatures in person, and we needed to get Gen. William Westmoreland’s. He was in town one day from South Carolina to meet with his lawyers in his libel suit against 60 Minutes. I was supposed to catch him at the law firm, but missed him for whatever reason. So I went to National Airport, and actually talked my way onto the plane—this was pre-9/11 obviously—and got him to sign this letter. He said “great job in catching up with me” or something along those lines. I don’t remember how we figured out where he was. That was memorable.
Suzanne: Is it true that you have the PAI archives at home in your basement?
Craig: Yes. Well, some of them. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I die.
When we moved from our old office in January 2000, we didn’t want to move everything, and we were getting rid of a lot of file cabinets. So I took two five-drawer ones. It’s primarily the old legislative files that we really didn’t have room for over here. I wasn’t about to throw them out. I have all of the foreign aid bills and reports dating back to the late 70s. That’s a lot of it. Before the days of computers, USAID used to print a multi-volume budget justification outlining their whole program to Congress. I have those for a number of years. It is a lot of the pre-computer-age hard copies of stuff that no one else probably has. Maybe the Library of Congress.
I moved all of the files by myself. I rented a U-HAUL pickup truck. It was in the middle of winter. I had a hand truck, and I dropped the file cabinet going down the basement stairs. There are still gouges in my basement wall.