Mike Quigley AM’85 confronts “the crisis of our lifetime”

“If you want to make God laugh,” Mike Quigley says, “tell him your plans.”  

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Mike Quigley never dreamed that his career would lead him to the United States Congress, and into seats on two of the most powerful and influential committees – and he certainly never expected to be investigating a President’s campaign for collusion with a hostile foreign power. 

In high school, he developed an early passion for protecting the environment. He joined the Sierra Club at age 16. And after reading The Population Bomb, a best-selling book by Paul R. Ehrlich about future threats to the environment, he pursued an internship and then full-time employment at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Before coming to the University of Chicago, Quigley worked for a year at the Environmental Protection Agency.

After a year at the EPA, Mike began to focus on Chicago politics and community service. He sought to build a strong intellectual foundation, earning an MA in public policy at the University of Chicago and a JD from Loyola Chicago University. He attended UChicago when Harris Public Policy was a committee and not yet a professional school, and he considers his degree a tremendous asset. “Policy only matters if it works at the street and battlefield level,” he said. “But credibility really matters when you’re arguing incredibly important public policy matters in a public forum, and this credential has enhanced my resume and reputation dramatically.”

In 1992, Quigley faced an uncertain future after losing his race to become a Chicago alderman. “It took dumb determination to keep getting up and working,” he said. “You also need to prepare and have a plan—and be willing to jump.” He served on the Cook County Board of Commissioners, representing Chicago’s north side neighborhoods of Lakeview, Uptown, and Rogers Park and emerging as a strong voice for tax reform and fiscal responsibility. And 18 years to the day after losing that first election, he won the April 7, 2009 special election to replace Rahm Emanuel as the next congressman from the 5th District of Illinois following Emanuel’s resignation to become White House Chief of Staff.

Quigley was elected to the House in 2009 after Rahm Emanuel resigned to become President Obama's chief of staff.

As a member of Congress, Quigley is well aware of its reputation for polarization and inertia. “There’s evidence that our political system is fractured,” he said. “We can’t fund the government.”

Because of Congress’s reliance on continuing resolutions to fund the government rather than full budgets, Quigley said, “Our generals say Congress is the biggest threat they face.”

He believes much of this polarization is driven by an aversion to compromise from his colleagues across the aisle. “They want us to get things done, but they don’t want to compromise. I try to be responsive and get things done regardless through force of personality, effort, and knowledge of how the world works.”

He likens today’s climate to the one President Lincoln faced at the end of the Civil War. “At that time we needed to get past how angry we were, and the greatest spokesman in our country’s history delivered that message eloquently in appealing to the ‘better angels of our nature.’ No one is doing that right now. We have to resist that, and let our faith teach us that we ultimately need to care about and understand each other.”

The House Intelligence Committee looked into Russia's plan to influence the 2016 presidential election and elect Donald Trump.

In 2015, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi appointed Quigley to serve on the influential House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees the activities of the Intelligence Community. Starting in 2017, Quigley spent much of his time supporting the House investigation of President Trump and Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election. Only a handful of Congressmen are as engaged as Quigley with what he calls “the crisis of our lifetime.” 

A year into the investigation, he insisted it was “just scratching the surface,” and that it could go much deeper if Republicans lose control of the committee after the 2018 midterm election.

“The President knows that Russian intelligence breached the boards of elections in as many as 39 states – including Illinois – but he won’t pursue it because he doesn’t want the government interfering in elections. Hackers sent voters personal messages asking them to vote early, then notified them that they had already voted. They were also sniffing around the actual voting machines—equipment that’s at least a decade old and was last replaced during hanging chad times,” he said, referring to the low-tech voting system that led to much confusion during the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida. 

“Our country is under attack, but our President is unwilling to defend it,” he said.

The investigation revealed some troubling details even before its final report was released on April 27, Quigley said. “I don’t know what collusion means – and there’s no legal definition – but I believe there was a conspiracy. And we certainly see evidence of cooperation. We’ve seen nine Trump people communicating with Russians and a Republican operative commit suicide when he was investigated for coordinating with General Michael Flynn to obtain illegal emails.”

“This was not what I wanted to be doing,” Quigley said. “I would rather focus on climate change, gun violence prevention, increasing equal access to opportunity, job creation, and much more. But this is the most important thing I’ve ever done.” 

Between working on committees, analyzing legislation, and providing constituent services, Quigley finds no time for rest.

“At its essence, this is about how we can prevent another successful attack to our democratic process by a foreign adversary—an attack that has enhanced divisions within our country,” he added.

Despite the release of the House Intelligence Committee’s final report, many questions remain regarding Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election – and an investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller continues to explore the issue. 

Still, Quigley sees plenty of potential to have an impact as the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, whose memberslargely determine how, when, and where the federal government spends money. The committee’s influence on federal spending is considered so great that the chairs of its 12 subcommittees have earned the moniker of “cardinals”. He recently helped secure funding in the FY 2018 omnibus spending bill for several of the legislative priorities and issues he has championed since arriving in Congress. These include $380 million in new grants to help states fortify and protect election systems from cyber-hacking and $630 million to help prevent and protect cities like Chicago against acts of terrorism. 

Though there are certainly days when Quigley wants to take the day off, he presses forward with 80-hour work weeks and shuffles between Chicago and Washington, D.C. because there’s so much work to do. 

“How can I not feel fulfilled working on the most important issues of our lifetime?”