A top Democratic foreign policy staffer reflects on 14 years on Capitol Hill

Daniel Silverberg, who recently stepped down as Steny Hoyer’s national security advisor, talks to Jewish Insider about the Iran deal and why the U.S.-Israel relationship will remain bipartisan

As a Shabbat-observant Jew and one of Capitol Hill’s most senior national security officials, Daniel Silverberg long ago figured out that the best way to travel internationally was to fly out Saturday night, spend every minute of the trip either in meetings or sleeping on planes, and get home by sundown the following Friday. 

But sometimes being away over Shabbat could not be avoided. Silverberg, who recently stepped down as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-MD) national security advisor after 14 years on the Hill, recalled the time he went to a small kiddush in Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (I-CT) hotel room during the Munich Security Conference. As any Sabbath-observant traveler knows, you always find the other similar travelers,” Silverberg observed. “We didn’t have a minyan, but there certainly was a healthy crowd of shomer Shabbat participants to give us that gratifying sense of professional fulfillment of being in the epicenter of European foreign policy that weekend. And also that feeling of shabbas kodesh,” the holiness of Shabbat.

Silverberg took a break from his first day of private sector work in nearly 20 years to speak with Jewish Insider about U.S. policy on Israel and Iran, his tenure working for four prominent pro-Israel Democrats, and why — despite all the partisanship and animosity — he still thinks working on Capitol Hill is the best political job a young person can have. 

“What I’m going to miss most is the entrepreneurship, the idealism and the ability to be focused on the entire world. I had a global focus; everything that happened around the world fell into my portfolio,” said Silverberg, 47. “I could tell you what I won’t miss, and that is the increasing dysfunction and the likes of [Republican Rep.] Marjorie Taylor Greene, who just continue to poison the democratic process and poison how members do their business.”

In his new role at Capstone LLC, a company that describes itself as a “global policy and regulatory due diligence firm,” Silverberg will “explain Washington and legislative oversight, rule changes [and] developments” to corporations, he told JI. “Over the last number of years, particularly in the sanctions space, foreign policy has become far more of a regulatory space where rules the State Department or Commerce or Treasury Departments are making directly impact business decisions of U.S. companies.”

For the last 14 years, Silverberg was a Democratic staffer on the Hill, working most recently as Hoyer’s national security advisor. “I was primarily his eyes and ears on what was happening in the Democratic caucus and in Washington generally, and then around the world on any major national security or foreign policy issue that would be of interest to him and be of interest to Democrats in Congress,” Silverberg explained, noting that he was not speaking as a representative of Hoyer’s office.

Silverberg often traveled internationally with Hoyer, and told JI that he frequently required a translator to explain the tefillin he carried with him to security personnel. “It would be no problem, but just the look [they had] of utter confusion, that clearly, they were somewhat puzzled by my tefillin,” he recalled. He knew that on some trips, he would be surveilled, and he tried to find the humor in it: “I would often use the placement of my tefillin bag as kind of a marker of what was happening in my hotel room when I wasn’t there. I would always leave my tefillin in the exact same place, and so when I would see my bag moved in a way that just didn’t look like the hotel cleaner had come but someone had been rifling through my bags, that was always the signal to me,” he said. 

Daniel Silverberg and U2’s Edge (Courtesy)

Before joining Hoyer’s office in 2014, Silverberg worked for the House Foreign Affairs Committee under three of the most prominent Jewish Democrats to ever serve in Washington: Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), the Budapest-born Holocaust survivor who represented the Bay Area for 27 years until his death from esophageal cancer in 2008; Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), who represented parts of Los Angeles for 30 years before losing to fellow Democrat Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) in 2012 after redistricting; and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), whose 16-term tenure ended in a primary defeat last year.

“I feel grateful that I have all of those members’ brands as a part of me, and that through them I got to work on the most, I think, important, sensitive, challenging issues of interest to the Jewish community, and do so in a way that was totally compelling,” Silverberg stated. “Where Howard Berman stood, and where Steny Hoyer and these other members stood on Iran and Israel issues generally — man, it doesn’t get better.” 

Politics didn’t play an important role in Silverberg’s upbringing in suburban Los Angeles. But as a Jewish kid growing up in the 1980s, he learned about the Soviet Jewry movement, advocating for Jews in what was then the USSR to be able to emigrate and practice their religion. That activism sparked his interest in both politics and foreign affairs. “I’m right now staring at a picture of my father and I at the 1987 Soviet Jewry rally in Washington, D.C.,” Silverberg told JI. “That was one of the first catalysts for me. We took an overnight trip to join the L.A. delegation to D.C., and I just got totally jazzed up at a really young age.”

He interned at the State Department after his junior year at Harvard. Before beginning law school, he worked for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for a year in Warsaw as a grassroots organizer in Poland’s Jewish community, not long after the fall of the Soviet Union. “I didn’t have a specific sense of what I wanted to do, but I just knew that I wanted to be doing something international and global,” Silverberg noted.

After graduating from Stanford Law School, Silverberg spent a couple years in private practice before joining the Department of Defense as an attorney in 2005. He moved over to the Hill in early 2007 after Democrats regained control of the House following the 2006 elections. However, the majority of his time in Congress was spent in the minority, with Republicans controlling the House from 2011 to 2019. “My standard of success was not seeing how quickly things moved, or if we even got bills done. It was, were we able to influence the overall policy conversation? Congress still serves that function,” he said. But now, in a more partisan era, “it is no question more challenging to do so in a bipartisan fashion.”

Still, Silverberg pointed out, “there are some key issues that could serve as balms, in some way, for the bipartisan relationship. One of those is democracy and human rights… And another one is Israel,” he argued. “I’d like to think that with Trump gone, Republicans will take a step back from so blatantly exploiting Israel for their immediate political benefit.”

“Support for Israel remains strong. It remains bipartisan. We will weather whatever immediate storms,” Silverberg said. But, he added, “Bibi’s visit in 2015 was cataclysmic, in my view, for the U.S.-Israel relationship,” referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to address a joint session of Congress in 2015 after receiving an invitation from Republican House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), which was widely viewed by Democrats as a snub to then-President Barack Obama, who was not made aware of the invitation beforehand. 

“It was an event from which we still have not recovered. It made Democrats overall more wary of the Israeli government’s intentions, particularly with respect to Iran. It emboldened Republicans in a way that I still think is reverberating on the Hill. And it harmed the Israeli government’s relationships with key constituencies within the Democratic Caucus, particularly the Congressional Black Caucus, which took his actions as a direct affront to the first African-American president,” Silverberg explained. 

At the same time, Democrats — particularly those in leadership positions like Hoyer — have had to contend with rising numbers of progressive members who are challenging pro-Israel orthodoxies in Washington. Some have, at times, ventured into antisemitic tropes, most notably when Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) tweeted, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” in reference to U.S. support for Israel. Silverberg maintained that despite a few dissenters, Democratic support for Israel remains strong. 

“Attention gets focused on members who are the loudest and will sometimes say the most unhelpful things. Unfortunately, they wind up tarring the overall Democratic brand. ‘The Squad’ is not representative,” Silverberg said, referring to a group of progressive lawmakers composed of Omar and Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA).

His former boss echoed this sentiment in a speech at AIPAC’s March 2019 conference: “By the way, there are 62 freshman Democrats. You hear me? Sixty-two. Not three,” Hoyer told conference attendees, in what was widely assumed to be a reference to members of the Squad. (He later attempted to walk the ad-libbed comment back, and also noted that the 2019 freshman class actually had 63 Democrats.)

Congressional staffers Aaron Cutler and Daniel Silverberg speak to students at the University of Michigan’s Ford School in 2017. (Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy University of Michigan)

“Progressives have some positive momentum,” Silverberg conceded. “But it is so critical for the pro-Israel community to understand that the loudest voices in the caucus are not representative of where the caucus actually is. If you look at who got us to the majority and allowed us to keep it in this past year, it wasn’t progressive members. It was our block of what we call ‘frontline members,’ the members from particularly Republican districts, and our moderates. That’s the heart of the caucus.” 

“I think that a majority of the Democratic caucus remains strong on Israel, and votes [with] what the pro-Israel community would say is the right way to vote, and believes it,” he said. For years, Silverberg has seen scores of members react to seeing and learning about Israel for the first time on trips organized for freshman representatives by the American Israel Education Foundation, an AIPAC-affiliated group. “I’ve been part of the last three AIEF trips to Israel and I see members’ reactions,” Silverberg explained. “When they’re in the Old City, and when they are touring in the Galilee, they are moved, they get it.” 

Although House Democrats don’t always agree on how to tackle major policy challenges, on most party priorities — the recent stimulus bill, economic inequality, women’s rights, fighting racism — they do agree, at least in principle, on what matters to the party. “Common wisdom is Democrats agree on 95% of things,” Silverberg said, but “that 5% is extraordinarily contentious, and Israel-related issues, in my view, tend to dominate, or suck a lot of oxygen on that 5%, and the JCPOA just so exacerbated, or highlighted, that dynamic,” Silverberg said, referring to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.   

Many groups viewed as the pro-Israel establishment, including AIPAC, opposed the deal. Twenty-five Democratic members of Congress voted against the deal when it came up for a vote, but the party’s leadership — including then-Minority Whip Hoyer — uniformly supported it. “He went on to reaching the decision he did just because he felt like if it’s a sea of bad decisions, bad options, this is the least bad option,” Silverberg said of his then-boss’s decision-making process. “And not joining it, not approving it once the administration had already negotiated it, would be far worse than supporting it, but no question, he was skeptical.”

In recent weeks, numerous letters have circulated on Capitol Hill — some from Republicans, some from progressive Democrats, some with bipartisan support — directed at the Biden administration as it weighs whether to reenter the JCPOA. And in Silverberg’s view, this administration is doing a better job of informing Congress about progress on the nuclear deal. “I think this administration is really doing positively so far, and taking lessons from the last round in 2015 [in] being quite open and fairly aggressive about keeping Congress and critics in the loop on what they are doing, which so far has been easy to do, because there’s not all that much to report,” Silverberg said. But, he added, “I think that dynamic might change once the U.S. is actually sitting in the room with Iran, and for obvious reasons, would want to take a more discreet approach.”

Silverberg says the Biden administration’s actions so far indicate that it is taking rapprochement with Iran seriously, and doesn’t view reentering the deal as an item to quickly cross off its checklist: “I’d like to think that the Biden administration has disabused JCPOA opponents of the idea that they are going to rush headfirst into reentering the deal. It’s clear that is not happening,” Silverberg said. 

On all issues, including Iran, Israel and foreign policy, Silverberg has seen partisanship deepen since he first got to the Hill. The partisan divide has only grown worse since the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt at the Capitol: “Democrats still look at the Republican caucus with a major divide in mind: those who voted the right way on January 6” — referring to those who voted to certify the Electoral College results — “and those who cravenly caved to the Trump disinformation campaign… that permeates every single issue,” he said. 

But despite it all, Silverberg maintains there is no better place for a young person looking to get started in politics. 

“Perhaps naively, I am still just as encouraging, if not more so, for young people to come to the Hill as I was when I started 14 years ago. The Hill ultimately — as dysfunctional and sclerotic as it can be — is a massive platform of influence,” Silverberg noted. “There is no other institution in which a young person can be one degree removed from a constitutional officer and have a direct impact on the most critical national security issues of the day, be it Russia sanctions, Iran policy, human rights in China, countering Chinese disinformation [or] protecting Israel.”

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