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College of Arts and Sciences

USC English alumna climbs Capitol Hill to become one of the House’s top lawyers

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Ashley Callen is a fixture of Capitol Hill. Over the past 25 years, she has conducted Congressional investigations, questioned witnesses in an impeachment hearing, and advised numerous elected representatives on legal issues.  

She started her career in politics as a summer intern while still in high school. Now, she is the top staff level lawyer in the House of Representatives. In November of 2023, Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson, then a newly elected Speaker of the House of Representatives, named Callen his general counsel. Serving Speaker Johnson is—as Callen says—the professional honor of a lifetime. 

The pinnacle of Callen’s law career so far, the job is full of new challenges. “This is the hardest job I've ever had,” she says. 

But Callen also finds it rewarding because of the role she plays in American society. 

“The whole experience is an honor," she says. “Every day I get to go to my office in the Capitol, a symbol of our government, our republic and our constitution.” 

Originally from Beaufort, South Carolina, Callen worked as a page for South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond the summer before her senior year of high school. About a year later, she came to USC, where she majored in English and minored in French. She also got a job as a page at the SC State House. 

Studying the humanities and working in politics, she wasn’t sure what path lay ahead of her, but she saw value in communication skills. 

“Reading and writing are my strengths,” she says. “Writing is such an important skill. Although now we have ChatGPT, there's no calculator for writing well.”

I get to talk to a lot of people, build coalitions, argue and debate. In this kind of work you're really shaping the discourse in America.

― Ashley Callen

Callen returned to Thurmond’s staff after college and grew to love helping constituents find solutions as they worked with federal agencies. Taking evening classes, she earned a law degree from the Antonin Scalia School of Law at George Mason University. After Thurmond retired, Callen worked as a law clerk for the Air Force General Counsel until she took a job with a representative from Texas to get back on Capitol Hill, closer to the action of lawmaking. 

Callen later spent six years as counsel for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a committee tasked with investigating executive-branch agencies and government contractors to ensure they abide by law. 

“We all need to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, so Oversight provides that check on the executive branch,” Callen says. “The hope is that Congress can shine a light on waste, fraud or abuse and create a deterrent effect.” 

Callen later took her specialty in investigations to the oversight subcommittees within the House committees on agriculture; science, space and technology; and the judiciary — where she arrived just prior to the House beginning an impeachment inquiry regarding then-President Donald Trump. 

As the Republicans’ lead oversight lawyer on the Judiciary Committee, Callen advised Members of the committee in developing a strategy to oppose the impeachment. In a nationally televised hearing, she asked probing questions about the evidence and arguments in the case. 

She calls that the most challenging time of her career before her current job, in part because of the new political reality the event represented. She says the first Trump impeachment was the House’s first entirely partisan impeachment in history. The years since then have done little to mend the partisan split on the Hill. 

Despite the sharp partisan divisions, Callen says there is more collegiality than what usually shows on the news. She tries to have lunch with the legal teams of Democratic representatives occasionally, for example, and even people mired in partisan work try to connect individually. 

“On a lot of issues there is bipartisan work going on," she says. “While we argue on policy, I do think there are people who work together and have personal relationships. I might fight with you on whatever the issue of the day is, but I'm also going to ask you, ‘How are your kids? How's your family?’  

“I try to see the human side of it, too.” 

From conversations with colleagues across the aisle to giving senior Republicans legal advice, Callen enjoys serving in the Speaker’s office. “Speaker Johnson is a leader with profound faith and conviction, and lives out those ideals on a daily basis,” Callen says. As Johnson is an attorney by trade and the original author of the House’s “Commitment to Civility,” his office was a natural match for Callen. Serving Speaker Johnson, “makes the long hours, high stress and legal details worthwhile.” 

“I get to talk to a lot of people, build coalitions, argue and debate,” she says. “In this kind of work you're really shaping the discourse in America.” 

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