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Holding the Government Accountable

Congress Needs More Transparency to Reduce Industry Influence

A Project On Government Oversight (POGO) investigation showed outside entities are permitted to fund fellows who serve in the offices of Members of Congress. Although technically those fellows aren’t supposed to work on issues related to the industry funding them, there is so little—or no—oversight and POGO found that they sometimes assist with legislation and policy work that directly impacts the industries paying them.

POGO’s investigation revealed only a small corner of the larger picture. The Senate requires Senate offices to report each Congressional Fellow’s rate and source of compensation. After analyzing over 2,000 publicly available forms relating to the Senate’s Congressional Fellows, POGO concluded that Senators did not consistently comply with the rules, and several fellowships presented the appearance of a conflict of interest. As for the House, it doesn’t require fellowship information or funding sources to be reported at all.

POGO’s Lydia Dennett explains the investigation in an opinion editorial in The Hill:

“Many people are aware of the corrupting influence of lobbying, campaign contributions, and gifts, and all of these methods of influence are monitored to some degree. But the role of Congressional Fellows affecting the legislative process has largely escaped public notice.

“This kind of arrangement between Congress and outside groups—which can lead to blatant conflicts of interest—is not uncommon. In any given year, there are likely hundreds of Congressional Fellows sponsored by outside organizations who are given the opportunity to work on the staff of a member or Committee of the U.S. House or Senate. One Congressional Fellow this year received her $124,000 annual salary from the Sandia National Laboratory while working on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the committee with oversight and jurisdiction over the Sandia lab.”

Dennett draws a clear distinction between the fellowship programs that create industry access and those that do not cross into such murky territory:

“These programs can be a great way for people outside the Beltway to learn about Congress through direct exposure. It can also be valuable for Congress to have outside experts periodically embedded on staff. But Congressional Fellows have the kind of access to lawmakers that most lobbyists can only dream about. Without clear, comprehensive, and enforceable rules to prevent conflicts of interest, these programs are deepening the already too-cozy relationship between Congress and special interests.”

Access POGO’s full report on the conflicts of interest with Congressional Fellows, and listen to POGO’s podcast discussion about the lack of oversight of the funding for these fellowship programs.