Every Congressional office and committee has a team of staffers working behind the scenes to serve the public on a range of issues. All Congressional staffers are subject to ethics rules, but a little-known fellowship program allows industry and other organizations access into Congress with frighteningly little oversight. The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) found that in the last two years, Congress has largely failed to enforce ethics rules for fellows hired under this program, potentially allowing fellows to work on issues that may benefit the industries and organizations who pay their salaries.
The Congressional fellowship program allows outside groups to sponsor fellows—often mid-career professionals—to work as Congressional staffers. A variety of universities, scientific organizations, think tanks, and industry groups place fellows in Congressional offices and committees every year. Currently, POGO has two Congressional fellows, who are both working on Committees in the House. One is serving a Republican member and the other is serving a Democrat.
“Even though there are disclosure rules in the Senate, conflicts of interest can still happen.”
In 2016, a POGO investigation found poor compliance with the rules governing fellows, including several examples of what appeared to be conflicts of interest that would violate ethics rules. In that investigation, we analyzed 2,014 publicly available Senate fellow reports dating back to 1988 and found numerous examples of fellows who didn’t submit required ethics forms or filled out forms inaccurately.
In our follow-up to that investigation, we reviewed 630 additional ethics and disclosure forms—most of which were submitted from 2016 to 2018—from Congressional fellows in the Senate. This updated review shows that potential conflicts of interest are still a concern.
Rules Barring Conflicts of Interest
When Congress follows ethics rules, this program can benefit both the fellow and Congressional offices and committees. The program is intended to be primarily for the educational benefit of the fellow. But fellows can also provide unique expertise for understaffed Congressional offices.
Both the Senate and the House have rules restricting fellows from doing work related to the interest of the organization sponsoring the fellowship.
Senate rules prohibit fellows from working on issues that could create even the appearance of a conflict of interest. These rules state that fellows may not work on “issues related to the interest of the individual company or industry providing such funding.” The Senate also requires fellows to file a form agreeing to comply with the Senate Code of Official Conduct and supervisors to file a report disclosing the amount and source of the fellow’s outside compensation.
According to the House Ethics Manual, fellows are required to comply with the House’s Code of Official Conduct. This means they can’t work on issues with a “direct or indirect benefit to the sponsoring organization or anyone else with which the individual is affiliated.” However, there are no rules requiring reporting and no formal agreements are collected by the House Office of the Clerk. As a result, the House has no way of tracking who’s footing the bills for outside fellows or how often.
Even though there are disclosure rules in the Senate, conflicts of interest can still happen. Occasionally, the outside groups writing these fellows’ paychecks also lobby Congress, sometimes directly related to the issues and legislation their fellows are working on. This creates the potential for serious ethics violations if Congressional offices, the fellows, and their sponsoring organizations do not take proactive steps to prevent conflicts of interest.
While reviewing fellowship records, we found at least two instances that have the appearance of a conflict of interest. We chose these examples because in both instances, a Senator identified that a fellow worked on a specific bill. Typically, this isn’t public information. In each case, we do not claim that the sponsoring organizations maliciously and intentionally used their fellows to manipulate legislation. But in both cases, fellows worked on legislation that likely would have benefited their sponsor—an apparent conflict of interest.
American Nuclear Society
In 2016, Congress considered one of the biggest potential changes to US energy policy in nearly a decade: the Energy Policy Modernization Act (later renamed the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2016). The bill would have affected energy producers, laboratories, environmental groups, and government contractors; 516 different organizations reported lobbying on the bill in 2016. The bill passed both the House and Senate, but never moved beyond the conference stage to become law.
Among those that might have benefited from the bill were the members of the American Nuclear Society (ANS). ANS is a scientific organization that aims to educate the public about nuclear energy. The group has “developed a diverse membership composed of approximately 11,000 engineers, scientists, administrators, and educators representing 1,600 plus corporations, educational institutions, and government agencies,” according to its website. It also lobbies policymakers to support nuclear technology, non-proliferation, and nuclear power. ANS lobbied on the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, which was later added the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2016 as an amendment. This amendment added many of the bill’s nuclear-related sections.
ANS has policy positions on a number of nuclear issues that share similar language with the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act. ANS’s policy positions call for forming public-private partnerships to build prototypes of nuclear reactors. Had it become law, this bill would have permitted the Secretary of Energy to do the same. ANS also recommends using Department of Energy sites to research advanced nuclear reactors. The bill would have allowed the national laboratories or other Department of Energy sites to host tests of privately funded experimental reactors. These pro-industry changes likely would have benefited ANS’s members.
After the Senate widely approved a nuclear-energy–related amendment to the bill, ANS endorsed the Energy Policy Modernization Act, stating in a press release, “This act would assist U.S. companies in accessing the full range of technical capabilities within the federal government and national laboratories; accelerate development of world leading scientific user facilities; and promote broader technology commercialization through public-private partnership initiatives.”
When the bill passed the Senate in April 2016, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) thanked several staffers by name for "working day and night for weeks and months now” on the bill. That list included Benjamin Reinke, an ANS Congressional fellow, who started in Murkowski’s office on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in early 2016, according to his fellowship records. He currently works for the Committee as a staff member.
In the year he worked on this bill, Reinke reported receiving $60,000 from the American Nuclear Society, according to his fellowship records.
Early in his fellowship, Reinke wrote on an ANS blog, “During the year I hope to make a meaningful contribution on multiple nuclear policies. There are many issues that deserve attention, ranging from advanced reactors to used nuclear fuel. In my time with the committee, I have already been able to work on the advancement of the Energy Policy Modernization Act and a number of associated amendments.”
It’s not public exactly which sections of the bill Reinke worked on. But it’s clear he directly worked on a bill that likely would have benefited members of his sponsoring organization, at least giving the appearance of a major conflict of interest. This appears to violate Senate Ethics rules.
Reinke has not responded to a request for comment.
ANS told us that it has an “arms-length relationship” with its fellows while they’re in Congress and “complies with all relevant ethics laws and regulations.”
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Senator Murkowski also personally thanked another fellow, Brie Van Cleve from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, for her work on the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act. Murkowski said the committee staff working on the bill was “kind of a list of Emmy Award winners.” In the year she worked on the bill for Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Van Cleve reported receiving $90,868 from Pacific Northwest.
Pacific Northwest, operated by Battelle Memorial Institute, is one of 17 national laboratories managed by the Department of Energy. Its experts work on a range of energy issues, including nuclear energy, energy efficiency, U.S. electrical infrastructure, and clean fossil energy, according to its website.
Pacific Northwest told us that Van Cleve started working there in February 2010. According to Pacific Northwest, she began her Congressional fellowship (while remaining a Pacific Northwest staff member) in July 2015. In 2017, she resigned from Pacific Northwest and later went on to work as a staff member on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Had the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act passed, it would have created a program to research and develop America’s energy infrastructure, an issue Pacific Northwest works on directly by researching “advanced grid modeling,” “energy storage,” and defense against cyber-attacks, according to its website.
Senator Cantwell also mentioned the lab in a statement released after the bill passed the Senate. The bill would have strengthened the connection between Pacific Northwest and the surrounding community by setting up a website to help small and medium manufactures access Pacific Northwest programs. The bill also would have authorized $50 million to create a “microlab” program to help industry and higher education groups access the national labs.
Pacific Northwest told us that they have had few Congressional fellows in total. They also said Pacific Northwest has an ethics policy, but did not specify if it applies to fellows.
Brie Van Cleve did not respond to a request for comment.
Battelle Memorial Institute, a private contractor that manages and operates the lab for the Department of Energy, would have been affected by the bill’s passage. As the lab’s manager, Battelle defines Pacific Northwest’s “long-range vision,” and supplies all “necessary personnel, facilities, equipment, materials, supplies, and services” not provided by the government, according to its contract with the Department of Energy. In 2016, Battelle earned an estimated base compensation of $892.9 million, according to the contract. The Department of Energy also gave the Battelle an $11.75 million bonus for its operation of Pacific Northwest that year, the Tri-City Herald reported.
Battelle lobbied on the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act, focusing on “All titles and sections and amendments” in a lobbying campaign that started in 2015 and lasted more than a year, according to lobbying disclosures published by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Battelle manages six other national laboratories in addition to Pacific Northwest and would likely have been directly affected by this legislation, had it passed. It’s unclear if Van Cleve worked on any aspect of the legislation that would have influenced Battelle’s contracts. But working on a bill that likely would have affected Pacific Northwest, while receiving money from the lab, gives the appearance of a conflict of interest.
As these examples show, ethics questions can arise even when fellows file disclosure forms. These situations can only be brought to light because the Senate has rules requiring fellows to disclose the amount of outside compensation they’ve received and its source. Unfortunately, the Senate poorly enforces these rules. Without these disclosures, it’s nearly impossible to follow the money.
In our investigation, we analyzed how often Senate fellows submitted their required disclosure reports and agreements to comply with Senate rules, as well as how complete those disclosures were. We found that even when fellows file the required forms, they’re sometimes incomplete. From April 22, 2016 to July 31, 2018, the Senate Office of Public Records received 442 reports from Senate fellows. Approximately 14 percent of forms were missing the source of income, and approximately 14 percent of forms were missing the amount of income.
This is similar to what we found looking at forms filed between 1988 and 2016, where approximately 16 percent of report forms were missing data on the source of the fellow’s compensation, and approximately 17 percent were missing data on how much the fellow was being paid.
Sometimes, unclear disclosures can undermine the transparency intent of the rule, making it difficult to know where the money originates. For example, the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), an organization promoting Asian Pacific American political representation, sent four fellows to Congress between 2017 and 2018. According to its website, APAICS funds its Congressional fellowship program with sponsors including Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, American Airlines, Pepsi, and the American Petroleum Institute. Their fellows’ disclosure reports correctly list APAICS as their source of funding, but they don’t clarify that the money originated from another organization. We don’t know if these organizations had any financial stake in AIPACS’s work. We also don’t know what (if any) relationship these funding organizations had with fellows. There's no requirement to disclose exactly where third party fellowship programs get their funding from.
Furthermore, these disclosure forms are available in the Senate Office of Public Records, but they aren’t digitized, making it difficult for the public to view them. Unless an interested party travels to the office to look at these documents, it’s hard to use these forms for their intended purpose—public accountability and transparency. While this is a pain, it’s still better than the House, which has next to no transparency.
Key Information Missing
Our analysis of the filed forms only tells part of the story. Some organizations publish public lists of their fellows, which makes it possible to compare the names in these lists to the names of fellows that submitted their ethics forms. Doing so shows how low compliance rates are. We calculated the compliance rates for fellows from two organizations, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the American Political Science Association (APSA), because they publish lists of their fellows going back several years.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science works with industry and scientific organizations to place fellows in Congressional, executive, and judicial offices. It has over 30 partner organizations, including the American Nuclear Society. AAAS doesn’t select its partner organizations’ fellows or pay them, but it does help them get placed in Congressional offices and on relevant committees. On some reports, fellows put “AAAS” as their sponsor organization, rather than the actual financial-sponsoring organization, obscuring exactly which outside organization is footing the bill.
AAAS lists its fellows from 1973 to 2018 on an online alumni directory. Between 2008 and 2018, that fellowship directory contains 230 Senate placements. According to questions AAAS responded to, the directory doesn’t contain all of its fellows. When we compared that fellowship alumni directory with the available forms, we found only 42 percent of these fellows submitted at least one of the required ethics forms. Only 30 percent submitted both required forms.
In the most recently completed fellowship year (2017-2018), AAAS facilitated 26 Senate fellowships, but only 50 percent of fellows submitted both of their required ethics forms. This is a poor rate of compliance, but it’s a slight improvement from the past.
For the House, the AAAS fellowship alumni directory lists 106 fellows who worked between 2008 and 2018. Unlike the Senate, House rules do not require these fellows to publicly disclose who their sponsors are, or how much they’re being paid.
AAAS told us that it provides a general discussion of ethics during orientation and organizes a “half-day session for Congressional fellows, typically conducted by staff from the Senate Select Committee on Ethics and the House Committee on Ethics.” It also said that Hill office staff assist fellows with submitting required ethics forms.
Similarly, the American Political Science Association, which represents dues-paying political scientists, also sends fellows to Congress. We examined its publicly available list of fellowship alumni between 2010 and 2018. Of 89 Senate placements listed in this time period, 37 percent of the fellows submitted at least one of the required ethics forms. Only 26 percent submitted both required forms.
These compliance rates are unacceptable.
With appropriate transparency, the Congressional fellowship program can help facilitate greater understanding of the Congressional process for industry professionals while helping lawmakers fully understand the industries they’re legislating on.
And Congress needs to increase its capacity. According to the Brookings Institution, from 1979 to 2015, staff size in House offices decreased by 3,040 staffers, while the Senate lost 35 positions. Even while Congressional staff size has either decreased or stood still, most states’ populations have increased, leaving a fewer staff members serving more constituents. This makes the fellowship program even more appealing since offices benefit from talented staffers that they don’t have to pay.
But without robust enforcement of ethics rules, the program can end up being yet another way industry can exert undue influence on the political process, harming public confidence in Congress.
The House should adopt the Senate’s disclosure requirements
The House of Representatives needs to change its rules to ensure that fellows disclose the same information Senate fellows are required to disclose. Without this information, it’s difficult to identify when fellows and sponsoring organizations act unethically. The public shouldn’t be in the dark about the moneyed interests funding the people writing our legislation. The public deserves to know that fellows—in both chambers of Congress—aren’t writing legislation benefiting the people paying their salaries.
Congress needs to enforce its own rules
The House and the Senate need to ensure that their fellows actually follow these rules. In some cases, the problem may be that fellows, sponsoring organizations, and hosting offices don’t actually know the rules. Congressional staffers have a high rate of turn over and that knowledge doesn’t always carry over. The Senate Ethics Committee should organize trainings to increase awareness and compliance with fellowship rules. Before offices agree to accept fellows, they should make sure they understand all of the ethical obligations they must follow. If they do not understand these rules, they should not take on fellows.
Disclosure forms should be viewable online
Public accountability requires the public to actually be able to see the disclosures. Right now, the Senate disclosure forms are in the Senate Office of Public Records. That’s physically out of reach of many Americans. Congress should require fellows to electronically file disclosures in a format that the public can view.
Sponsoring organizations need to disclose more information on fellows
POGO has developed a series of best practices to help prevent conflicts of interest.
POGO requires our fellows to follow all relevant House or Senate rules. We also publicly post a Fellowship Stipend Disclosure Report for each fellow which mimics the Senate disclosure report and discloses the fellow’s stipend amount, the length of their fellowship, and their supervising office. This report also includes an agreement not to work on issues that have any direct or indirect benefit to POGO or provide POGO with an undue advantage. Furthermore, our new fellows are onboarded with training on the importance of avoiding conflicts of interest.
To help ensure POGO doesn’t receive special consideration, our contact policy limits discussion with fellows to “employment-related issues including compensation, human resources concerns, and administrative details related to their fellowship.”
POGO requires all finalists who apply to our fellowship program to disclose their affiliated organizations. We use this information to help fellows, their host committees, and POGO prevent actual or apparent conflicts of interest. Sometimes that means fellows must divest assets or recuse themselves from work.