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Testimony

POGO Calls on Congress to Add Safeguards to Congressional Fellowship Programs

(Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO)

Chairman Kilmer, Vice Chairman Timmons, and members of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on how to reduce conflicts of interest in congressional fellowship programs and improve these programs’ transparency. I am Tim Stretton, policy analyst at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). POGO is a nonpartisan, independent watchdog that investigates and exposes waste, corruption, abuse of power, and when the government fails to serve the public or silences those who report wrongdoing. We champion reforms to achieve a more effective, ethical, and accountable federal government that safeguards constitutional principles.

Congressional fellowship programs allow outside groups to sponsor fellows to work as congressional staffers. Each year, a variety of universities, scientific organizations, think tanks, and industry groups place fellows in congressional offices and committees. Congressional fellowship programs are intended to be primarily for the educational benefit of the fellows, who are often mid-career professionals. Fellows can also provide unique expertise for understaffed congressional offices.

When Congress follows ethics rules, these programs can benefit both the fellow and congressional offices and committees. The most important rule restricts fellows from doing work related to the interest of the organization sponsoring the fellowship, effectively barring fellowships from being used as a back door for lobbying.1

The House currently does not maintain any records on congressional fellows or require any disclosure that would provide necessary transparency or reveal potential conflicts of interest.

POGO strongly supports this rule. However, when Congress does not institute systems to enforce its own ethics rules, and when there isn’t proper oversight and transparency, these programs may be misused at the expense of taxpayer interests.2

While fellowship programs provide invaluable experience in policymaking for the entities that sponsor the fellowships, the programs can also pose conflicts of interest if fellows work on issues of concern to their sponsoring employer or if fellows influence the legislative process to their employer’s benefit. Even the appearance of a potential conflict of interest can contribute to undermining public trust in government. Congressional staff members and fellows should work for the best interest of taxpayers instead of pushing the priorities of powerful special interests, and should avoid even the appearance of promoting special interests.

As you and your colleagues consider policies to reform and modernize Congress, POGO urges you to consider closing a gap in House rules that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to track the influence of outside groups that pay for fellows to work in congressional offices. The House currently does not maintain any records on congressional fellows or require any disclosure that would provide necessary transparency or reveal potential conflicts of interest.3

The U.S. public, as taxpayers, need to have the utmost confidence in the integrity of congressional operations.

Therefore, we urge the committee to support the following recommendations, most of which have received support from groups across the political spectrum:4

  • The House should adopt the Senate’s disclosure requirements for congressional fellows.
  • When the House enacts disclosure requirements, both chambers in Congress should enforce compliance with fellowship ethics rules.
  • Disclosure forms should be accessible online.
  • Congress should prohibit former fellows from lobbying the office in which they served for one year after the end of the fellowship.
  • Congress should require sponsoring organizations to disclose more information on fellows.

Background

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.5

Because the House does not maintain records on congressional fellows, the only available data was on Senate fellows

Because the House does not maintain records on congressional fellows, the only available data was on Senate fellows.6

We analyzed 2,014 publicly available forms on Senate fellows dating back to 1988 and found numerous examples of fellows who didn’t submit required ethics forms or filled out forms inaccurately. Moreover, we found several examples of congressional fellows working on issues directly linked to issues associated with their employers, representing potential conflicts and potential violations of Senate ethics rules. The rules also require disclosure of the fellow’s income source and amount of income. However, our review showed that approximately 16% of the report forms filed between 1988 and 2016 were missing data on the source of the fellow’s compensation, and approximately 17% were missing data on how much the fellow was being paid.7

In a 2018 follow-up investigation, we reviewed 630 additional ethics and disclosure forms from Senate fellows and hosting offices, most of which were submitted from 2016 to 2018, from congressional fellows in the Senate.8 This updated review showed that potential conflicts of interest are still a concern. We found that of the 442 report forms filed by Senate fellows with the Senate between April 22, 2016, and July 31, 2018, approximately 14% did not indicate the source of the fellow’s compensation, and approximately 14% were missing the amount of income.

The House Should Require Public Disclosure to Prevent Possible Conflicts of Interest

In the Senate, fellows and their supervisors are required to file reports detailing when they begin their fellowship, how much money they’re making, what entity is paying their salary, and how many hours they’re working. Specifically, Senate rules require new fellows to file their “Agreement to Comply with the Senate Code of Official Conduct,” known as form 41.4, “immediately after 90 days of full-time service”9 The fellow’s supervisor must file a “Supervisor’s Report on Individuals Who Perform Senate Services,” known as form 41.6, which is often signed by the senator.10

While these forms are available to the public, they are not electronically available.11 Anyone interested in seeing them must visit the Senate Office of Public Records. This already represented a burden and barrier to public accountability, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic’s limiting the public’s access to the Capitol complex.

While these forms offer insight into which industries and senators are using the fellowship program, they also demonstrate how much we don’t know. When POGO examined all of the publicly available forms on file at the Senate Office of Public Records as of April 2016, we found instances in which senators employed fellows but failed to file the appropriate forms. Again, on the House side, there was no disclosure at all and no records to review.

While these forms offer insight into which industries and senators are using the fellowship program, they also demonstrate how much we don’t know.

According to the House Ethics Manual, fellows are required to comply with the Code of Official Conduct, but there are no rules requiring reporting and the House Office of the Clerk does not collect any related forms.12 The manual also states: “While internship and fellowship programs are often sponsored by educational institutions, other public or private organizations may act as sponsors, provided the arrangement does not give undue advantage to special interests.”13 How the House ensures compliance with this requirement is a mystery.

Congress Must Enforce Fellowship Rules Once They Are Enacted

In addition to requiring fellows and offices to file public disclosure forms, offices need training to ensure that they comply with requirements to implement the program in an ethical manner. The Senate rule requiring disclosure was created to provide important transparency of how this fellowship program is used both by industry and by senators themselves. But a lack of compliance with the rule significantly undermines its intent. Despite the fact that the reporting forms must be filed every quarter, POGO found fellows or their sponsors frequently failed to do so. As a result, it is difficult to know just how many Senate offices are using the fellowship program without disclosing that they are using it.

The total lack of disclosure on the House side makes it impossible to know how many House offices or committees are using fellowships. If we don’t know how many fellows there are, or who they are, it is almost impossible to ensure the fellows aren’t violating rules meant to prevent any possible conflicts of interest or even the appearance of conflicts of interest.

In order to get a better sense of how many fellows have flown under the radar, POGO analyzed the publicly available fellowship alumni records posted by some sponsoring organizations. These records provided a glimpse into how many senators have had fellows but never had them file forms with the Senate Office of Public Records. In one congressional fellowship program that had 87 alumni dating back to 1974, a little under 50% of the listed fellows were in Senate offices, and of those, 76% did not file any documentation with the Senate Office of Public Records. In another program, out of the 17 senators listed, seven did not have any kind of records for any fellows filed with the Senate Office of Public Records.14

POGO also found several examples of senators with gaps in their record-keeping or no records before a certain date. For example, one senator’s office filed 82 fellow report forms from 1997 to 2000, but filed none between 2001 and 2011. Alumni lists show there were fellows in this office in 2009.

In some cases, the problem may be that fellows, sponsoring organizations, and hosting offices don’t actually know the rules. There is a high rate of turnover among congressional staffers and that knowledge may not have carried over.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that more training is necessary. We urge the congressional ethics committees, in their staff trainings, to include compliance with House rules for fellows.

Conflicts of Interests and Apparent Conflicts of Interest

The rules governing the Senate program are fairly simple: Both the senator and the fellow must avoid all conflicts of interest, including the appearance of a conflict.15 But POGO found several examples of fellows working on projects that were directly related to the industry paying their salaries.

In one example, a 2015-2016 congressional fellow from Sandia National Laboratories was working on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Sandia is one of the largest labs in the United States that contracts with the federal government and it works mainly to ensure the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons. Sandia Corporation, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, manages and operates the lab.16 The Energy and Natural Resources Committee has jurisdiction over any policy changes impacting labs such as Sandia.

In April 2016, the then-ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee thanked the fellow by name for their work on the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 while Sandia paid their salary.17 This bill, which was renamed the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2016, passed both the House and the Senate, and includes several references to work done by the national labs.18 Though the bill does not mention Sandia National Laboratories, it’s clear the legislation would affect the labs’ work. Indeed, both the House and Senate versions included language on modernizing and increasing the security of the U.S. power grid, an area in which Sandia describes itself as playing “a key role.”19 It’s impossible for the public to know if the fellow worked on parts of the legislation that would have affected the labs—it was a lengthy bill and the fellow may well have steered clear of anything to do with Sandia’s work. But there’s no doubt that the fellow’s position gave the appearance of a conflict of interest. This was just one of several similar examples we documented in our investigations.

One might ask, why have a fellow with a wealth of knowledge if they can’t work on developing policy for that field? The purpose of these programs is to further the fellows’ education, not to provide free labor for congressional offices. And conflicts of interest tend to result in policy that benefits powerful special interests at the expense of taxpayers’ interests. That is why the Senate Ethics Manual requires each fellowship to be “analyzed on a case-by-case” basis.20 If a fellow is working on legislation that will directly fund their industry or the company that’s paying their salary, there’s a clear conflict of interest.

The purpose of these programs is to further the fellows’ education, not to provide free labor for congressional offices.

None of this is to suggest that congressional offices shouldn’t have fellows or that the program should be abolished. The program is a valuable resource for both Members of Congress and industry professionals who want to understand the legislative process better. But more transparency and scrutiny of potential conflicts of interests is necessary.

To address the issue of reduced congressional staff capacity, which makes congressional fellowships attractive in the first place, we hope this committee will continue to call for more funding for the legislative branch to be able to hire staff with needed experience and not have to rely on outside entities to support their needs.

It’s important to note that the public only knows about these conflicts because in most cases the senators and their fellows followed the rules and filed their agreement and reporting forms as required. While the lack of standardized reporting, or in some cases the lack of reporting at all, is a widespread problem, the Senate can address this with more training. In the meantime, the House should adopt a similar rule and ensure its members’ offices have the training to comply.

True Source of Fellowship Compensation

Another issue POGO found was the lack of accurate disclosure of the true payee for the fellow’s compensation. In one example, a 1996 to 1999 fellow’s paperwork indicated their salary was paid by the University of California Regents, a governing board for the University of California system. However, in a September 2000 statement, the fellow’s senator indicated that the fellow actually came to the fellowship from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.21 That lab was managed by the University of California at the time and the address on the fellow’s forms is a post office box in Livermore, California.22

In another example, a fellow cited the American Association for the Advancement of Science as the source of compensation for their fellowship. The association facilitates fellowships from a number of sponsors across science-based industries. However, the fellow’s compensation actually came from IEEE-USA,23 an industry group that is an “organizational unit” of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and whose stated goal is to “recommend policies and implement programs specifically intended to serve and benefit the members.”24

While these simple misrepresentations may seem minor, they make analysis of the records more difficult and can undercut the transparency intent of the rule.

Recommendations

With appropriate transparency, the congressional fellowship program can help facilitate greater understanding of the legislative process for industry professionals while helping lawmakers fully understand the industries they’re legislating on.

First, the House should adopt the Senate’s disclosure requirements.The House 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 or 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 be able to trust that fellows in both chambers of Congress aren’t writing legislation benefiting the industries or organizations paying their salaries.

Second, disclosure forms should be viewable online.Public accountability requires the public to be able to access the disclosures. Congress should require fellows to electronically file disclosures in a format that the public can view.

Third, Congress needs to enforce its own rules. In some cases, the problem may be that fellows, sponsoring organizations, and hosting offices don’t actually know the rules, perhaps due in part to frequent congressional staff turnover. The congressional ethics committees should organize trainings to increase awareness and compliance with fellowship rules. Before offices agree to accept fellows, they should make sure they understand their ethical obligations. If they do not understand the rules, they should not take on fellows.

Fourth, the House should institute a one-year cooling-off period for former fellows from lobbying the office they served. This lobbying ban would help to ensure fellows don’t use their newly created contacts to push policies that directly benefit their employers. This would help safeguard the integrity of the congressional fellowship program.

Finally, Congress should require sponsoring organizations to disclose more information on fellows. Between 2018 and 2019,POGO ran a congressional fellowship program.25 Our program required all fellows to follow all relevant House or Senate rules. We also publicly posted 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.26 The reports also included an agreement that the fellow would not work on issues that had any direct or indirect benefit to POGO or would provide POGO with an undue advantage. Furthermore, during onboarding, POGO trained fellows on the importance of avoiding conflicts of interest.27

To help ensure POGO didn’t receive special consideration, we limited discussion with fellows to employment-related issues including compensation, human resources concerns, and administrative details related to the fellowship. In addition, POGO required all finalists who applied to our fellowship program to disclose to POGO their affiliated organizations.28 We used this information to help fellows, their host committees, and POGO prevent actual or apparent conflicts of interest. Sometimes that meant fellows had to divest assets or recuse themselves from work. We consider this to be the gold standard and recommend that all sponsoring organizations operate in this manner. We did not find that these standards caused an undue burden on our organization or the fellows.

Conclusion

Chairman Kilmer, Vice Chairman Timmons, and members of the Select Committee, thank you again for the opportunity to offer suggestions on how the committee can improve the congressional fellowship program to reduce conflicts of interest. Congressional fellows, when used properly, provide valuable insight and perspectives to congressional offices. However, it is harmful to Congress when fellows’ positions are funded with the intent of pushing a particular policy perspective while they serve in Congress or to build relationships that can be exploited for advocacy purposes in the future. With proper rules, disclosure, and compliance, conflicts of interest and the apparent conflicts of interest can be mitigated. My colleagues and I at POGO welcome the chance to work with this committee in doing so.