As a Fellow in Senator Harry Reid's (D-NV) office specializing in energy policy in 2001, Peter Winkour spent his days working on the Energy Policy Act of 2002, a 977-page bill that included tax legislation on renewable energy and would have created tens of thousands of jobs. Like many Hill staffers, he wrote legislation, offered advice, met with lobbyists and public interest groups, and attended meetings on press and policy strategy.
But unlike other staff members, Winkour wasn't being paid by the Senator's office -- he was earning $120,000-per-year from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE-USA), an industry group whose stated goal is to "recommend policies and implement programs specifically intended to serve and benefit the members."
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 US 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.
To understand the full extent of this relationship between Congress and special interests, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) examined all 2,014 publicly available forms on file at the Senate Office of Public Records relating to Congressional Fellows.
What did we find?
In the House, we found nothing because, astoundingly, there are no rules requiring Members or Fellows to file any paperwork -- so there is no government record of how many Fellows are working in any of the 435 offices, what groups they're from, how long they've been there, or how much they're paid.
In the Senate, there are rules designed to ensure that Fellowship positions do not even give the appearance of a conflict of interest. Senate rules also require fellows and their supervisors to file disclosure forms detailing which entity is paying their salary and how much, which are collected by the Senate Ethics Committee and publicly available at the Senate Office of Public Records.
However, the POGO investigation found that Senators do not consistently follow these disclosure rules. Approximately 27 percent of the forms we reviewed did not include the source of the Fellow's compensation, and about 24 percent failed to disclose how much the Fellow was being paid.
It's also impossible to know how many Senate offices have Fellows on staff, but have not filed any paperwork at all. One place to look is the sponsoring organizations themselves. For example, IEEE-USA keeps a list of their 87 Fellowship alumni dating back to 1974. Just under half of these Fellows worked in Senate offices, and, of those, 76 percent did not file any documentation with the Senate Office of Public Records.
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.
Dennett is an investigator at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). She investigates the safety and security of nuclear weapons and power facilities, works with federal whistleblowers, and develops POGO's Foreign Influence Database.