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Congressional Fellowships and Foreign Policy: DOD vs. State August 25, 2009

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.
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Guest Blog

This is the first of a series of Tuesday Guest Blogs, where Budget Insight invites various experts in a wide range of fields to write about what they know best.

Travis Sharp

The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

August 24, 2009

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military’s encroachment into an increasing number of foreign policy missions has intensified the long-standing animosity between the State Department and Congress. The trend toward militarizing diplomacy has negatively impacted both congressional perceptions of State’s efficacy and Foggy Bottom’s ability to secure adequate funding.

The Department of Defense (DOD) now receives funds for programs that duplicate efforts traditionally carried out by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, DOD provided four percent of overall U.S. development aid assistance in 1998; by 2005, its share had risen to 22 percent. In fiscal year 2010, the United States will spend about 13 times more on its military than on diplomatic operations and aid, even though their respective functions are equally important to accomplishing U.S. foreign policy objectives.

Although DOD is a much larger organization than the State Department, DOD’s growing control over U.S. foreign policy is partly attributable to its highly organized and efficient legislative operations, which are far superior to those of State and allow the Pentagon to dominate the zero-sum game of congressional budgeting. DOD is much more committed than the State Department to its congressional fellowship programs, which send mid-career personnel to work in Congress and are considered career-enhancers by young military officers.

The Pentagon plans to quadruple (to a total of 100) the number of military fellows serving in Congress by 2009 as part of a complete revamping of its legislative affairs office, the office’s first restructuring in almost 20 years. In contrast, the State Department only sends 10 to 12 Foreign Service Officers to Congress each year as part of its Pearson congressional fellowship program.

It is time for the State Department to reclaim its proper place alongside DOD as a chief incubator and executor of U.S. foreign policy. The State Department must act now to increase the prestige of its own congressional fellowships and at least double the number of Foreign Service Officers working on the Hill. Otherwise, it risks being completely overrun by DOD’s expanded legislative affairs activities.

Fellowship Programs: DOD vs. State

Several of the most storied American military officers of the past generation spent at least some of their military careers serving in the civilian world of politics. Generals Colin Powell and Wesley Clark each served as White House Fellows in the Office of Management and Budget, where they helped prepare the President’s annual budget request for Congress. General James Jones, current National Security Advisor and former North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commander, spent five years in the Navy-Marine Corps Senate liaison office on Capitol Hill. Perhaps most famously, Senator John McCain’s four years as Navy Senate liaison were called the “turning point” that started the former Navy Captain on the trajectory toward the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

After a rigorous application and selection process, the military fellowship usually unfolds in three phases: one or two months of training and orientation; one full year as a congressional fellow; and two full years afterwards on a “payback” or “utilization” tour in the service’s legislative liaison office or some other assignment requiring knowledge of Congress. Fellows lend their military expertise and perform a variety of functions, including crafting legislative language, writing questions and statements for oversight hearings, building support for new pieces of legislation, processing appropriation requests, drafting press statements and articles, responding to constituent mail, and accompanying the member on fact-finding trips. Congressional fellowships bestow invaluable political know-how on ambitious military officers. As one senior Republican committee staffer remarked, “There is probably no [better] place in the U.S. government where people learn how to deal with Congress and get their way in doing so, than in our military.”

In contrast to the well-developed DOD operation, only between 10 and 12 congressional fellowships are available each year for State Department Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) through what is known as the Pearson program. The Pearson program is open to all generalist FSOs with seven years of experience and usually lasts for one year but can be extended for an additional year. Other routes for State employees to serve on the Hill include the American Political Science Association (APSA) Congressional Fellowship Program and the Brookings Institution’s Congressional Fellowship.

Once selected, State Department congressional fellows follow a process similar to military fellowships: they must contact, interview with, and be selected by a congressional office before assuming the duties of a normal staffer. Beyond this initial procedural similarity, however, State’s involvement in congressional fellowship programs is nowhere near as formalized or robust as the armed services. No payback or utilization tour is required for State the way it is for DOD. There is also no planned expansion of State’s fellowship programs to rival that being undertaken by DOD. Moreover, participation in congressional fellowships is not encouraged in any of State’s personnel doctrine; in fact, FSOs often shy away from spending time working in Congress because of a fear that time spent away from the foreign circuit will harm their prospects for promotion.

State fellows face an uphill battle once they start working on the Hill due to congressional staff members’ preconceived notions about the State Department’s lack of respect for Congress. One way to explain the State Department’s problems building congressional support is explained by the lack of competence both State and Congress associate with the “H” bureau, State’s office for legislative affairs. One senior Republican Senate committee staffer who previously worked in the Foreign Service analyzed the problem this way: “When I was in the Foreign Service, ‘H’ was like the idiot in the basement. A dead end. It was not a career enhancing move to go there. In fact, it is where substandard people go to die bureaucratically. It is part of the received wisdom of the Foreign Service that you hold ‘H’ in contempt.”


Increasing the State Department’s utilization of congressional fellowships is a necessary reform that must be implemented as soon as possible. If State changed its policy so fellows were required to serve payback tours in the “H” bureau after their time on the Hill, it could increase the competency of State’s legislative operations, keep State employees that Hill staffers knew and trusted involved with “H”, and bring former fellows’ rolodexes into the use of the State Department. This might change Congress’s negative opinion of “H”.

The following three steps should be taken with all due speed to better utilize the State Department’s use of congressional fellowships:

  • increase to 25 the number of FSOs assigned to Congress each year through the Pearson and APSA fellowships from the current 10 to 16;
  • require a one year utilization or payback tour immediately after the fellowship;
  • service in “H” or a congressional fellowship should be positively weighed during promotion and professional advancement decisions.

If State wants to reclaim its position alongside DOD as America’s face to the world, Foggy Bottom must learn to maneuver more adroitly in the corridors of Capitol Hill. While it is easy to look down on Congress for its shameless politicking and provincialism, it remains the branch of government most in touch with and responsive to Americans’ opinions and expectations. Elected to represent the nation as a whole, Congress is accountable to American citizens in a way that the State Department is not.

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher said it best: “We have not yet resolved the dilemma posed by our need to reconcile the imperative of democracy at home with the demands of leadership in the world.” By strengthening its congressional fellowship programs, the State Department could improve its participation in democracy at home—democracy that can sustain U.S. global leadership far into the future.

Travis Sharp is the Communications Director and Military Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation where he directs print, TV, internet, and radio communications strategy and performs policy work on national security spending and military policy.



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