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Defense, OPM Detailees Are Too Valuable to Limit

I came to Washington in October 1969 as a Congressional fellow of the American Political Science Association. The year in the program changed my life and career as it did for the 40-plus other fellows my year, including political scientists, journalists, federal executives and a smattering of others (including a few from Asia and Europe). [IMGCAP(1)]

Among my colleagues in the program that year was Tom Mann, a fellow graduate student at the University of Michigan. From the time we both applied for the program, through our regional interviews in Milwaukee, Tom and I eyed each other nervously. We gamed it out that the program wouldn’t “dis” Michigan by rejecting us both, but probably would work for balance and not choose us both. We were relieved, to say the least, when we both got the OK.

Here is the story that filtered out some years later, which may or may not be entirely true: After the program’s director and selection committee made its choices for the program following the interviews, the program’s advisory committee — including Members of Congress close to the program, top national journalists, major league political scientists and former fellows — formally ratified the selections. One of the members of the advisory committee that year (as he had been for many years previous) was then-Rep. Donald Rumsfeld (R-Ill.), a respected veteran Congressional reformer and longtime booster of the program.

Rumsfeld looked at the choices — and objected to having two from the same department at the same university.

“Let’s drop the young one,” he said (or words to that effect).

I was, in fact, much younger than the other fellows. As readers might imagine, Rumsfeld tended to be forceful in his suggestions and not exactly pliable when challenged. But before my career was shattered, Rumsfeld had to leave, and two other advisory committee members (David Broder, bless his heart, and the late, great Republican Rep. Bill Steiger of Wisconsin) quickly moved to ratify the selection panel’s choices, including yours truly.

I mention this story for a reason. As a Member of Congress, Rumsfeld used Congressional fellows and greatly valued the program for what it did for Congress, political science, journalism and the executive branch.

He was also the beneficiary of the program in another way. Political scientist Dick Cheney had been a Congressional fellow the year before Tom and me, working for Steiger where he came to be known by Rumsfeld. When Rumsfeld left Congress and took over the Office of Economic Opportunity in the Nixon administration, he hired Cheney as his assistant. That led to roles for Cheney working for Rumsfeld at NATO, then as deputy chief of staff in the Ford White House, and then as chief of staff when Rumsfeld moved to his first tour as Defense secretary. So Rumsfeld (and the country) can thank the Congressional Fellowship Program for Dick Cheney.

Now, of course, Rumsfeld is once again Defense secretary (you might not have noticed, since he tends to keep a low profile). Apparently, he has become furious at challenges to Defense Department programs and practices in Congressional committees that happened to have detailees from the department (not necessarily Congressional fellows; there are many Pentagon employees who have had stints working in Congress).

His response to the committees’ affronts was to issue an edict prohibiting virtually all legislative fellowships for nonmilitary elements of the entire department. So the APSA program now has no fellows from the Defense Department, including no fellows from the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency or the National Reconnaissance Office.

From my year as a fellow through service running the program, heading its selection committee and chairing its advisory committee, I have seen the incredible value to Congress and the Defense Department of having top-quality career defense bureaucrats and military figures serve for a year in Congress. They leave far more able to understand the value of civilian control of the military and far more sophisticated and sensitive to the separation of powers and the role of Congress. Congress, in turn, learns a lot about the military, including the tremendous quality of people who are in it and that they have nuanced and sophisticated views of the world and their role in the system.

I have preferred to believe that Rumsfeld’s reaction here was a classic “Becket” moment: He shouted out, “Will no one rid me of these troublesome fellows?” And overeager aides went overboard.

But that thesis is hard to hold to when we consider the near-contemporaneous move by the Office of Personnel Management to curtail all detailees of executive branch employees to Congress. The regulation from OPM would centralize control over these detailees and would limit their terms to 180 days. This would not only cut back substantially on all detail programs, but would also damage or end a range of legislative fellowship programs involving the executive branch, including the Congressional Fellowship Program (of our 1,800 fellows in 50 years, half have been from the executive branch).

As Roll Call, which has covered this story thoroughly, has reported, a wide range of prominent lawmakers from both bodies, led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), have questioned the motives of OPM in this proposal and criticized any attempt to squeeze Congress on detailees. These lawmakers are not just looking for free help; they see the importance of an interchange of this sort between the branches, know that there are few real “conflicts of interest” and that the expertise and experience that flows through Congress from these programs is extraordinarily valuable.

The executive branch is filled with mistrust and fear of Congress and in many ways a real misunderstanding of what the legislative branch does and why and how it does it — making the executive branch no different from other areas of the society, much less the rest of the world. Many executive workers have contempt for politics. Congress is filled with misconceptions about the executive branch and its bureaucracy, along with its employees. Many Members and staffers believe that bureaucrats are lazy, narrow and shortsighted. These exchange programs erase some of these misconceptions. Executive employees, including diplomats, analysts, colonels and others, do their regular jobs better when they understand Congress, its Members and staffers. Congress does oversight and program development better when it can tap directly into the expertise and outlook of savvy people from the agencies and departments.

There is a chance that the Rumsfeld regulation and the OPM proposal are benign in intent and just reflect a misunderstanding. There is a larger chance that they reflect an ongoing hostility to Congress and a suspicion that executive branch employees serving in Congress are acting as moles, divulging deep secrets from their agencies, or as dupes, being used by Members of Congress and committees to advance Congressional interests against those of the executive — as if we were dealing with the United States and the Soviet Union, not with two branches of the same government with the same goals. That attitude may emanate from the Defense Department and OPM — and from the White House itself. I hope that is a misguided interpretation. I hope even more that both of these agencies come to their senses and leave the valuable detailee programs alone — while allowing the Congressional Fellowship Program to do what it has done so well for five decades.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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