ION Government Fellows Program

Congressional Fellow Experiences: Marie Lage

Summer 2003: The Chance to Make a Difference

The American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) organizes an incredibly comprehensive two-week orientation. The orientation includes lectures on the impact of science and technology on policy, an interactive workshop on how the budget process works, and phenomenal speakers.

Approximately 75 percent of the orientation is for all fellows, both congressional and executive; however some aspects of the training are specific to congressional fellows. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) gave an outstanding lecture on the legislative process, which was followed by multiple question and answer sessions with last year's fellows. The talks with former fellows were especially useful and helped us understand what to expect both during the interview process and once we are placed. Bill Klepczynski also attended the AAAS orientation.

As part of the placement process, the AAAS sponsored a cocktail party for Congress and staff. It was there that I met Clark Cohen. Clark took me to lunch and gave me a great perspective on the interviewing and placement process.

Because I was uncertain about what I wanted to do, I pursued a broad range of interviews. I interviewed with both the House and the Senate side, personal staff, committee staff, and Republicans and Democrats. I also followed up on Dick Greenspan's suggestion that Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) was looking for a fellow to support aviation issues.

In eight days I went on a dozen interviews and had four firm offers and two or three other promising leads. One factor in my favor is that Secretary Rumsfeld no longer supports the use of military personnel as fellows on the Hill—so my Department of Defense (DoD) experience drew some interest.

In the end, I decided to accept an offer from Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). My primary responsibility would be defense related, but because the senator is a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, I anticipate supporting other technology issues as well.

Sen. Snowe is a former member of the Armed Services Committee and maintains a strong interest in defense issues. She is also a member of the Intelligence Committee.

What I like about Sen. Snowe's office is that I would have a relatively well-defined (although admittedly broad) area of responsibility that somewhat overlaps with my prior experience. Also, the office structure would allow me access to Sen. Snowe when appropriate (which wasn't true with all of the Senate offices).

While I'm somewhat surprised to find myself working for a Republican, Sen. Snowe is a moderate, and with the Senate split at 51-49, I anticipate that the office will be in the thick of things during the coming year.

Winter 2004: Weapons Of Mass Destruction?

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) is a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Historically, this committee has kept a low profile and been known for its ability to work in a bipartisan manner. But in 2004, this committee devotes most of its time to developing a report on the issue of Iraqi prewar intelligence.

Needless to say, the atmosphere has been neither low profile nor especially bipartisan. I have been lucky enough to support Sen. Snowe on a small part of this investigation.

Most of this committee work is done behind closed doors, and even though I have a security clearance, Sen. Snowe does not use her personal staff to support her on classified information. Instead, we prepare her for hearings using public information. In this way, she is more easily able to keep track of what information can be discussed in interviews.

It also gives her background information she can take outside the building for meetings and hearings. What that means is that I am not in the room to see the hearing and hear Sen. Snowe ask the questions I have prepared.

The World Wide Threat

So I was excited when the Intelligence Committee held an open hearing on the world wide threat. Traditionally, this is the first hearing held by the committee each session to provide an opportunity for the directors of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Defense Intelligence Agency to present their views to the Senate on threats facing the United States. However, since this was also the first time CIA Director George Tenet had been to the Hill since delivering a speech at Georgetown University defending the intelligence estimate prior to the war with Iraq, it was widely anticipated that this hearing would provide a public forum to question the intelligence leading up to the war.

This gave me an opportunity to work with Sen. Snowe in the week leading up to the hearing to review briefing materials and prepare questions for her. I also sat in on the hearing to provide staff support to Sen. Snowe. (If you were paying attention you could see me in the background on CSPAN.)

I was delighted to have the opportunity to see the results of all the work that goes into preparing for a hearing. There is another public hearing planned when the committee releases its report and I am looking forward to supporting that hearing, as well as continuing to support the classified intelligence hearings. I find it incredibly rewarding to be allowed to work on something that is not only high profile, but also central to the security of the nation.

Base Realignment and Closure

Another issue I devote a lot of my time to is the Department of Defense's planned 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). As most of you know, periodically the legislatures allow DoD to evaluate the military infrastructure and develop a list of bases to be realigned or closed. Once the list gets to Congress, it can vote only on the entirety of the list. DoD has said that it is planning to close twenty to twenty-five percent of the existing military bases, which would make this round of closures as large as the previous 4 rounds combined.

Congress plays a slight oversight role in this process, and I am working with the Northeast Delegation of Congressmen who support the Kittery-Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and the Brunswick Naval Air Station. The effort primarily involves meeting with DoD officials to ensure that we understand the BRAC process and the strengths of the facilities, and to ensure that the selection criteria properly accounts for these.

One of the things I was asked to do was to review all the documentation on the costing model—finally, an issue where I can apply my software background.

Other DoD Issues

Spring is also when the president's budget is released and the appropriations process is initiated. To support DoD appropriations, I have met with a number of Maine constituents to understand more about the technical work they are doing and the additional funding that is being requested. Learning about the wide variety of research and development programs out there, as well as meeting with some of the major defense contractors to discuss their procurement requests, has been very interesting.

In the next few weeks, I will coordinate the inputs, prioritize them, and make sure they arrive at the appropriations committee according to schedule—another area where my technical background really pays off.

VA Concerns

I have also done work supporting the Maine veterans. I supported the re-introduction of a bill to provide veterans who have Hepatitis C with a presumption of service connection, provided certain conditions are met. This would enable these vets to receive treatment at a VA facility.

In the coming months, I will continue to work with these veterans groups while I search for co-sponsors and try to build some support for the bill.

Spring 2004: Weapons Of Mass Destruction?

For this report I thought I'd write about some typical workdays to provide a feel of what the experience has been. The days I have chosen are fairly arbitrary and what you might notice is that they are all different. One of the best parts about the job is that you never know what's going to happen.

March 10, 2004: Budget Vote-a-Rama

Vote-a-Rama:Today was the second day of debate and first day of votes on the budget, which establishes the funding limits for the discretionary spending and the amount of revenues (taxes) for fiscal year 2005. The Senate had set aside 40 hours for floor debate occurring over 3 days. The first day was strictly debate and no votes occurred. On the second day the amendments start to materialize and the discussion began in earnest on the Senate floor. In the next two days the Senate would vote on 36 amendments— culminating in a series of stacked votes, which is known as vote-a-rama. This year the final budget was passed at 1:45 a.m. on March 12, 2004.

To support the budget debate, I was tasked with providing Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) with amendment summaries and vote recommendations for amendments regarding defense, NASA, and some homeland security issues. Because you never know when the votes will be called, we work on the summaries incrementally, so that we always have something ready to go if needed. The starting point is a summary of amendments that were available from the clerk's office. This provided an amendment number, the name of the senator sponsoring the amendment and a brief summary, e.g., Global War on Terror or NASA. Based on that information, I would put together a best guess analysis of what the amendment was going to be about based on what I know about the issue and what had been in the press. The next step would be to start making phone calls to the sponsoring senator's staff or committee staff to try to flesh out the details. Based on those phone calls and the publication of the actual amendment, a second draft of the summary would be developed. Finally, the amendment would be offered on the floor of the Senate and both sides would have a chance to speak on it. The summary would be updated for the final time to capture both sides of the argument.

BRAC Letter: I had written the first draft of a letter to Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from the Northeast Congressional Delegation requesting that the Department of Defense provide to Congress forthwith the data required to support the base realignment and closure (BRAC) law. The Northeast Congressional Delegation consists of five senators and five representatives from Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. This group and their staff work together on BRAC issues related to the Kittery-Portsmouth Naval Ship Yard. Today was the deadline for completing the letter and so I was busy calling each office, incorporating whatever comments they had, and getting each office's approval so the letter could be distributed for signatures. Trying to get 10 congressmen and congresswomen to agree is a lot like herding cats.

Q & A: The third major task of the day was working with the press secretary developing sample questions and answers in preparation for a potential interview with Fox news. The topic was to be sexual assaults in the military. Sen. Snowe, as one of a few women senators and a former member of the armed services committee, has a long history of working for better training of military forces and accountability within the services in the event of sexual assaults. The interview would also give Sen. Snowe an opportunity to talk about her proposed amendment to the Department of Defense Authorization Act.

April 16: Recess

Theoretically, recess is a great chance to catch up on your constituent correspondence, have meetings, and generally get ahead of the game—although it never seems to work out that way.

BRAC Meeting: The Northeast Congressional Delegation staff meets every other Friday to review the status of BRAC. We monitor the status of BRAC and other Navy decisions that impact the Kittery-Portsmouth shipyard. The meeting also serves as the primary interface with the local constituent groups. Every six weeks the meeting is held at the shipyard. (Unfortunately, as a fellow, the Senate office is not allowed to fund my travel.)

Intelligence Update Prep: Sen. Snowe is a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and generally, when the Senate is in session, the committee meets once a week for an intelligence update on a selected topic. The hearings are closed and classified, so, unfortunately I'm not able to attend.

To help the senator prepare for the meeting, we prepare a comprehensive memo on whatever public information is available on the selected topic—usually drawn from recent newspaper articles and think tank analysis. We also prepare questions for the meeting, as well as copies of relevant articles. The meetings are conducted every Wednesday and the prep material is due on Tuesday, but I have learned that if you don't have it done by the end of the day on Friday, it is best to finish it up over the weekend. If you don't and something unexpected happens on Monday or Tuesday (and something unexpected always happens), it's a real struggle to generate a quality analysis.

DoD Appropriations: To support the appropriations process, almost all senators provide a letter to the DoD authorizers and appropriators detailing their priorities for various projects that impact their state. One of the projects that Sen. Snowe supports is Army Peer-Reviewed Breast Cancer Research, and since that project impacts everyone, a letter is sent to the appropriators with as many senators signing on as possible.

As the fellow in the office, I was tasked with working the National Breast Cancer Coalition and coordinating this letter. Today was the day we were closing out the letter and so I was busy touching base with as many offices as possible. In the end, we got 66 signatures, which is about as good as it gets.

May 18, 2004: On the Senate Floor

BRAC Amendment: This was the first week of the Defense Authorization bill—one of the nice things about working on defense issues is that it is always a high priority for the Senate and this was the first authorization bill on the floor this year. Sen. Snowe, along with Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), offered one of the first amendments—a proposal to delay the current BRAC round for two years and replace it with an overseas BRAC. The thinking is that it doesn't make sense to close bases at home when the DoD is in the midst of restructuring their overseas forces and may require additional domestic facilities. We prepped for the amendment for approximately a week—including supporting a members meeting where the senators discussed when the amendment should be introduced and how they would approach whipping their colleagues. I worked on preparing Sen. Snowe's floor statement—both a short version that the senator delivered when the amendment was being debated and a longer version that was provided for the Congressional Record. I also worked on the graphics that Sen. Snowe and Sen. Lott used on the floor.

A Nice Souvenir: Because I had worked on the amendment, Sen. Snowe arranged for me to be granted floor privileges. Fellows are not allowed on the Senate floor unless specific permission is requested for them. Besides getting to watch the debate up close, floor privileges provided the additional benefit of getting my name introduced into the Congressional Record, giving me a souvenir of my year. (Sen. Snowe actually requested and received permission for me to be on the floor during the debate of the entire bill, not just the amendment—which worked out well, since the bill dragged on for seven weeks and I managed to hang out on the Senate floor several more times.)

While we knew the amendment would be an uphill battle, it actually came very close to passing. The final vote was 47-49 against. The hardest part was that the 4 senators who did not vote were reportedly all on our side. The House did manage to pass an amendment to delay BRAC by two years, so who knows, maybe the amendment will survive conference. In the meantime, it is back to the drawing board.

I hope this report gives you a bit of an idea of what it is like to work as a Congressional Fellow. It has been a tremendous experience, and I am incredibly grateful to the ION for this opportunity.