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Background on the Congressionial Fellows Program




Congressional Fellows Program  

The ASCE Congressional Fellows program is now into its eleventh year.  Beginning in July 1996 when Board of Direction approved funds to initiate an ASCE Congressional Fellows Program.  The Program provides an opportunity for an ASCE member to work for one year on the staff of a Congressional Committee, U.S. Senator or member of the U.S. House of Representatives.  ASCE joined 22 other engineering and scientific societies that sponsor their own programs.

A Congressional Fellow takes a one year appointment as a Congressional staffer.  Many Fellows participate by taking a leave of absence from their regular jobs.  The Fellow becomes directly involved in the process of crafting federal legislation and advising members of Congress.  The Fellow benefits by learning how the federal government operates, developing leadership skills, expanding his or her horizons and having the opportunity to make an impact.  ASCE benefits by having a member with an in-depth knowledge of the Congressional decision making process.  After participating in the program for a number of years, ASCE will have a network of members with experience, knowledge and contacts.

Most important, Congress and the nation benefit by having the daily participation of a skilled civil engineer with a depth of knowledge that is in short supply among members of Congress and their regular staff.

A Brief History 

The Congressional Science and Engineering Fellows Program was organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1973.  That year seven engineers and scientists spent a year working on Capitol Hill.  The program has expanded include more than 40 Congressional Fellows.

Since its inception the Congressional Fellows Program has had several objectives.  First and foremost has been to create a cadre of Congressional staffers who understand science and engineering and enhance the capabilities of Congress to deal with those issues.  A second objective has been to develop a group of scientists and engineers who understand Congress and who will return to help the science and engineering community improve its ability to impact public policy.  The third objective has been to expose members of Congress and their staffs to the ways of thinking in scientific and engineering fields.  The final objective has been to make it easier for the general scientific and engineering community to deliver messages to Congress.

AAAS serves as the coordinating body among the more than twenty national science and engineering groups participating.  AAAS’s involvement begins after the selection of Fellows by the participating organizations.  AAAS provides Fellows with information on housing possibilities, other Fellows in their class, a reading list and an assortment of information.  A two-week orientation, conducted by AAAS, begins in early September.  Described by former ASCE Fellow Yumei Wang as “exhausting, intense and invaluable,” the orientation provides a briefing on the legislative process and an overview of pressing issues before Congress.  Its primary purpose is to ensure that new Fellows have at least a basic knowledge of the legislative process and the working environment on Capitol Hill.  Specific orientation program events include briefings by members of Congress, Congressional staff and Congressional support agencies such as the Congressional Research Service, the General Accounting Office and the Congressional Budget Office. 

Another important function of the orientation program is the opportunity to network and form a “fellowship” with other Fellows.  Each class relies on the group for support and shared information. 

The orientation program is followed by the placement process, during which Fellows find their specific assignments.  Placement of Fellows is usually a matter of mutual agreement between a Fellow and a particular Congressional office.  Among the factors considered are the issues and tasks to be assigned, the focus of the Fellows and their societies, the office environment and style, potential for making a valuable contribution and the “track record” of an office. 

Does it Make a Difference? 

Over 1000 Fellows have participated in the program since its inception.  Approximately half are still in Washington serving as Congressional staff, as administration officials and in other policy positions. These former Fellows form a significant part of the engineering, scientific and technical policy core in the nation’s Capital.  Those Fellows who returned to academia and industry form a resource for the science and engineering community in their communications with elected officials.

The Program’s objectives are being met.  Relations between Congress and the engineering and scientific community have been greatly enhanced since 1973.  The Fellows Program, while not the sole reason for greater access and cooperation, certainly deserves a significant share of the credit.

The Program is highly valued by members of Congress.  Two former Senators have this to say in its support.  “We feel that the special expertise brought to our staff by the Congressional Science and Engineering Fellows Program is of immense benefit, and that the Fellow was able to contribute significantly to the legislative process,” states former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.  “Contrary to the myth of unlimited office staff resources and funds, members of Congress often find themselves without adequate, skilled staffers with expertise on technical issues.  Congressional Fellows are an important resource in filling that void.  I am convinced that my job has been made easier and more productive through their contribution,” affirmed former Senate Science Subcommittee Chairman Al Gore.

In a letter praising ASCE for its involvement in the program and expressing appreciation for the services of Tim Hess, Senator Bob Graham commented that “Mr. Hess was a superlative addition to our office, and a tribute to the Society and the profession it represents.  We greatly benefited from his engineering background and experience.”  Similar letters have followed each of the Congressional Fellows.

Former Fellows have themselves spoken highly of the program.  “If you want to get a taste of what it is like to live and breathe public policy, apply for the ASCE Congressional Fellows Program.  It will be an exciting, educational, enlightening, occasionally challenging, and tremendously rewarding experience,” stated former ASCE Fellow Peggy Layne. “It has been a great, at times difficult, year but one that was definitely rewarding,” added former ASCE Fellow Kevin Womack.

How to Get Involved 

The ASCE Congressional Fellowship is open to any ASCE member who is a U.S. citizen.  Factors to be weighed by the selection committee include advanced degrees, registration as a Professional Engineer, involvement in ASCE, public policy experience and professional experience.  Additionally, the selection committee must also be sensitive to possible conflict of interest concerns.

Thirteen ASCE Congressional Fellows have been selected to date:

John Hemphill was selected in January 1997 and served with Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works where he was active in efforts to reauthorize the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.  His Fellowship ended in December 1997.  The Committee, however, recognizing the value of having a civil engineer on staff, hired John as a full time staffer. 

  • Timothy Hess was selected as the second ASCE Congressional Fellow and began his Fellowship Year in September 1997.  He accepted an assignment with Senator Bob Graham of Florida.  Tim worked extensively on the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21).  Following his time on the Hill, Tim stayed in Washington and works for the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board.
  • ASCE’s third Congressional Fellow, Margaret (Peggy) Layne began her service in September 1998.  She also served with Senator Graham and continued Tim’s work on TEA-21.  After a year back home in Florida, Peggy returned to Washington to work on a Fellowship with the National Academy of Engineering.  Peggy now works for Virginia Tech University.
  • Our fourth Fellow was Dr. David Westerling.  He began his assignment in September 1999 and served on the staff of Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota.  Dave continued to work with Mr. Conrad’s office on a part time basis following the end of his Fellowship year.  He has also resumed his teaching duties at Merrimack College. 
  • Our fifth Fellow was Yumei Wang.  She served on the staff of Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and began her year in September 2000.  Upon the completion of her Fellowship Yumei returned to Portland, Oregon where she is the Director of Geohazard Programs for the state.
  • Dr. Kevin Womack was ASCE’s sixth Fellow and began his Fellowship in September 2001.  Kevin served on the staff of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee where he helped to lay the groundwork for reauthorization of federal surface transportation programs, the legislation know as the Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (TEA-LU).  Following his Fellowship year, Kevin returned to Utah State University.  Kevin was elected to the ASCE Board of Direction in 2009.
  • Our seventh Fellow was Dr. Jonathan Upchurch of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  He began his Fellowship in September 2002 and worked for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  He also worked on reauthorization of surface transportation programs, and was an important contributor to the Committee’s efforts to pass the Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (TEA-LU).  Jon’s contributions were greatly appreciated by the Committee and his Fellowship was repeatedly extended at the Committee’s expense.  Jon is currently working as a National Park Transportation Scholar at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.
  • Carol (Ellinger) Haddock was ASCE’s eighth Congressional Fellow and served her Fellowship year January-December, 2004.  She worked on the staff of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.  Her primary assignment was work on the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA): the biennial authorization bill for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).  Carol has since return to Houston, TX to resume her position with the Harris County (Texas) Flood Control District.  Carol remains a frequent consultant to the Environment and Public Works Committee. 
  • ASCE’s ninth Congressional Fellow was Jeff Highley.  Jeff began his Fellowship in January of 2005 and worked on homeland security issues for Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas.  Following his Fellowship, Jeff returned to his former position of transportation engineering at HNTB Corporation in Seattle, WA.
  • ASCE’s tenth Congressional Fellow was Eryn Robinson.  Eryn had worked as Senior Engineer with Applied Research Associates in Arlington, VA.  She began her Fellowship year in September of 2005 and worked on the staff of the Senate Environment and Public Committee.  At the mid-point of her Fellowship year, Eryn moved over to the House Armed Services Committee where she worked on environmental issue concerning Department of Energy sites.  At the end of her Fellowship year, Eryn was hired a as full-time staff member by the Committee.
  • ASCE’s eleventh Congressional Fellow is Stephan Butler.  Stephan was a senior project manager with the Stegla Group, a New York City construction firm.  Stephan began his Fellowship year in January of 2007 in the office of Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana where he works on issues related to the reconstruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Stephan has since returned to private employment.
  • ASCE’s twelfth Congressional Fellow was Rachel Radell.  She worked as a Projects Controls Engineer with the Bechtel Corporation.  She spent year year working on infrastructure and disaster mitigation issues with Senator Diane Feinstein of California.  She has since returned to engineering career in California.
  • ASCE’s thirteenth Congressional Fellow is Jeff Peltola of Minneapolis, MN where he was most recently the Technical Director for the Central Regional Air Planning Association.  Jeff began is Fellowship year in January of 2009 and worked on the staff of Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas.  Following his Fellowship, Jeff returned to begin his own consulting company in Minneapolis.
  • ASCE’s fourteenth Congressional Fellow was Kristina Swallow of Las Vegas, NV, where she ran her own consulting firm, AVP Consulting.  Kristina began here Fellowship in September of 2009 and worked in the office of Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico.  At the end of her Fellowship, Kristina was hired as full time staffer in Senator Udall’s office.
  • ASCE’s fifteenth Congressional Fellow was Scott Peterson of Riverside, CA where he is a Project Manager for TKE Engineering.  Scott worked in the office of Rep. Dennis Cordoza of California.  At the end of his Fellowship, Scott accepted a full-time position in Congressman’s Cordoza’s office.
  • ASCE’s sixteenth Congressional is Helen Davis.  Helen is an engineer with Prein & Newhof of Kalamazoo, MI.  Helen began her Fellowship year in September of 2011 and is working in the office of Rep. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.

 This is an excellent opportunity to expand your horizons, get involved, make a difference and become a prestigious ASCE Congressional Fellow.