WASHINGTON -- They look and sound like ordinary Capitol Hill staffers. They carry congressional ID cards. They eat in House and Senate cafeterias. They meet with lobbyists. They draft legislation. They even advise lawmakers how to vote.
But these temporary legislative aides are different: Their paychecks are signed by companies such as AT&T;, Bell Atlantic, McDonnell Douglas and TRW. They have not come to Capitol Hill from college, as does the annual horde of interns. Rather, they have been sent there by their corporate employers. And when their yearlong posts end, they return to the private sector -- sometimes near Capitol Hill, in their companies' government affairs offices.
This is the Congressional Fellows Program, run by the Brookings Institution, a Washington research and policy center. This year, eight mid-level executives are helping draft legislation on trade, taxation, health care, defense, foreign aid and economic development.
Participants say the experience brings business expertise to policy-making. And they say it enables staffers to develop leadership skills useful in their corporate careers.
But congressional watchdogs are wary. They say the fellows give companies privileged access to lawmakers and grant privately paid workers too much power to draft laws.
One thing is not in dispute: These staffers are doing more than licking envelopes. Recently, AT&T; sent an executive to the House Ways and Means Committee's trade subcommittee to work on international trade policy. The Senate Budget Committee used a General Motors Corp. manager to help draft Republican budget initiatives.
More than 50 companies have sent staffers to the program, including insurance companies, oil giants, computer corporations, pharmaceutical firms, steel producers and telecommunications firms. Companies pay a full year's salary, cover moving costs and send Brookings a $22,000 tuition fee for private seminars and other expenses.
"This is an investment that we make in these people to go to theHill," said J. Don Trotter, manager of executive education at AT&T.; The telecommunications company, which sent two of this year's eight fellows, expects its staffers to work hard, learn a lot -- and schmooze.
Bob O'Brien, a spokesman for the Washington office of McDonnell Douglas, says its fellows offer the company an intensive view of the way policies are made.
"Over there, you are working on the inside of Congress and you see how it functions from an inside point of view," he said.
But the setup troubles some congressional watchdogs. Lobbyists already have substantial clout on Capitol Hill through campaign contributions, they argue, and lawmakers ought not to give business interests greater entree. Even if neither side intends to abuse the program, critics say, it could create ambiguous areas in public-private relationships.
"There's a potential in this for conflict of interest," said Josh Goldstein, a project director for the Center for Responsive Politics. "Ultimately, it boils down to this: When someone is making public policy, they should not be paid by private concerns."
Members who take part in the program discount the possibility ** of the fellows' having undue influence.
Rep. Robert E. Andrews, a New Jersey Democrat who has a Brookings fellow in his office, said the aide's viewpoint is one of many competing ideas he hears from.
"I try to look at everyone who works with me as having a unique view," said Mr. Andrews. "Each opinion is no more or no less important than the next."
Congressional ethics committees oversee fellowships sponsored by corporations and universities, as well as intern and volunteer programs on Capitol Hill. The fellowships have existed since 1977.
Participants must agree not to work on issues that would pose a conflict of interest. Like career federal employees, corporate staffers are subject to a one-year government lobbying ban after they leave the fellowships. And participants are barred from congressional offices considered too close to their employers' interests.
"If they get anywhere near a gray area, we say 'Absolutely no,' and we pull the person out," said Lawrence Korb, director of the Center for Public Policy Education at Brookings.
But for the most part, fellows are expected to use discretion in choosing assignments. They are encouraged to tap their corporate expertise -- but to apply it in controlled doses to "conflict-free" subjects.
Sometimes the lines can blur. Mike Harvey, a Bell Atlantic employee for the past 21 years, worked last year for Mr. Andrews. Although he handled no telecommunications issues, sometimes they were paraded in front of him. Mr. Harvey recalls an encounter with a telecommunications lobbyist last year.
"The lobbyist came in and was talking to a staff member about how the regional Bell companies were running roughshod over this industry. I could feel my blood starting to boil and feel myself starting to say, 'Au contraire!' I went out and took a walk and got an ice cream."
Later, Mr. Harvey approached an aide in the office. "I told the staff member, 'I disagree with what [the lobbyist] said. I'll talk to you as Mark Harvey, a Bell Atlantic employee, but I'm not going to talk to you as Mark Harvey, a congressional staffer.' "
Although the two never talked, Mr. Harvey had made his point.
Addressing their critics, fellows say they have no agendas. Mostly, they say, they just want to escape from the corporate world for a year.
"This was a year to go do something completely different," said Tom Downey, a McDonnell Douglas public relations specialist who also worked for Mr. Andrews.
"You're so focused on what you're doing. I mean, I haven't read an article about the defense industry since I've been here."
A spokesman for AT&T;, Burke Stinson, argues that for high-powered lobbying campaigns, businesses use Washington professionals, not bookish fellows. "In terms of knowing how the Hill operates, we have people in Washington knowing exactly how the Hill operates," he said.
Money influences policy more than fellows ever could, adds Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. "In this town, there's so much money flowing from all different directions," he said, adding that a corporation's funding a legislative aide doesn't mean that a rival company can't get what it wants from the same lawmaker.
Once the yearlong stint ends, some companies send their fellows to government relations jobs. In its promotional literature for the fellowship program, Brookings states that fellows' political experience and new connections "can work to a company's advantage" in government relations offices.
Mr. Goldstein, of the Center for Responsive Politics, questions the slide from fellowship into Washington-based jobs. With Congress trying to limit the influence of special interests, he contends, the lines between the corporate and congressional worlds need sharper definition.