I wrote up my thoughts after a discussion with Kathy Goldschmidt at CMF about my experience conducting research with Congress. Our goal is to expand on this information with other academics to help the Congressional Management Foundation make recommendations to the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
Researching with the U.S. Congress – Sam’s Perspective
Written for CMF
“By any measure, America’s public and land grant universities are a national treasure. With a founding mission to provide knowledge to serve the public, the system educates over 6 million students and confers 1.3 million degrees annually… The public higher education system is a network of local information intermediaries. They are like a scatter plot of valuable information nodes—unorganized, but already in place for a data-driven knowledge commons.” – Lorelei Kelly
For the past three years I have been working as a Ph.D. student studying constituent communication in the U.S. Congress. As part of this research I have spent over seven months in D.C., interning for the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) and collaborating with the Open Gov Foundation as a research fellow. I have visited over 100 offices on the Hill, interviewing more than 50 staffers, interns, and technology vendors. I am currently testing new platforms for online constituent engagement and have recruited one Member of Congress to participate in this research. This project is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Over the course of this research, I have run into a number of challenges in the process of ethically, legally, and effectively conducting research on and with Congress. Here I highlight my perspective on the capacities of researching Congress, focusing on my experience as a public university researcher. I also provide reccomendations for improving the process.
For any academic researcher looking to improve Congress by helping to identify problems, develop and test new solutions, and improve the functioning of government, the path is challenging. Balancing academic rigor and expectations with congressional capacities is no easy task. First, gaining access to Congress is difficult. Researchers require extensive knowledge on the legal regulations, politics, and the institutional culture to get a foot in the door. Members are overcommitted, understaffed, and under-funded. Their offices are under intense pressure- often underpaid and overworked- leaving little time, energy, or incentive to innovate and explore new ways of working. There is minimal interest in letting outsiders into their hectic workspaces where there is minimal time for long-term planning to conduct side-projects unrelated to their primary duties. As a result, researchers need to dedicate a substantial amount of time, energy, knowledge, and resources into their efforts to make just the possibility of conducting research with Congress feasible. External researchers can provide a wealth of knowledge and resources to Congress, but only if working relationships can be effectively fostered.
 Networking. Congress runs on the politics of trust. Who you know matters greatly to your ability to access certain people and resources. Without the support of those networks, engaging with offices is difficult. In my own experience, I would have had no clue who to talk to or where to direct questions without the guidance of experts closely connected to the Hill. Staffers would not have been as responsive to my request for interviews if I did not have the title of familiar local foundations under my name. I have encountered offices who stay away from academics to avoid what is often a request for a survey or interview that takes up their time without any gains in return. This distrust, in my opinion, is more the fault of academics who often do not share the results of their research projects with their congressional participants. This is sometimes due to a lack of incentive, limited understanding of its impact and importance, or fear of anger by participants over controversial results.
 Time and Money. Connecting to Congress requires extensive networking, making it crucial to be there in-person. For those who do not live in D.C., this can become an economic and time burden. For my own research, I spent a number of months in D.C. making connections and learning how Congress works. I had to apply for funding from institutions within and outside D.C. to support my living and travel expenses. To research with Congress from outside the DC area may be challenging as it may be difficult to obtain time and funding for long-term and frequent travel.
 Knowledge. When academics and Congress collaborate, they must learn new ways of communication that consider levels of experience and knowledge. For example, academic research tends to be slow moving. Funding can take months or years to obtain and studies require a considerable amount of time to design to ensure high quality and reliability. Academics are obligated to perform other university roles such as teaching and mentoring on top of their research agendas. This makes research with Congress, who has more rapidly fluctuating schedules, responsibilities, and capacities difficult.
Congress also lives within a different culture of knowledge where the language is often one of formality and benefit. Academics must learn to respect obligations, limitations, and expectations of a Member and their staff. Members of Congress will likely not participate in any project where they do not see personal gain or institutional value. This may be hard for academics who push experimental work and knowledge for knowledge’s sake, without any clear actionable strategies or benefits to Members post-study.
Regulations and Politics:
Legal regulations also represent a tremendous hurdle. Both Congress and academics have rules and procedures that must be followed but can often conflict in each other’s expectations.
In Congress, Members must follow the Ethics Manual – a document outlining the legal regulations of what actions Members and staff can and cannot take. According to the ethics handbook, public universities can provide resources for free to Congress for official office-supported events. This helps academic researchers bi-pass regulations related to gifting or lobbying – under the presumption that academics are also federal employees.
“Members and staff may accept any kind of in-kind support for office-sponsored events that a federal, state, or local governmental entity offers to provide. This includes support from public colleges and universities.” (Ethics Manual p. 353)
The example given in the handbook is the use of a university auditorium for a town hall. A university may provide this auditorium for free use to the Member. Given that this is the only example in the handbook where Members use universities for official resources, there are a number of questions about the limits of resources that public universities can give. For example, it is unclear if academics can provide financial resources. If the Member of Congress and the academic want to test a new town hall system, and for quality of analysis, the academic requires a minimum number of constituents to show up, can the academic compensate the constituents for their research service? Can academics provide software tools for Congress without payment in exchange for research findings and data? These are plausible questions that may arise if academics and Congress collaborate.
There is also the question of data exchange. Members of Congress sit on a treasure trove of data about their constituencies and internal functions. For example, academics can be powerful resources to help Congress uncover inefficiencies in their processes and to discern patterns of communication across offices, committees, and procedures. Is an exchange of data to academics in return for free resources and knowledge to the Members office a legal transaction under the regulations of Ethics? These discussions need to be taking place. To the best of my knowledge, it is also unclear how Members would engage with academics on committees and what sort of resources and access are available to academics on a committee level versus an individual level.
These questions are all in the context of helping Members in their official capacities. There is a different set of regulations in Ethics for unofficial events where staff contribution to labor is, for the most part, not allowed and Members must not use any official resources to partake in those projects.
Institutional Review Board (IRB)
Universities have their own hurdles. In order to meet their own standards of ethical research, researching institutions require IRB approval for human subjects research protection under the Federal Office for Human Research Protections. This means that the academics must have approval from the University to conduct research. If that research involves working with humans in any capacity, then there are strict protections in place to keep individuals, and their privacy, safe throughout the research process. Two potential difficulties arise with IRBs. First, any changes to research projects require approval, meaning that any last-minute updates, changes to content language, or research methods must be approved, even after initial research approval by the university. This process is important to ensure studies are following ethical protocols, however it can hamper the ability to be flexible and innovative as projects change or need updating based on congressional needs. Second, the IRB often requires researchers to provide a consent form to any participant in the study – potentially including Members and staff. Requiring Members and staff to sign a legal consent form is, in my experience, extremely difficult. These rules could scare elected officials away from any sort of legally binding relationships – even if the document is only to protect their right to privacy and protection.
The IRB process is very slow. Depending on the institution, approval can take months. If research projects have to go through both Congressional Ethics and IRB for review and approval, this can take a substantial amount of time to complete.
The Politics of The University and Congress
Universities are not neutral institutions. Large university systems have lobbyists on the Hill, which can potentially cause political conflicts between the interest of academic researchers and their university institution.
There are also political concerns for Member collaborations. As one ethics lawyer pointed out to me, a researcher and Member of Congress could collaborate legally under ethics rules but could still be politically reprimanded. For example, a researcher working with a particular Member of Congress could come off as a political endorsement. Campaign tactics could smear the university for supposedly giving special resources to a particular Member. Researchers have to make these risk to the university and research team present in IRB applications – which could make Universities weary of their support, and Members weary of their collaboration.
I have two primary reccomendations for Congress:
Congress needs to encourage Members to use universities as a resource for knowledge, research, transparency, and innovation. Congress is sitting on a treasure trove of knowledge and value for academics who in return, can provide opportunities to researchers to improve the institution.
Recently, Anthony Vinci, an adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for New American Security, offered a new method for research innovation at a Stanford Universities Congressional Briefing. He proposed a venture model where federal government provides proprietary data to private industries in exchange for innovation and analysis. The same could be conducted in Congress, where Congress creates an academic call for research proposals that can be published in exchange for data or resources to access Congress. This could also make the process easier for researchers who do not have the time and financial resources to make connections in Congress.
Transparency of Expectations and Opportunities:
In order for academics to collaborate with Congress there needs to be more transparency on the rules, regulations, and possibilities for collaboration. What are the rules for researchers to provide labor and resources? Are there opportunities for non-public universities to engage?
Academics and Congress should produce a set of guidelines for research, just as vendors on the Hill must follow guidelines to sell products to Congress. These guidelines should not restrict academics but make it more clear what opportunities are available if a researcher decides to collaborate or present an idea to Congress.
My experience working with Congress has provided many challenging but enlightening opportunities to understand how to place academic research in Congress.
When I decided to go to D.C. to research Congress, I started to search for internships near Capitol Hill, paying special attention to organizations that were tied to Congress. I was fortunate to make connections with an employee at the Congressional Management Foundation through an online report I had read on their website. That connection led to a summer internship on the Hill – where I was given my first access to Congress. I had access to meetings and interviews with staffers, giving me my first look at how Congress functions internally.
CMF created opportunities for networking with other congressional organizations like the Democracy Fund, The Open Gov Foundation, and the Beeck Center at George Washington University? These networks provided the resources and funding for me to return the following summer as a fellow to conduct my own interviews with staff on the Hill. These in-person interviews would not have gone as smoothly if I did not have the institutional knowledge and backing that I gained from the summer prior.
With two summers in D.C. and more connections under my belt, I finally felt confident enough to propose my own project to help relieve some of the issues I saw present in Congress. During my second summer in D.C., I met employees at POPVOX, a company that was looking to innovate and provide new technologies for Congress. Without CMF making that connection to POPVOX, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to design and advertise to Members what is now my dissertation research.
In the initial stages of my dissertation proposal, it was unclear what my capacities would be as an outside academic proposing a dissertation project working with Congress. I knew from colleagues that I would have to obtain Congressional Ethics approval in other to get the institutional ‘OK’ that Members could participate. It took many in-person and remote discussions to figure out how to best approach the Ethics Committee and to determine what they required for review. It even took a discussion with a previous White House Ethics lawyer to fully understand the political risks. All in all, it took about 3 months and 4 full-readings of the Congressional Ethics Handbook to just request approval from Ethics.
I also had to obtain IRB approval from my university. The research had to be modified to fit university regulations, such as the restrictions on raffles, and newly added consent processes for elected politicians. It took about 3 additional months to obtain approval from my University to conduct my research.
Because I am a graduate student, I also needed buy-in from a dissertation committee. As any academic will tell you, putting together a dissertation proposal and having a committee come together to discuss and approve the proposal can also be a long process. I am lucky to have a committee and advisor who were flexible with my proposal, as they were aware that working with Members of Congress would require flexibility to their rules and regulations.
The research also required funding from outside organizations. I received funding from the NSF Democracy Fund, Dirksen Center for Congressional Research, UCI Center for Organizations Research, and internal department grants to make this work possible. It takes months to apply to each of these grants and to hear whether or not those funds were awarded.
All-in-all, to conduct my dissertation, it has required I (1) build institutional knowledge of connections, (2) obtain Ethics approval (3) obtain IRB University approval, (4) obtain dissertation Committee approval, (5) and apply for funding from various organizations.