Senator Mike Lee (R-UT). (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)
Is the fifth time the charm for a proposed congressional clerkship program for new lawyers?
It might be.
A bipartisan coalition of four U.S. senators on Monday introduced a bill that would create a dozen yearlong clerkships on Capitol Hill for recent law graduates—a long-discussed program modeled after judicial clerkships that aims to give lawmakers deeper legal resources while providing future leaders of the legal profession with legislative experience.
Previous iterations of the Daniel Webster Congressional Clerkship Program passed in the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate amid gridlock and Republican concerns over unspecified costs.
Now, advocates of the program say a fresh slate of Senate co-sponsors that spans the aisle, as well as changes that clarify the program won’t require additional funds, mean conditions are finally ripe for the bill’s passage.
“We have members who are excited to push the bill and we have a window here before the end of the lame duck,” said Dakota Rudesill, a professor at Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law who has been working on the initiative for a decade and serves as the national coordinator of the Congressional Clerkship Coalition.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is co-sponsoring the bill along with Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and John Hoeven, R-North Dakota.
While Congress is tasked with creating laws, it’s the only branch of the government without a designated clerkship or fellowship for young lawyers.
“Really, when you look at the greater landscape and you compare it to the well-established judicial clerkship experience and the executive branch attorney honors programs, there’s really a void when it comes to the legislative arena,” said Joe Gambino, a 2013 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center who worked on the clerkship initiative as a student in Rudesill’s clinic, where the professor taught before moving to Ohio State. “This bill would really fill that void and allow some of the top talent from our nation’s law schools to spend a formative year in the legislative branch. That’s really not an option to them right now.”
The problem isn’t that there are too few lawyers on Capitol Hill, Rudesill said. Rather, it’s that those lawyers often aren’t focused on the nuts of bolts of making law: researching and drafting bills, statutory analysis, and utilizing congressional procedure rules. Instead, lawyers are typically tasked with policy making, constituent matters and messaging, Rudesill said.
Having clerks with a deep understanding of how to create laws will benefit Congress and will help elevate Congress’ status within the legal profession, he added. “The legislative experience gap is significant because we do not have people in the top ranks of the legal profession who have done legislative work from the inside,” Rudesill said. “We believe that correlates to less appreciation for the role of Congress and legislation in the U.S. legal system.”
The proposed clerkship is intended for promising young attorneys who will take their Capitol Hill experience into other leadership roles within the legal profession, not necessarily those aspiring to government careers, he said.
The idea for a congressional clerkship program began percolating in 2005 when former Stanford Law School Dean Larry Kramer first proposed it. Deans of 120 law schools signed a letter in support. The first clerkship bill was introduced in 2008, but never gained traction in the Senate. The idea was revived in 2011 and twice passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives, but again suffered a dearth of support in the Senate. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, sponsored the bill, but it failed to attract a Republican co-sponsor.
Rudesill, the Congressional Clerkship Coalition and a rotating cast of law students at Georgetown and Ohio State continued lobbying for the bill and tweaking the legislation in hopes of assuaging the Republican lawmakers concerned about funding. They eliminated the need for a future appropriation and instead moved the clerkship funding into existing congressional staff budgets and created an option for colleges and universities to fund individual fellowships. Thus, there would be no additional cost.
Congressional clerks would make $60,000, which matches the salaries earned by federal district court clerks. The 12 congressional clerks would be divided between the Senate and the House, with each party getting six. Applicants would apply through a central committee, which would select the 12 recipients. Those selected would then interview with different lawmakers to find the best fit. The selection process would occur a year in advance, on a similar time line to judicial clerk hiring. Rudesill said the program is intended for attorneys out of law school for five years or less.
Matt Diaz, a third-year law student at Ohio State who lobbied congressional members on behalf of the bill in the summer of 2015, said he would gladly apply if the program were in place by the time he graduates in May.
“I’ve always had a passion for public service and had a desire to work on Capitol Hill,” he said. “Having this kind of pathway program would be such an incredible opportunity.”