Each year, members of Congress exercise a little-known power to help constituents obtain a nomination to one of the country's four elite service academies, which prepare future officers for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Merchant Marine.
In doing so, they are helping the nominees obtain a highly sought college education worth nearly $500,000 while shaping the leadership of the military.
Those nominations are often secret, sometimes political and always prestigious. In some cases, a USA Today examination shows, they go to children of friends, political supporters and donors to the lawmakers' campaigns.
At a time when the public ranks Congress' performance at all-time lows, lawmakers have retained this 171-year-old perk described by historian Lance Betros as "a prized currency of patronage, a means of pandering to political favorites."
Defenders of the system say it ensures geographic diversity, tests the mettle of applicants and gives each academy what amounts to a satellite recruiting office in every congressional district in the country.
But the system also has its dangers. It is not always a meritocracy. The nominations are open to political influence. There are no consistent standards for nominations. The requirement that each congressional district be represented means that better candidates in more competitive districts sometimes lose out.
"In the House, it's 435 fiefdoms and there's no centralized policy on how you do it," said R. Blake Chisam, a former lawyer for the House ethics panel. "Their method of collecting the candidates, the method of vetting the candidates and the method of selecting the candidates is up to the members."
Congress and the academies: A history of patronage
USA Today requested nomination lists from every member of Congress, compared them against campaign finance data, and interviewed dozens of parents, congressional staffers and academy admissions officers. The newspaper found a seldom-examined system with no oversight and little transparency — one that can be impenetrable to even those who have navigated it:
■ The nominations are made largely in secret. The service academies refused Freedom of Information Act requests for the names of nominees. The Navy said the names would "shed no light" on how it performs its function. Fewer than half of members released all or part of their nomination lists to USA Today.
■ There are no universal standards or ethical guidelines governing nominations, and each congressional office has its own process and criteria for awarding them. Districts can vary widely in the number of students seeking a nomination, while each member is allowed the same number of nominations. The result: Where a candidate lives can have as much effect on a future military career as grades, test scores or extracurricular activities.
■ Some nominations go to children of well-connected families, friends and campaign contributors. All told, representatives and senators have accepted more than $171,000 in campaign contributions from the families of students they've nominated to military service academies over the past two years, according to an analysis of nominations and campaign finance data. Members and staffers interviewed by USA Today insist that politics and personal connections play no role in the decisions.
■ Though the nomination system ensures geographic diversity, it does a poor job of providing for racial diversity. According to 2012 West Point data, only a quarter of black cadets get in with a congressional nomination. The rest get in through special admissions programs for athletes, enlisted soldiers or sons and daughters of active-duty military.
Admission to the service academies carries with it a financial benefit. Every student gets the equivalent of a full scholarship, including room and board. The Air Force Academy pegged the taxpayer cost of graduating each cadet in the Class of 2014 at more than $487,000. (Tuition, room and board accounted for more than $188,000 of that amount. The rest covered the wide range of expenses that the government pays to keep the academy running, from faculty salaries to building maintenance.)
Cadets and midshipmen also make a little more than $1,000 a month, out of which some fees are deducted.
Those nominated are typically exemplary young men and, increasingly, women. They include high school valedictorians, national merit scholars, Eagle Scouts and captains of football teams. A nomination alone doesn't guarantee admission. Candidates must also meet rigorous academic standards and pass medical and physical fitness tests.
If they pass all those hurdles, admitted students are on a fast track to join the military's elite after graduating. Four of the seven members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are academy graduates.
Graduates of the academies are commissioned as junior officers, with salaries starting at $35,000. They must commit to at least five years of military service.
But before they can do that, a high school student who seeks to take the academy route to a military career must first stop at the local congressional district office.
Here's how the system works.
At any given time, each member of Congress and the vice president can have up to five nominees in each military academy — the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.; the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.; the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., also requires congressional nominations, but uses a slightly different system. Unlike the military academies, it is run by the Department of Transportation.
Most years, each representative or senator will have at least one slot at the academy to fill. For each slot, members can submit up to 10 names.
Members can designate a "principal" nomination, who must be admitted as long as he or she meets the minimum qualifications. They can also rank their choices or send a list of 10 "competitive" nominations. Most won't get in.
Other than that, there are no criteria that members are required to use to judge the candidates. Members can make the choice themselves, delegate it to staff or set up a volunteer panel to make recommendations. Most offices interview candidates, but some rely only on written applications.
In some states, all members of the delegation work together to make sure as many candidates get nominated as possible. In other states, some candidates can get three nominations while others get none.
There are no ethics guidelines for whom a member can or cannot nominate, other than a broad ban against using their elected positions for personal gain.
Members hold informational sessions in the spring, and high school seniors apply for nominations in the fall. Those nominations are due to the academies by Jan. 31 each year.
Preparation for those nominations often comes a year or two earlier. That's when some families who have rarely if ever given to campaigns make their first contributions to a member of Congress considering their son or daughter's nomination.
In dozens of interviews, parents of nominees often said their contributions had little or nothing to do with the nomination.
"Well, that was certainly in the back of our minds, although that wasn't the driving force," said Edwin "Dice" Wyllie, a real estate agent in Lynn Haven, Fla., whose son was nominated to the Air Force Academy by Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla. "Absolutely, this certainly can't hurt, but it wasn't the driving force behind the contribution at all."
Wyllie donated $250 to Southerland less than a year before the nomination. It was his first donation to a federal campaign, although he said he has given to local Republicans in the past. He said no one connected with the congressman asked for the donation. Wyllie said he contributed because Southerland shares his values.
Only seven of Southerland's nominations were publicly available. Families of three of those nominees made contributions to his campaign. In all, he made 31 nominations for this year's incoming class of cadets and midshipmen. His office declined to reveal a full list, citing privacy concerns.
Southerland's aides say that no politics is involved and that Southerland is "completely removed from the process." Potential nominees are vetted by a panel including local community leaders and educators. The congressman also does not designate a "principal" nominee nor otherwise rank his choices because that system "is open to perceptions of favoritism," said Craig Deatherage, the staffer who oversees nominations.
Southerland spokesman Matt McCollough said the process is carried out "with utmost integrity, and these dedicated young people deserve nothing less."
"Whenever taxpayer funds are involved, there should be some disclosure, particularly when it's an elected official making the decision," said Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, which seeks greater government transparency. "In a weird way, this is a small earmark that you can give to the son or daughter of a constituent.
"We just don't know if members are using this as a means of patronage to reward supporters or if they are using their ability to recommend people responsibly," Allison says.
Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, is one of the most transparent members of Congress in identifying his nominees, releasing not only the names, hometowns and high schools of his nominees, but also their parents' names.
Of his 48 nominations over the past two years, four families have contributed $11,950 to Renacci.
"I will easily admit that we are Republicans," said Barbara Wuellner. Her son was nominated by Renacci in 2012 — and then renominated in 2013, after he didn't get in the first time.
"We are friends with Jim Renacci and his family," said Wuellner. She said she never discussed her son's nomination with Renacci, but that "he knew that my son was applying there."
"I don't know if politics plays a part in it," she said.
Megan Taylor, the press secretary for Renacci, said it does not. "We don't even know who contributes," she said.
Renacci usually has more nominations to give than students who apply, Taylor said. Over those two years, 42 students have applied for nominations. Only three were rejected as nominees, all because of "glaring red flags," she said. One didn't follow through with paperwork, another had a history of violence, and a third "said something offensive about Vietnam veterans in an interview."
USA Today found at least 89 families contributed to 65 members of Congress in the months or years before securing a nomination. But that number is likely higher because less than half of members released their lists of nominees — many of which were only partial lists — and contributions smaller than $200 need not be disclosed.
Some members return campaign contributions from parents of children seeking nominations.
Lindsay Molnar was the finance director for Rep. Betty Sutton's 2012 re-election campaign against Renacci after the lawmakers of opposite parties were pitted against each other in a newly redrawn district. When Molnar received a $500 online contribution from someone whose name she didn't know, she asked Sutton, who found it was the father of a high school student who had sought a nomination.
"She asked me to return the contribution, and I did. I called the dad and told him we were refunding it," said Molnar. The father was mortified that he might have hurt his son's chances, but he received a nomination anyway.
Vu Tran, an Air Force Academy alumnus and tech executive who runs a Colorado firm that helps families navigate the academy process, said he finds the process for screening students rigorous and fair. But some parents, he said, are tempted to turn to campaign contributions to give their son or daughter a competitive advantage.
"I have parents who say, 'Would it help if I contributed to my congressman or my senator?'" Tran said.
Tran said he discourages that. "My answer to them: 'Do you really want to buy your son's way into it? What kind of lesson is that going to teach your child?'"
Even if a nomination decision were based on politics, the nomination doesn't guarantee an appointment, admissions directors said. "What we don't do is lower our standards just because of who they nominate," said Col. Carolyn Benyshek, director of admissions at the Air Force Academy.
But members who want to give a specific candidate an edge in the admissions process do have a powerful tool: the principal nomination, nicknamed "the golden ticket."
Most members nominate a slate of up to 10 "competitive" nominees, allowing the academies to pick the highest-scoring candidate. But by ranking their nominees -- selecting a principal and nine alternates —a member has greater influence over which nominees gets the appointment.
As long as the principal nominee meets the minimum qualifications, the academy must select that nominee — even if others on the list have better scores.
Depending on the year and the academy, about as many as a third of Congress members use the principal nomination system. Some academy officials wish they wouldn't.
"We at the service academies would like to see competitive slates. That gives us the ability to take a look and do a rank order by order of merit to appoint kids," Benyshek said. "But it's their process, and how they choose to do it is up to them.
"We appoint. They nominate," she said.
Admissions officials say they don't oversee the nomination process and trust that members take the responsibility seriously.
"Do I think there's politics involved in this? Sure. If congressional members are politicians, then yes," Benyshek said. "But the reality is, a lot of them try to make it apolitical by having nominating processes that take the politics out of play."
One such process is the nomination advisory panel, a group of volunteers from the district that often includes academy graduates and retired officers.
Nolan White, a consultant and former banker from Indiana, said that system made it more impartial when his son was nominated to the Naval Academy by Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind. White had given $5,000 to Young's campaign over a five-year period.
"I never wanted to get a phone call from someone saying, 'Hey, your son got a nomination because you were a donor,'" White said. "I followed politics long enough and there's always that question: 'Did money buy the influence to get something?' So, I intentionally stayed out of the process for my son."
Young, himself a graduate of the Naval Academy, set up the process when he was first elected to get the involvement of other academy graduates and leaders in his district. "When we use these boards, politics has nothing to do with it. They are looking for ideal candidates," said Young spokesman Trevor Foughty.
Members of Congress cherish the prerogative because it's a way they can deliver good news to constituents. "It was one of the joys of serving in Congress," said Larry LaRocco, who represented parts of Idaho in the House of Representatives for two terms in the early 1990s. "There are the joys of passing an amendment or having bills passed and signed into law. But this happens every year. It's just so cool."
Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., often calls school principals' offices to have them pull nominated students out of class so he can deliver the news. The tradition started decades ago, when Coble realized that Sen. Jesse Helms was beating him to the punch in his congratulations — thus getting the lion's share of the credit. "It used to drive us nuts," said Ed McDonald, Coble's chief of staff.
Some lawmakers want to expand the role of nominations. A bill by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., for instance, would require congressional nominations for appointment to the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. The Coast Guard, part of the Homeland Security Department since 2003, has never been part of the Defense Department.
Thompson said congressional involvement is needed to guarantee greater geographical diversity at the Coast Guard. Six states — including North Dakota and Wyoming — had no appointments to the academy's Class of 2016, according to data the agency provided to Thompson. He's the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.
The Coast Guard has diplomatically resisted calls for more congressional involvement. When he was nominated to be commandant of the Coast Guard in 2010, Admiral Robert Papp Jr. testified that the admissions process had brought "good candidates into our academy for many, many years with the absence of congressional appointments."
But while congressional nominations help ensure geographic diversity, they're less effective in providing for other kinds of diversity. For decades, many Southern lawmakers refused to nominate black candidates.
Some congressmen who represent minority districts say they have difficulty making nominations. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, did not receive any applicants for the four service academies last year, said press secretary Stephanie Báez.
Last year, 108 congressional districts were labeled as "underrepresented" at the Air Force Academy, Benyshek said. Academy officials have started an outreach campaign in several cities, including Atlanta, Memphis and St. Louis, to work with congressional aides and local civic leaders on student recruitment.
According to a report by the Military Academy Board of Visitors in 2012, 58 percent of admissions to West Point came through a congressional or vice presidential nomination. But only 27 percent of African-American candidates were admitted on a congressional nomination.
For academies to meet their diversity targets, they've had to work outside of the congressional system. Most African-American candidates get in through an "alternative admission," one of about 200 appointments made by the superintendent after congressional and service-related spots are filled. Those appointments also help to recruit athletes who may not have gotten a congressional nomination.
Outside the congressional process, the academies have carve-outs for other classes of applicants. The children of career military personnel, deceased or disabled veterans, the missing in action and Medal of Honor recipients can all receive a presidential nomination. And the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force can nominate a certain number of active and reserved enlisted men and women and ROTC participants.
Still, for most students, the only way into the academy is through Congress.
"Yes, it's intensely political, and yes, it's definitely another reason why, in my view, no one in Congress is ever going to reform the system," said Bruce Fleming, an English professor at the Naval Academy who has been one of the most vocal critics of its admissions policies. "It's a political plum. They're never going to give that power up."
Also contributing to this story were database editors Christopher Schnaars and John Kelly, Kendall Breitman and Gannett Washington reporters Nicole Gaudiano, Paul Barton, Deborah Berry, James R. Carroll, Raju Chebuim, Christopher Doering, Erin Kelly, Malia Rulon, Deirdre Shesgreen, Donovan Slack, Todd Spangler, Mary Troyan and Brian Tumulty.