Higher ed lobbyists: Growing presence, growing power

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series looking at lobbying in higher education. TomorrowâÄôs will look specifically at University of Minnesota lobbying. Lobbying is a generally confusing and misunderstood part of the American political process thatâÄôs largely invisible to the general public. But last year there were almost 16,000 registered lobbyists who spent almost $3 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. These lobbyists, including higher education lobbyists, exert an influence on public policy by interacting with legislators, acting as experts in their particular fields and pushing for legislation benefiting their employers. Often perceived as underhanded because of recent high-profile scandals, including that of disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who traded expensive gifts for political favors, recent reforms have tightened restrictions and opened lobbyistsâÄô activities for easy public access. Universities, often regarded as being above the political fray, have dramatically increased their investment in lobbying over the past 10 years, becoming one of the top industries in terms of lobbyist spending. The higher education lobby In recent years, more colleges and universities have hired their own lobbyists and opened offices in Washington, D.C., Barry Toiv , American Association of Universities spokesman, said. The association is a group of 60 public and private research universities in the United States, and includes the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Twin Cities campus. It focuses on research-funding issues, a key component of its member institutionsâÄô lobbying agendas, Toiv said. âÄúMuch of the advocacy that [higher education lobbyists] do is not on behalf of only the institutions themselves,âÄù he said, âÄúbut the [higher education] community works together on a number of issues that are community-wide.âÄù The roots of the higher education lobbying growth lie in the political climate of the mid-1990s, said Michael Parsons, executive vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort , who has studied lobbying for nearly two decades. Before that, lobbying was more about âÄúproblem solving.âÄù There were shared bipartisan beliefs that higher education served a greater purpose. âÄúOne of these beliefs was that higher education should be paid for by the public, by the government, by the student and by the studentsâÄô parents,âÄù Parsons said. âÄúAnd that higher education was a public good.âÄù But in the early 1990s when longtime Democratic legislators left office, he said, a different type of Republican legislator came into the picture, one âÄúwho did not see education as a public good âĦ but as a private good.âÄù There was a culture change, where the public accepted the premise that students should pay for their private benefit of education, which led to funding cuts and changed how higher education lobbyists approached their jobs. The last 10 years of growth in higher education lobbying have been a result of this, as the higher education industry scrambled to retrieve lost funding at state and federal levels. What do lobbyists do? The nature of higher education lobbying is typically different than lobbying by private interests. The higher education industry mainly employs two methods to affect government policy, Craig Holman, a lobbyist for reform group Public Citizen , said. âÄúOne way of doing this is actually hiring well-connected lobbyists,âÄù he said, âÄúwhich is one of the more effective ways of getting little provisions inserted into bills that protect oneâÄôs interest.âÄù The higher education industryâÄôs ample funding allows institutions to pay for these services. So far in 2008, educational institutions at all levels have spent $67.7 million on lobbying efforts, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. âÄúAnother very effective means is called the revolving door, where higher education will provide a leadership position such as university president to a former member of Congress,âÄù Holman said. âÄúThat not only strengthens the image of the university itself, but also gives the university an instant and very effective foot in the door of Congress.âÄù Although the education lobby, which includes all levels of education, spends the sixth-most of any industry on lobbying, its approach tends to be subtle, Holman said. âÄúWhen youâÄôre knocking on the door of Congress asking for money, thatâÄôs not something you want to do publicly,âÄù Holman said. âÄúJust going the insider route is the nice, quiet way of getting the government to dole out a whole bunch of public money.âÄù For years, lobbying has been an integral way that special interests build connections to federal politics. An example of lobbyistsâÄô impact can be found in the Homeland Security bill of 2002, Holman said, where lobbyists had a âÄúfield day.âÄù âÄú[Lawmakers] were just writing in all these special interests in this Homeland Security bill that had nothing to do with Homeland Security,âÄù he said. âÄúJust remarkable stuff; just breathtaking.âÄù Since then, lobbyists have earned a bad reputation from the Abramoff scandal and others, Holman said. âÄúThe pro-business lobbying community has suffered a black eye because of this,âÄù Holman said. âÄúThey did deserve that black eye.âÄù Rules and regulations Public Citizen pressed for lobby reforms last year under the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 , which passed. The law requires institutions to disclose relevant information on lobbyists and restricts âÄúrevolving doorâÄù recruiting. But a requirement that forced organizations employing lobbyists, including many universities, to limit trips for lawmakers to one day was opposed by the education lobby. âÄúThey hired this big-name lobbyist around here âĦ he was able to get right in the ground floor when the bill was being redrafted with [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and inserted that right in there,âÄù Holman said. âÄúNow we have one-day trips for organizations that hire lobbyists, except institutions of higher learning.âÄù Although the impact of higher education is generally more positive than that of other private interests because it serves a public need, Holman said he was still annoyed by the billâÄôs provision. âÄúIt would have been much worse to have an exemption for big business,âÄù he said. But the reform bill has also changed politiciansâÄô willingness to sponsor bills that use public funds for private interests, because all records are now available online rather than buried in thousands of pages of appropriation bills, Holman said. âÄúYou can sense the difference already compared to what we had a year ago,âÄù he said. âÄúNow, a university will get an earmark to actually build a medical facility as opposed to getting an earmark to, I donâÄôt know, do some vacation trip to the Bahamas.âÄù Carol Laham, a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based Wiley Rein law firm, which specializes in election law and government ethics, advises Fortune 500 corporations about their lobbying activities. Lobby laws and regulations are âÄúvery variedâÄù across the country, she said. âÄúI always say, âÄòThereâÄôs 50 states, and 50 different laws,âÄô âÄù she said. And in terms of higher education, institutions often adopt their own procedures and codes of ethics, further diversifying regulations. In the past five years or so, because of these lobby reform bills, there has been an overall trend toward more comprehensive reporting of lobbyistsâÄô work-related expenses, Laham said. That could, in part, account for an apparent influx in lobby spending. The more restrictive regulations require more reporting on behalf of lobbyists, and help restore public confidence in lobbyists, whose profession comes under scrutiny. There are regulations âÄúbecause the public perception can be that lobbyists are trying to buy a piece of legislation or buy a public policy,âÄù Laham said. Lobbying continues to exert a powerful pressure on the political process, even with recent reforms, Holman said. âÄúLobbying is a very effective way of trying to represent special interests on Capitol Hill,âÄù he said. âÄúEven this year, when being a lobbyist is a bad thing, weâÄôre still seeing more money than ever spent on lobbying activity.âÄù To read part two of the series, click here.