Lobbying is a generally confusing and misunderstood part of the American political process that’s 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 lobbyists’ 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 Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus. It focuses on research-funding issues, a key component of its member institutions’ lobbying agendas, Toiv said.
“Much of the advocacy that [higher education lobbyists] do is not on behalf of only the institutions themselves,” he said, “but the [higher education] community works together on a number of issues that are community-wide.”
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 “problem solving.” There were shared bipartisan beliefs that higher education served a greater purpose.
“One of these beliefs was that higher education should be paid for by the public, by the government, by the student and by the students’ parents,” Parsons said. “And that higher education was a public good.”
But in the early 1990s when longtime Democratic legislators left office, he said, a different type of Republican legislator came into the picture, one “who did not see education as a public good … but as a private good.”
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.
“One way of doing this is actually hiring well-connected lobbyists,” he said, “which is one of the more effective ways of getting little provisions inserted into bills that protect one’s interest.”
The higher education industry’s 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.
“Another 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,” Holman said. “That 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.”
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.
“When you’re knocking on the door of Congress asking for money, that’s not something you want to do publicly,” Holman said. “Just going the insider route is the nice, quiet way of getting the government to dole out a whole bunch of public money.”
For years, lobbying has been an integral way that special interests build connections to federal politics.
An example of lobbyists’ impact can be found in the Homeland Security bill of 2002, Holman said, where lobbyists had a “field day.”
“[Lawmakers] were just writing in all these special interests in this Homeland Security bill that had nothing to do with Homeland Security,” he said. “Just remarkable stuff; just breathtaking.”
Since then, lobbyists have earned a bad reputation from the Abramoff scandal and others, Holman said.
“The pro-business lobbying community has suffered a black eye because of this,” Holman said. “They did deserve that black eye.”
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 “revolving door” 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.
“They hired this big-name lobbyist around here … 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,” Holman said. “Now we have one-day trips for organizations that hire lobbyists, except institutions of higher learning.”
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 bill’s provision.
“It would have been much worse to have an exemption for big business,” he said.
But the reform bill has also changed politicians’ 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.
“You can sense the difference already compared to what we had a year ago,” he said. “Now, a university will get an earmark to actually build a medical facility as opposed to getting an earmark to, I don’t know, do some vacation trip to the Bahamas.”
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 “very varied” across the country, she said.
“I always say, ‘There’s 50 states, and 50 different laws,’ ” 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 lobbyists’ 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 “because the public perception can be that lobbyists are trying to buy a piece of legislation or buy a public policy,” Laham said.
Lobbying continues to exert a powerful pressure on the political process, even with recent reforms, Holman said.
“Lobbying is a very effective way of trying to represent special interests on Capitol Hill,” he said. “Even this year, when being a lobbyist is a bad thing, we’re still seeing more money than ever spent on lobbying activity.”