D.C. legend has it that the term “lobbyist” originated straight down F Street in the Willard Hotel. President Ulysses S. Grant would leave the security of the White House to enjoy his usual nightcap of brandy and a cigar in the lobby, but he was hounded by petitioners, which he referred to as “those damn lobbyists.”
While lobbying might be the Willard Hotel’s claim to fame, it certainly isn’t GW’s – at least now. From 2000 to 2009, the University spent more than $3 million lobbying the U.S. government. But now, GW doesn’t spend a dime of its budget lobbying Congress, while education organizations recently spent upwards of $73 million on lobbying in 2015 alone – not falling far behind pharmaceutical companies or oil and gas companies.
Lobbying activities among colleges peaked in 2008 during the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which improves education access for students with intellectual disabilities. During the same time, however, GW’s lobbying efforts started to stagnate until they moved to a policy of “relationship building.” But in order to represent the specific interests of the University’s students, faculty and staff – such as paid leave, women’s issues or the rights of campus minorities – GW should reenter the lobbying arena after its hiatus.
After University President Steven Knapp took office in 2007, the University’s lobbying budget declined from $280,000 to $40,000. GW contracted its lobbying activities out to some of the top lobbying firms in D.C. between 2004 and 2007, but now the University is focusing more on relationship building between professors and federal officials. Unfortunately, relationship building only gets an institution so far. Instead of appealing for money for a university’s independent projects, this grass-roots lobbying encourages school research to correspond with national goals that already have allocated funding. But lunch dates to discuss the issues might not be enough to sway members of Congress. According to the Harvard University Center for Ethics, “quid pro quo” exchanges of money are to offset taking up a Congress member’s time and, unfortunately, GW has opted to remove money from the equation entirely.
GW now relies on its membership to larger organizations to lobby on its behalf.
“GW has continued to maintain its federal relations presence, and our team meets with federal lawmakers and staffers. But the University hasn’t felt a need to engage in federal lobbying as defined under applicable law,” University spokesman Brett Zongker wrote in an email. “Instead, we have worked with coalitions, including the American Council on Education, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area.”
But this sacrifices the University’s autonomy on the legislative stage. For instance, GW is a part of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, an organization that represents more than 900 private nonprofit colleges and universities across the country on legislative issues relevant to education. This means it is unlikely for GW to receive individualized representation because the organization’s actions must reflect the interests of the majority of members. Without conducting independent lobbying activities, GW’s interests may go unheard.
Besides research grants, universities most commonly lobby for bills that involve financial aid, tax policy and health care financing. In addition, GW should support bills that benefit the interests of its many diverse student groups on campus. Some colleges, like Harvard University, lobbied for a variety of bills in 2016 that went beyond education policy – like the 21st Century Cures Act, which promotes research on serious diseases, endowment legislation, immigration reform issues and H1B visas. The University of Virginia spends most of its time lobbying in favor of general public policy issues, like the National Institutes of Health and the American Competitiveness Initiative. These programs and institutions support the activities at UVA by incentivizing entrepreneurship in the fields of science and technology. Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale easily spend more than $500 million on lobbying each year. Even though GW can’t spend at this level, it didn’t have to ax its lobbying activities completely. Instead, it could have maintained its 2007 levels or scaled down to a more reasonable figure, like the approximate $60,000 a year that Georgetown University spends.
GW hasn’t reported spending a single dollar on lobbying since 2009, choosing instead to build relationships with members of Congress. But if the University doesn’t put its money where its mouth is through lobbying, the interests of students and administrators are going to be another myth on F Street.
Sydney Erhardt, a sophomore majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.