Universities opening D.C. offices, hiring in-house lobbyists to raise government relations profile

A crop of universities is claiming new real estate in Washington as part of a push to expand higher education advocacy in the nation’s capital.

The University of Notre Dame, Duke University and Northwestern University are for the first time establishing offices in D.C. or hiring in-house lobbyists to be stationed here to coordinate government relations.

The push comes as universities look to get more involved in a broad range of national policy issues, and the days when a member of Congress could be counted on to insert an “earmark” in the budget to help an institution have gone.

Major universities have long relied on Washington law and lobbying firms to advocate for them on policy matters and research funding, but those lobbyists typically represent dozens of other clients in various industries. It is more rare for a university to hire full-time, in-house lobbyists and base them in D.C.

Starting next week, former Newspaper Association of American President John Sturm will be the first such person at Notre Dame, sharing office space with the university’s outside lobbying firm Van Scoyoc Associates.

Northwestern plans to open a Washington office for government relations next month with a new hire whose duties are “still under discussion,” the school said.

Duke has had in-house federal relations specialist Landy Elliott subletting space at D.C. law firms and hotels for 18 months, but only last month did the university open the school’s first permanent D.C. office at 1201 New York Avenue NW.

The movement reflects a shift by the universities to raise their profile in D.C. as they play an increasingly vocal role in issues that extend beyond the traditional realm of higher education — such as immigration reform, tax law, small businesses and economic development and patent legislation.

“Notre Dame has traditionally been a leading Catholic undergraduate teaching university, but it’s also working to become a preeminent research university,” said Sturm, a 1969 Notre Dame graduate. “Some of the thinking behind this is to enhance the visibility of Notre Dame in Washington in terms of research funding, but it goes beyond that. Notre Dame wants to engage at a greater level with the federal government. We will be active on issues that affect higher education, and that can come from many different directions.”

An expanding agenda

Notre Dame’s lobbying spending has stayed relatively flat, hovering around $200,000 annually for the past nine years, but the range of issues the university is lobbying on has expanded from education and federal budget appropriations in the late ’90s to issues involving health, environmental cleanup efforts, foreign relations and science and technology, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Since Congress last year suspended earmarks — which allowed members to add funds for specific projects — the lobbying industry has shifted much of its energy away from Congress and toward the executive branch. Before the moratorium, D.C.-based lobbyists for universities could focus on the top handful of earmarks universities wanted to pursue. Now, lobbyists have to work harder to cultivate more relationships within the federal agencies, said Rich Gold, head of public policy at Holland & Knight.

Notre Dame lobbyist John Sturm. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

“You really have to dig down a layer to figure out what the main policy concerns are that the university wants to focus on, focus on building executive branch agency relationships and figure out what programs are of greatest importance at those agencies to the university,” Gold said. “It’s more work than in the earmark era.”

Between 2008 and 2010, Congress designated $19.2 million in earmarked funds to Notre Dame for research on diseases and energy projects, and $6.3 million to Northwestern for research, facilities and an entre­pre­neur­ship program, according to the universities and data compiled by Taxpayers For Common Sense, a government watchdog group that tracks earmarks. In 2008, the Defense Department awarded Duke and four other universities $2.4 million for a free-electron laser program.

Lobbyists at the universities say their new Washington presence is not to circumvent earmarks, but to raise the visibility of the schools in D.C. on policy matters, including funding and student loan interest rates.

“Several years ago, the way federal relations worked at Duke was all federal relations officers were all based on campus,” said Chris Simmons, Duke’s chief in-house lobbyist who works out of Durham. “We were getting more and more interest from our students and faculty on engaging with policy makers. ... [T]here was an interest across the board at the university to develop a platform for a physical presence in Washington in federal affairs..”

The university’s financial commitment to lobbying reflects that change. In 2011, Duke spent $442,165 on lobbying — a 10-year high and more than double the $200,000 it spent in 2001, when the university’s lobbying was limited to that on behalf of the Duke University Health System. Duke’s priority now is extending the student loan rate that is set to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent in July, Simmons said.

Bruce Layton, special assistant to the president of university relations at Northwestern, said it is “simply more efficient to have a full-time person in Washington” because many of the university’s partners in education advocacy — higher education associations and other colleges including the University of Chicago and University of Illinois — now have offices in the Capitol.

“Washington is the locus of much of that collaboration,” Layton said.

Catherine Ho covers lobbying at The Washington Post. She previously worked at the LA Daily Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Wichita Eagle and the San Mateo County Times.

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