The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawmakers push review of new member events after complaints over lobbyists at Harvard orientation

Rowers pass the Harvard University campus on the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Daniel Meyer, a lobbyist for Pfizer, Major League Baseball, BP, Bank of New York Mellon, and more than a dozen other large corporations, had an hour last week to talk to incoming members of Congress on Harvard’s campus.

Harvard invited Meyer and at least five other lobbyists to speak at its orientation program for the 2018 freshman class and paid for travel and board for the newly elected members of the House to attend.

Under House rules, that arrangement would typically be subject to an extensive review by the ethics committee before members could be cleared to attend. But Harvard’s program was not for sitting members of Congress — it was for members to-be, who won’t be sworn in until next month.

Lawmakers say they are planning to review House ethics rules for incoming members, bringing new scrutiny to Harvard’s decades-long orientation program — as well as a more broad review of how lobbyists reach incoming freshman lawmakers.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a member of the House Administration Committee, said the same rules for sitting members should also apply to those who have been elected but not yet taken office.

The ethics committee should have to review Harvard’s agenda before members-elect are permitted to attend, just as they would if the event were for sitting members, Lofgren said.

“Congress should examine whether the rules that apply to members should also apply to members-elect,” said Lofgren, a contender to become the committee’s chair. “Ethics rules can prohibit accepting a trip where lobbyists are present. This is not something we encourage for members, and I think it’s a poor practice. I’m sure this is something before the next such event we will be reviewing.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), another member of the Administration Committee, also said lawmakers are likely to review Harvard’s program as part of a comprehensive look at orientation for freshmen lawmakers.

“We want to make sure that we have the strictest possible observance of ethical standards,” Raskin said. “After all, this is their first experience of Congress.”

The committee members’ comments come after several freshmen lawmakers, including Reps.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), publicly criticized Harvard for inviting lobbyists and corporate executives — but not labor leaders — to this year’s event. Harvard has hosted the typically uncontroversial bipartisan orientation for new members of the House since 1972, but last week’s event faced rare public controversy.

“Harvard’s process seems designed to facilitate the access of special interests and should be changed,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director of Demand Progress, a liberal group. "Special interests salivate at the opportunity to have several days of unimpeded direct access to members-elect where they can build the personal relationships that will pay dividends in the years to come.”

At Harvard orientation for freshman lawmakers, skeptical Democrats confront lobbyists and CEOs

The debate raises new questions over how lobbyists reach freshmen members of Congress, as well as the possibility that the new crop of liberal lawmakers could cry foul over arrangements once regarded as uncontroversial.

Harvard’s Institute of Politics has extensive connections on K Street. In the four orientation programs held between 2012 and 2018, at least 12 different lobbyists gave presentations at Harvard’s freshman orientation, according to a review by The Washington Post. These have included lobbyists who represent Google, Citi Bank, the American Osteopathic Association, JetBlue Airways, CVS, Healiance Pharmaceuticals, Honeywell International, Accenture, Caterpillar, Hasbro, Sempra Energy, the American Investment Council, Northrop Grumman, and dozens of other major companies.

Additionally, three of the 16 board members on the institute’s Senior Advisory Committee are currently lobbyists. At least another four work or have worked for firms that lobby Capitol Hill or in federal affairs for large U.S. companies, such as Airbnb.

The chair of the institute’s Senior Advisory Committee is Kenneth M. Duberstein, who briefly served as chief of staff for president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Duberstein is the chairman and CEO of The Duberstein Group, a lobbying firm representing Alibaba, Caterpillar, Pfizer, Promontory and dozens of other large corporations. Meyer, the group’s president, and Anne Wall, its vice president, also spoke at the 2018 freshman orientation. Duberstein has also spoken at prior conferences.

Duberstein has also served for several years on the board of directors at Boeing, which pays him more than $300,000 annually, public records show. Boeing’s chief executive was among the three CEOs who spoke to new lawmakers at the orientation in 2018.

A Harvard Institute of Politics spokesman said in a statement that the agenda was decided with input from the advisory committee, Harvard faculty, and other “program collaborators.” The statement also said Duberstein had no role in inviting the Boeing CEO to speak at the orientation.

“Anne Wall and Dan Meyer were asked to join the panel based on their three decades of combined experience across the federal government,” the statement said, adding that the lobbyists have previously worked for two speakers of the House, as well as former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The Duberstein Group did not return requests for comment.

Meyer and Wall were listed in an event schedule provided by Harvard as representing the Duberstein Group. But two other lobbyists — former Reps. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Joseph J. Heck (R-Nev.) — also spoke to members last week but did not have their lobbying affiliations identified in the schedule. On the schedule, they were described as former lawmakers.

Their lobbying ties were disclosed in separate binders. A Harvard spokesman said in an email that freshman lawmakers the binders include "lengthy bios of all participants, including their businesses.” Heck’s lobbying ties are disclosed on page 338 of the binder, while Delahunt’s are disclosed on page 385.

In an email, Heck, president of government relations at the firm RedRock, said that he was introduced at his panel discussion by a moderator but that the moderator did not mention his lobbying connections.

A Harvard graduate who spent several years and “hundreds of hours” serving on the student board at the Institute of Politics said she had been angered to learn lobbyists participated in the orientation event.

“I literally had no idea the institution had lobbyists until Ocasio-Cortez tweeted about it,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of professional reprisals in political circles. “Perhaps what’s most disturbing about the IOP’s lobbying ties is how strongly they’re obscured from students."

Trey Grayson, who served as the program’s director from 2011 to 2014, said the institute did nothing wrong by inviting lobbyists who have extensive experience in the federal government. Grayson said the orientation is a rare opportunity for new members of both parties to get to know each other before arriving on Capitol Hill.

“Getting someone who works for the government to give up a day to come to Boston can be challenging,” Grayson said. “A lot of the folks who do lobbying have very relevant experiences — they’ve been a legislator, or they’ve been in the executive branch.”

Grayson is currently an attorney at Frost Brown Todd, a Kentucky-based firm, where he helps clients “successfully navigate their government, legal, political, public relations, regulatory, and tax challenges.” The firm lobbies at the federal and state level.