Through the windows, the dome of the U.S. Capitol commands the skyline, perched just a few blocks up Capitol Street Southwest.
At the University of Michigan Washington, D.C. office, the focus on location is apparent. For the staff, working from Washington isn’t just convenient; it’s essential.
It’s in the District of Columbia — not Ann Arbor — where the University has constant access to legislators, policymakers, the White House and congressional staff. The University’s Washington staff members are well positioned to advocate on the University’s behalf. In Washington, friends of the University have the clout to attach a crucial amendment or adjust a vital regulation. Though they might not know it, University faculty, students and administrators are depending on a staff over 500 miles away — for research dollars, flexible student loan policy and lenient immigration laws.
In Michigan, Capitol Hill may seem distant, but at the University’s D.C. office, it’s just down the street.
Inside the Beltway
When the University first opened a Washington, D.C. office in 1990, it was one of just a handful of similar university outposts. Today, more than 30 institutions of higher education maintain offices in the District. Michigan State University and Wayne State University, along with Harvard University, have their offices in the same building as Michigan’s delegation, just a ten-minute walk from Capitol Hill.
Michael Waring, University executive director of federal relations, and Cindy Bank, the office’s assistant director, have run the University’s D.C. operation for more than a decade.
“The University is almost like a big corporation in a sense,” Waring said. “It has lots of pieces, and the federal government intersects with those in a lot of ways.”
Like many companies, nonprofit organizations and trade groups, a university often tasks a staff to manage their institution’s relationships and interests in Washington, D.C.
As an employer, fundraiser, hospital and research institution, federal policy runs through many veins of the University. Though higher education policy frequently tops the staff’s agenda, the University’s interests reach across a wide array of the federal government’s jurisdiction, including taxation, immigration, cyber security and health care.
Tax policy, specifically deductions for charitable donations, frequently affects University fundraising efforts, including the recently launched Victors for Michigan campaign. The University also keeps tabs on immigration reform efforts, advocating for policies to allow international students to attend the University and then stay in the United States.
But perhaps most importantly, federal research funding is a high-stakes priority for the University, the nation’s second largest research institution in terms of research dollars. As effects of the federal sequestration loom, the University must constantly remind its congressional delegation the importance of federal research funds.
In fiscal year 2013, the University logged record-breaking research expenditures, totaling $1.33 billion. However, federal funding accounts for 62 percent of University research dollars. Though the University reported increases in certain areas of federal funding last year, researchers received $9.6 million less last year from the National Institutes of Health, which provides 38 percent of the University’s federal funding.
What’s more alarming is the true effects of the sequestration — which took affect on March 1 and inflicted across-the-board cuts adding up to 5.1 percent of the nation’s total discretionary spending as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 — are still uncertain.
Cynthia Wilbanks, University vice president for government relations, said the University and federal government’s fiscal years do not align, meaning it is still unclear how much of an effect the cuts will have. Additionally, a second round of cuts is set to take place if Congress doesn’t act by Dec. 14.
In October, University President Mary Sue Coleman said the sequestration’s second round of cuts present “a real danger.”
Kristina Ko, the University’s director of federal relations for research, serves as the liaison between the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research and the federal government. From Washington, Ko advocates on behalf of the University’s vast research interests and relays updates on federal funding and regulations related to research.
It is difficult to isolate the sequestration’s impact on specific grants. When a researcher receives word funding has been cut, Ko said, the notice does not state “due to the sequestration.”
“But we can make certain assumptions,” she said.
To ensure University researchers find a positive outlook come Dec. 14, Ko said the University’s Washington staff is trying to get creative in communicating the importance of research to key players in Congress. She said storytelling is important, meticulously highlighting University research efforts and their outcomes for policymakers.
“We’ve absolutely ramped up,” Ko said. “Obviously, in light of the budget issues, we’ve definitely increased our advocacy efforts in educating the delegation about the research we do and how necessary federal funding is.”
Prof. Brian Athey, Department of Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics chair and a professor in internal medicine and psychiatry, said a second round of cuts could be particularly devastating.
Without a resolution by Dec. 14, researchers could enter 2014 facing a 7.5-percent decrease in NIH funding. This could translate into a $25 million loss at the Medical School and $37.5 million at the campus level.
“It will add continued pressure to downsize the number of laboratories, faculty hires and graduate and post-doctoral training slots,” Athey said. “This is just coming at a time when the potential future discoveries in biomedical research are more exciting than ever.”
Athey said he approves of the University’s efforts to fight the sequestration, but noted it is important to lobby congressional Republicans. Ann Arbor’s representative, John Dingell (D–Ann Arbor) has already voiced discontent with the sequestration, arguing the University must target those standing in the way of safeguarding funding.
Ko said University researchers often call the Washington office to offer assistance in advocating on behalf of University research, and they understand the University is working to fight sequestration’s tide.
“They understand we’re not putting these cuts in and, frankly, we’re not the ones who are going to reverse them,” Ko said.
Sarah Walter, Michigan State University’s associate vice president for governmental affairs based in Washington, said MSU lobbies the Michigan congressional delegation in similar ways and frequently collaborates with the University’s office, located down the hall in 499 S. Capitol St. SW.
Before heading MSU’s D.C. office, Walter served in the same position as Ko at the University.
At MSU, federal research funding accounts for 49 percent of research expenditures.
Last year, Washington officials from Wayne State, MSU and the University brought the congressional delegation to Michigan to tour the three-university research triangle. Staff and University officials sought to highlight the state’s many research achievements, as well as discuss the sequestration and impact of federal funding.
As much as universities work together to emphasize the importance of federal research funding to Congress, the sequestration is a wide-reaching issue pulled by a multitude of forces.
“The funding is going to continue to be the biggest fight we’re going to have here,” Waring said. “And it’s tied to this macro debate about how big government should be. So we’re going to have to figure out how we maneuver through those stormy waters.”
In the lobby
To accomplish these goals, the Washington team works diligently to keep the University’s priorities on the minds of lawmakers and their staffs, especially members of Michigan’s delegation.
Waring, Bank and Ko constantly attempt to influence policy in conjunction with the University’s best interests.
Lobbying — a term supposedly coined by President Ulysses Grant in the 1870s as political suitors vied for the President’s attention in the lobby of Washington’s swanky Willard Hotel — is often associated with the highly endowed K-street firms that push deals with senators in smoke-filled back rooms.
But according to Waring, the University’s interactions are much broader than tussles over the latest House resolution.
“Most advocacy is explaining how things work to policymakers,” Waring said. “Because they can’t make good policy unless they understand how their decisions are going to affect various groups.”
Public Policy Prof. Richard Hall said lobbyists are often seen as those who wield campaign contributions to sway policy.
However, 501(3)(c) organizations — like the University — are legally barred from making campaign contributions.
“They don’t like to use the word lobby because that has special meaning,” Hall said. “They use words like ‘educating policymakers,’ which is what a lot of lobbyists do. I think higher education policy would be worse if you didn’t have representatives from higher education institutions in the process.”
Hall said rather than coercing politicians to take positions they wouldn’t otherwise, most advocacy organizations target politicians already supportive of their cause, trying to convince them to promote that stance.
In a city that runs on networks, Waring and Bank have spent years cultivating relationships. Their networks span across congress, the White House and agencies like the National Science Foundation and NIH.
A number of current Obama administration officials are University alumni, including Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Policy Council, and the president’s advisor on education, Roberto Rodriguez. Both recently spoke on campus and often work with Waring and Bank on federal policy.
“As much as we’re in the University business, we’re in the people business,” Waring said. “It’s relationships. It’s people we get to know here in Washington because when we want to go talk to them, we want them to be glad we’ve walked in the door. They know who we are. They like us. We like them. We’ve got this relationship and now we can have a conversation. Their boss might not vote the way we want them to vote, but what we are doing is creating an environment to have that discussion.”
Wilbanks agreed, noting real opportunities to influence policy emerge from relationships molded over long periods.
“The fact is that having staff on the ground in Washington D.C. gives us an opportunity over many years to develop strong relationships with the members themselves, and equally important, is an opportunity to have long term relationships with staff,” Wilbanks said.
In this way, the University’s D.C. office rarely engages in crisis communication or calls upon a contact just as a crucial bill comes to the floor. Rather, congressmen and their staffs are lobbied constantly.
But even with regular communication, Wilbanks said the D.C. staff is always attentive to the legislative agenda, keeping an eye on opportunities for amendments that could benefit the University and other higher education institutions.
The University’s interactions in these spaces are less a favor-for-favor exchange but rather a series of ongoing symbiotic interactions.
“It is sort of a two-way street,” Bank said. “We’re working on behalf of the University and watching on behalf of the University, but we’re also here for members of Congress and the administration so we can act as the conduit to campus.”
Bank said there are often times when a congressional staff member pulls her aside during a bill markup to ask a question.
Dan Jourdan, legislative director and science advisor for Rep. Sander Levin (D–Mich.) said the University’s liaisons in Washington provide congressional staffers with a constant flow of information.
“Up here, accurate information is the coin of the realm,” Jourdan said. “We have lots of people telling us things, but what we really need in order to be effective is accurate and useful information. If there is something going on at the University that intersects with federal public policy, they make sure we know about it in advance.”
For example, during his last State of the Union, President Obama emphasized the significance of American manufacturing and called for the formation of several institutes to pursue manufacturing innovations.
Currently, the state of Michigan is in the running for one of these facilities, and the University is taking the lead in crafting the state’s proposal.
Jourdan said it is important Michigan’s congressional delegation has all the information they need to focus the Obama administration’s attention on the state’s proposal.
AA to DC
Lawrence Molnar, associate director at the University’s Institute for Research on Labor Employment and the Economy, travels to D.C. frequently to work with congressional staffs and agencies in the executive branch.
He said the University’s Washington staff members frequently assist in arranging appointments, connecting faculty with key staffers and helping them navigate the halls of the House and Senate.
“Our job is to make interactions (of University faculty and students) with Washington more successful — that’s our goal,” Waring said. “Whatever it takes. If that means making copies of their testimony if they’re here for a hearing or getting a picture of them doing something or introducing them to someone or walking them around the Hill — the expectation is that we’re going to improve people’s interaction with Washington to the benefit of the University.”
The D.C. team even assists faculty by reviewing language in their testimony or parsing through dense, legislative jargon.
“I can’t say enough about how important and how skilled and knowledgeable our Washington staff is at advocating for the University of Michigan and the work we do back here in the state,” Molnar said.
Molnar, whose institute focuses on economic development, not only travels to the capital to advocate research funding for his institute, but also to advise members of the federal government on an array of topics. Currently, Molnar is working with the Department of Defense to mitigate the effects of decreasing military contracts in certain communities.
He said a steady flow of information from researchers in the field is an invaluable resource for policymakers.
“They need to depend on reliable information from sources they trust to get the knowledge to allow them to do their jobs,” he said.
Little part of the world
On nice days, Bank often walks over to the Longworth House Office Building to grab a salad for lunch.
In these spaces, she gets a lot of work done by accident. She’ll often run into a congressional staffer, they’ll chat and get a meeting arranged. Advocacy happens all the time — at social events, on the Hill and in the cafeteria at Longworth.
“Those little things happen every day,” Bank said.
For faculty and administrators in Ann Arbor, a meeting in D.C. requires planning weeks in advance. Waring, Bank and Ko can get to a hearing in five minutes.
The University’s field office has become part of Washington’s landscape, a city populated by the nation’s top policymakers. Whether the current issue is sequestration or immigration reform, Waring said creating a presence for the University remains important.
“Our goal is still to paint the picture of what the University is all about — how we can be successful, how we can help the state and the country — and how hopefully Congress and these agencies can be a partner in that,” Waring said.
There’s a lot at stake. The faculty member’s groundbreaking research proposal, the undergraduate’s student loan debt and the future of the University’s next great partnership — these roads all cross in a tiny sliver of former swampland between Maryland and Virginia.
It becomes clear why the University’s D.C. office takes their conference room Capitol view so seriously.
“The bottom line is that the University has been here for almost 200 years, and my guess is it will be here 200 years more,” Waring said. “So we’re just a small piece of that success and the success of the University goes beyond our little part of the world. Our job is to make our little piece of it work.”