WASHINGTON – Tucked like a janitor’s closet into the corner of a generic hallway, the University’s lobbying office in Washington D.C. is easy to miss. The fifth floor suite’s reception area has no flash or flair, just an old television set tuned to CNN.
As the real estate adage says, though, what matters is location, location, location – the building stands just three blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
More than 500 miles from Ann Arbor, four University lobbyists work to make the University’s voice heard on Capitol Hill and protect the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding the University receives each year.
Faced with declining state funding, the University has become increasingly dependent on government research funding to produce technology that will generate revenue for the University.
The University received more than a billion dollars of federal research funding over the last two years – compared with about $650 million in total appropriations from the state of Michigan.
According to mandatory filings with the Senate Office of Public Records, the University and the University Health System spent a combined $420,000 on lobbying last year. A 2003 report by the Chronicle of Higher Education placed the University 19th among colleges in federal lobbying expenses. The first, the University of California system, spent $1.24 million, according to the report. The same year, the University spent $360,000.
The rise of lobbying by colleges in Washington D.C. over the last 15 years reflects the extent to which higher education has come to mirror big business.
That’s small change, though, compared with what many corporations and trade groups spend trying to win over lawmakers. The National Association of Manufacturers, the largest industrial trade group in the United States, spent almost $15 million on lobbying last year, according to its filings.
About two-thirds of the University’s research dollars come from the Department of Health and Human Services. The National Science Foundation and the defense department both contribute about 10 percent.
“This university is a three- to four-billion-dollar entity,” said Michael Waring, the University’s executive director for federal relations. “For it not to care about what goes on in Washington would be foolhardy.”
With the U.S. House and Senate scrambling to complete the federal budget for the 2008 fiscal year, University lobbyists are trying to persuade legislators not to cut funding for research and financial aid programs, said Sarah Walkling, the University’s director of federal relations for research. Prospects look good so far – the House of Representatives approved last month a $260 increase to the maximum possible Pell Grant.
University President Mary Sue Coleman did some lobbying of her own last week in a speech to the state House appropriations subcommittee on higher education, urging the panel to allocate more money to the state’s three research universities.
The University’s Tech Transfer program – which helps University employees commercialize and market products based on their research – earned the University more than $20 million in revenue last year. The program has become more profitable every year since it was started in 2001.
Although funding is the main focus, the University’s lobbyists aren’t just out to secure cash from Congress, Walkling said. He and his colleagues lobby dozens of federal agencies off Capitol Hill, too.
They recently spoke with the State Department about revisions to the nation’s immigration policies to accommodate international students, changes to intellectual property and patent law with the U.S. Patent Office and Internet legislation related to the University library’s partnership with Google, Walkling said.
Although most universities still hire lobbying firms to represent them on Capitol Hill, some have decided that having an in-house operation is a more effective way to protect their interests, Waring said.
When the University’s office opened in 1990, it was one of the first college-run lobby shops in the nation’s capital. Harvard University, another pioneer in higher education lobbying, opened an in-house lobbying office around the same time.
About 30 universities maintain Washington lobby shops today, Walkling said. Six of them, including Harvard, Michigan State University and Purdue University, share the building on South Capitol Street with the University of Michigan’s lobbyists.
“Just walking around these buildings, you pick up a lot of intelligence that you wouldn’t get if you were back on campus,” Waring said. “It lets you be a bigger player.”
Lobbying has taken a public relations hit in recent years, as scandals have tied the practice with bribery and pork-barrel politics. Waring said some people are surprised to learn that he represents a university because they associate lobbying with corporate corruption.
Waring said the University’s four Capitol Hill lobbyists use many of the same techniques as often-maligned corporate lobbyists use when meeting with staffers or congressmen – the just don’t spend a lot of money doing it.
“We don’t wine and dine people,” Waring said. “People out in the hinterlands have this impression that all lobbyists have large expense accounts.”
Waring said he thinks lobbying is honorable in spite of its tarnished reputation.
“It’s political speech – which is the most protected speech in the Constitution,” Waring said. “Being involved in the debate about issues is really important for the University.”