This article is part of a special issue looking at Columbia's stake in Tuesday's elections. Read the rest of the special issue here.
Columbia’s Office of Government and Community Affairs follows politics year-round, but as Nov. 6 approaches, University lobbyists are paying special attention to how the election could impact issues like science funding and federal financial aid.
The University spent $106,931 advocating on issues relevant to higher education during the first two lobbying quarters of 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That number does not include the $50,000 per quarter that Columbia pays the lobbying firm K&L Gates, which largely lobbies for infrastructure funding for Columbia’s Manhattanville campus expansion.
Among the Ivy League schools, Columbia falls near the middle of the lobbying pack this year, outspending Dartmouth, Cornell, and Brown but spending less than Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania. Penn has spent $382,513 on lobbying this year, the most in the Ivy League, while Dartmouth spent nothing, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Executive Vice President for Government and Community Affairs Maxine Griffith said that Columbia’s lobbying efforts focus on “advocating for programs and initiatives and projects and bills that support the University’s objectives.”
“But it’s also maintaining relationships with elected officials so they understand the impact of what they do on us,” she said.
The University does not have an office in Washington, D.C. or in Albany, N.Y., instead relying mostly on lobbying firms to advocate for causes it deems important. In addition to K&L Gates, Columbia keeps several other firms on retainer, including Bolton-St. John’s, Park Strategies, and Patricia Lynch Associates, all of which have filed lobbying disclosure reports for Columbia this year.
“A lobbying firm can help us keep track of issues that are important to us without requiring us to have a full-time staff person in Albany or Washington,” Ross Frommer, Columbia University Medical Center’s deputy vice president for government and community affairs, said in an email.
Columbia’s lobbying firms and Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin have filed several reports outlining the topics the University has lobbied on so far this year.
One of the University’s foremost advocacy areas is research and grant policy. Columbia lobbied for HR 2117, the Protecting Academic Freedom in Higher Education Act, as well as HR 3433, the Grant Reform and New Transparency Act of 2011. The first bill—which has since become law—prevents government overregulation of higher education decisions, such as the definition of a “credit hour,” and the second—which is still in committee—establishes new standards for transparency in the awarding of federal grants.
Support for the natural sciences is another significant component of Columbia’s lobbying efforts. This year, the University has lobbied for funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Education Office of Science.
Executive Vice President for Research G. Michael Purdy sometimes lobbies on behalf of the University.
“When I go down to Washington, I meet primarily with members of Congress and with staff of the all-important appropriations committees,” he said. “And I try to show them how important funding for research and universities is to the nation, how important it is to the growth of our economy, how important it is to national security, how important it is to constantly improving our health systems.”
Purdy said that he advocates “for strong budgets for the key science agencies—in the knowledge that the faculty at Columbia, because of their quality, can compete in open competitions [for funding] and be very successful.”
“If we can make the pie that we’re competing for larger, then Columbia will benefit from that,” he said, adding that Columbia professors have a success rate of somewhere between 20 and 30 percent when competing for federal grants.
Columbia also lobbies for federal financial aid funding and lower student loan interest rates. This year, the University has lobbied on several medical issues, including medical malpractice reform and Title VII funding, which encourages diversity in the health professional field.
Frommer said that CUMC previously lobbied for portions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, including certain grant opportunities. He added, though, that “funding for the National Institutes of Health has been and most likely always will be our most important issue.”
This year, administrators are paying particular attention to sequestration, a fiscal cliff of $1.2 billion in mandatory cuts that will hit the federal budget Jan. 2. Sequestration, the result of Congress’ failure to agree on a deficit reduction plan in the months following the Budget Control Act of 2011, would force a series of cuts throughout the federal budget.
“It’s not simply research funding, though that’s important,” Griffith said, referring to programs that could be affected by sequestration. “It’s grant programs, the federal programs that support students, because if there’s of course an across-the-board cut, it’ll be across the board.”
Griffith said that the outcomes of next week’s elections could have a dramatic effect on whether the lame-duck Congress will be able to reach an agreement to avert the cuts. In the meantime, University lobbyists have been advising politicians on the possible effects of sequestration and advocating broadly for “education, good science, good research,” Griffith said.
“The election may change players, so we’ve been focused on—certainly with our two congressmen—explaining the impacts, so they can use that information as they go into negotiations,” Griffith said. “And we have gone to broader venues, where again we’ve tried to explain the impacts.”
In 2011, Columbia did lobbying surrounding the Budget Control Act, better known as the debt-ceiling deal, as well as 2012 appropriations, and this year it has done lobbying surrounding the 2013 fiscal year appropriations.
Columbia also receives lobbying help from organizations like the Association of American Universities. AAU, which is composed of 61 research universities in the U.S. and Canada, advocates on issues including education, innovation and competitiveness, the humanities, science and security, and intellectual property, according to its website.
“We go through them or we utilize their research,” said Eric Kuo, project coordinator for Government and Community Affairs. “They give us a lot of feedback on what they’re hearing and what they think is useful.”
The University also engages in advocacy at the city and state levels. Its local lobbying is focused on health policies relevant to CUMC, funding for programs such as the Small Business Innovation Research program, and land use.
This year, Columbia has lobbied on local issues including medical research funding, scholarships and loan forgiveness, public health disaster preparedness, and renovations to the 168th Street subway station.
Much of Columbia’s political involvement with the surrounding neighborhoods relates to its Manhattanville expansion and the Community Benefits Agreement that administrators signed in 2009, in which they agreed to contribute $76 million to community housing, employment, and education programs. The West Harlem Local Development Corporation, which is responsible for distributing that money, has been of particular interest to Griffith’s office, she said.
In addition to specific policy issues, the University’s interactions with local politicians and community leaders often revolve around the “nuts and bolts,” Griffith said. She described local relationship as “much more intimate” than relationships at the federal level.
Kuo said, “Since they represent smaller districts right next to us, they hear a lot day to day from their constituents that live close by about students, about move-in day, about, you know, Commencement.”
“There’s sort of a continuum of effort at the city level,” Griffith said. “The line between government and community is really blurred a bit, because the local elected officials are very concerned about grassroots community issues. So we work closely with them.”
Sammy Roth and Finn Vigeland contributed reporting.
Read the rest of the special issue here.