Lobbyist Stu Van Scoyoc began working for the University of Alabama system three decades ago, helping the school smooth over a problem the 1986 tax overhaul created for its pension program. It’s still a client.
Lobbying on behalf of colleges and universities has been a mainstay of K Street work for years for firms like Van Scoyoc Associates. And many of the biggest spending university systems maintain their own lobbying outposts in Washington with in-house employees who monitor Capitol Hill and executive branch debates and look for federal funding opportunities, relying often on home-state and alumni connections.
Though colleges and universities sought, and routinely won, earmarks until Congress put the lid on those controversial pots of lawmaker-directed spending a decade ago, the policy agenda of higher education institutions has become no less contentious. Schools are in the midst of heated immigration, health care and technology debates, spanning such matters as visas for foreign students, regulations for emerging technologies and student loan debt, among others.
Keeping colleges, whose policy issues regularly get bipartisan support, out of the political fray of the 2020 campaigns is part of the job, said Jennifer LaTourette, a vice president at Van Scoyoc Associates.
“It at least creates a challenge for people representing universities and institutions of higher education to help their clients navigate that space in a way that doesn’t get bogged down” in politics, said LaTourette, whose registered clients include the University of Utah, according to lobbying disclosures.
The Normandy Group, the firm of former Rep. Henry Bonilla, a seven-term Texas Republican, represents such clients as the Texas State University system and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
“We’ve had to get creative since earmarks disappeared,” Bonilla said, noting that he and his colleagues continue to explore opportunities for federal dollars.
For example, the Texas State University system houses an active-shooter training response center, which started from earmarked funds; now it’s part of the budget of the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, COPS, a program that the Normandy Group lobbies in support of.
Bonilla and fellow lobbyist Christine Pellerin also advocate for the federal TRIO Programs, which provide aid to low-income and first-generation college students.
“University issues are nonpartisan,” Bonilla said. “We see things like the TRIO Programs, and Tom Cole and Rosa DeLauro almost figuratively hold hands on the TRIO Programs.” Republican Cole of Oklahoma and Connecticut Democrat DeLauro are, respectively, the ranking member and chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education.
Bonilla said such bipartisan cooperation also extends to obtaining money for university research programs.
On the agenda
The top-spending institutions of higher education — the universities of California, Pittsburgh and Washington among them — disclose lobbying on myriad programs that fund research, ranging from the departments of Agriculture, Defense and Energy to other agencies that conduct medical and scientific research.
Colleges and universities are also involved in major political and policy discussions around campus sexual assault, college affordability, loan programs and more.
Kevin Zwick of the University of Pittsburgh said in an email that the school has lobbied on amending the caps on discretionary spending, which “disproportionately harm domestic discretionary programs like academic research and student aid.”
The university also supports funding increases for federal agencies that support scientific research, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Additionally, Pitt has lobbied in support of campus sexual assault prevention legislation, Zwick said.
Anita Estell, a longtime lobbyist who represents college and university clients, says schools play an important role in federal research projects. She’s also working on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act for clients.
Estell’s firm, the Estell Group, represents historically black colleges and universities, including Tuskegee University and Spelman College. Many clients are looking at diversity and inclusion efforts, she said.
“One of the things we do is work with our clients to make sure, if we can, galvanize public-private support in areas of national concern,” Estell said.
She says most of her education clients have support on both sides of the aisle. Amid the hyper-politicized environment, Estell added, “we’re having to be very intentional in providing information that will allow our champions and supporters to stay focused on those issues.”
Home-state and alumni ties
Lobbyists for colleges and universities say their biggest Hill champions are usually lawmakers who hail from the state or congressional district of the institution. But alumni, including Hill aides and executive branch officials, may also lend a hand.
Stu Van Scoyoc says his firm, which is located in the Southwest Waterfront with views of both the Capitol and the Potomac River, has hosted alumni networking events for university clients such as Notre Dame.
“We may reach out to their graduates who are in key positions on the Hill,” LaTourette said.
Leslee Gilbert, another vice president at Van Scoyoc Associates and a former faculty member at St. Mary’s University in Minnesota, said that while much of the firm’s higher education lobbying work focuses on Congress, the lobbyists also forge connections between universities and executive branch agency officials who make decisions on program funding.
One issue that has cropped up in the past couple of years, Van Scoyoc and Gilbert say, is increasing concern about foreign students’ access to sensitive research and intellectual property. Gilbert said universities’ research tends to be “borderless.”
“They want to keep having those open relationships but also recognize that they’ve got to put more controls into place,” she said. “And that’s that balance that’s happening right now, those discussions at the agencies as well as in Congress about how do we strike that balance. It’s a big issue right now for higher ed.”