Cornell was recently ranked 13th among U.S. universities for the number of graduates who are federally-registered revolving-door lobbyists, according to a list published by the Center for Responsive Politics — a distinction several professors said should not merit praise.
The Center for Responsive Politics — a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C. — recently published a list of 26 colleges that had produced the largest number of lobbyists who, as of 2011, were registered with the federal government. The list was published on the center’s blog Opensecrets.org.
Four of the top five schools on the list are located in the Washington, D.C. area, and five Ivy League schools — including Cornell — dominate the list.
Revolving-door lobbyists start out working for the government before transitioning to careers in the private sector. But once they leave their posts to lobby on behalf of a private business, these people often use professional relationships they built in the government to influence policy, according to Prof. Mildred Sanders, government.
“Lobbyists who have previously worked for government are often viewed as people who know the system and how to work it — which is just what their clients want,” Viveca Novak, editorial and communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, said in an email.
But this game “certainly can be a bad thing” in U.S. policymaking, Sanders said in an email.
Sanders, who said that Congress, the defense department and other federal regulatory agencies are frequently lobbied by former employees, called the effect these lobbyists have on the government “undesirable.”
Prof. Theodore Lowi, government, echoed Sander’s negative feelings toward revolving-door politics.
“I’d be very happy if we were in the bottom [of the list] … because to me, it is a comedown to a place like Cornell,” he said.
Criticizing the potential conflict of interest that surrounds political lobbying today, Lowi recalled the profession’s origins. When the practice began in the U.S. government in the 19th Century, lobbyists practice began in the U.S. government in the 19th Century, lobbyists were people who would wait in the lobbies of buildings to catch members of Congress on their way in or out and to persuade them to support certain policies, Lowi said.
In fact, according to Lowi, Cornell University was founded as a result of lobbying efforts by troubled farmers in New York State. In 1865, dissatisfied farmers banded together and traveled to Washington, D.C., to air their grievances to members of Congress — rather than hiring former government employees to voice their concerns on their behalf, Lowi said.
The U.S. government ultimately granted the farmers several concessions: including plots of land that eventually became part of the University’s campus.
“Be happy that Cornell did it right and did it first,” Lowi said. “[Lobbying] does mean a lot to Cornell. We are farm boys and I love it that way.”
However, Lowi questioned type of lobbyists Cornell is producing today.
“I’d like to expose them — see how many of them are proud of what they do. And I have a feeling that many of them would have to lie,” he said.
Sanders also recognized the benefits of some forms of lobbying in government.
“I think it is a mistake to condemn the practice in lobbying in general. It is, in fact, constitutionally protected speech,” she said. “Some of it is good and useful to democracy.”
Still, she cautioned, it can also lead to “the exercise of disproportionate and unfortunate power by monied interests who want the government to do things that are not in the larger public interest [and] that do not further the causes of peace and justice.”
Andrew O’Connor ’15 had a more positive outlook on the implications of Cornell’s high ranking on CRP’s list. He suggested that the number of lobbyists Cornell produces reflects the intelligent nature of the student body and the strength of the University’s academics.
“I believe these statistics attest to Cornell’s ability to not only attract intelligent and motivated students, but also [to] provide a strong, in-depth education that can apply to a variety of professional positions,” O’Connor said. “What graduates do with their degrees is up to them, and their success should only reflect positively on Cornell.”