February 8, 2002

Lobbyists Assist Cornell in D.C.

Print More

WASHINGTON D.C.. –Stephen Johnson knows that lobbyists don’t have the best reputation.

The prestige ranking of lobbyists is only slightly above used car salesmen, according to Johnson, a lobbyist for Cornell and the assistant vice president for government affairs in office of university relations.

Johnson, along with Legislative Associate Liz LaPolt MS ’99, visited Capitol Hill this week to learn about President Bush’s budget proposal and to find out what Cornell could gain from it. They represent Cornell’s interests in Washington, lobbying primarily for increased funding of agricultural research and student financial aid. If the pie is bigger, LaPolt explained, then they can bring home a bigger piece for Cornell.

LaPolt and Johnson met with 15 Cornell-in-Washington students last night to talk about their role in gaining funding for Cornell programs. They vie for both public and private money.

“We’re at the table no matter who’s serving,” Johnson said. Despite its lackluster reputation, Johnson calls lobbying, “a noble profession with biblical roots,” claiming that Moses was the first lobbyist when he represented the Israelites and said, “let my people go.”

He characterized lobbying as a job for “effective communicators” who have exceptional interpersonal skills. Moreover, unlike many lobbyists in Washington, the Cornell lobbyists are not allowed to buy their influence.

As a nonprofit organization, Cornell is prohibited from giving money to political action contributions, Johnson said. “We’d have to pay using your tuition dollars.”

Instead, the Cornell lobbyists often team up with other schools and organizations to gain access to Congressional representatives and their staff.

“Having different kinds of institutions work together on a bill is really advantageous,” Johnson said. “I’ve lobbied with nuns before. Nuns are great,” he said.

“We lobbied with the Catholic church on tax issues.” Cornell’s lobbyists have also joined with the University of Colorado, Syracuse University, Dartmouth College, Northwestern University, and the State University of New York.

“Most of our issues here are ones that affect higher education, and not just necessarily Cornell,” LaPolt said, adding that they work on issues pertaining to foreign students and taxes as well. Students also play a critical role in the lobbyists’ work. Every April, the office of government affairs cosponsors a “Student Aid Lobby Day” with Columbia University. The lobbyists try to arrange meetings between students and Congressional staff members, because while the staffers won’t always listen to the lobbyists, they will listen to their constituents.

“They care about the constituents, they care about the people who vote,”Johnson said.

Greg Andeck ’03 attended the discussion, and said he plans to participate in Lobby Day. “Since I want to be an environmental lobbyist some day, it will be a great way to get a jump start into the field.”

LaPolt, who earned her masters degree from the College of Human Ecology in 1999, participated in Lobby Day as a graduate student three years ago. She said the Cornell lobbyists “step back into the shadow” when professors and students come to voice their opinions.

“When we have guests on campus,” she said, “they’re the star.”

Archived article by Heather Schroeder