Duke lobbying weighs dollars and advocacy

As a recipient of millions in federal dollars and a tax-exempt nonprofit, the University navigates a delicate boundary when it comes to political advocacy.

Duke’s lobbying expenditures have averaged around $418,000 annually from 2008 to 2011, according to University disclosures. The spending is crucial to help secure funding and other University interests at the federal level, said Chris Simmons, associate vice president for federal relations and one of three registered lobbyists employed directly by the University. In 2011, the University received nearly $1.4 billion from the federal government in the form of research grants, hospital reimbursements and financial aid.

The University takes stances on pertinent legislation, but, as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, Duke does not formally endorse or contribute money in favor of any candidate, political party or ballot initiative, Simmons noted.

“We want to make sure that Duke’s story is told [in Washington],” Simmons said. “We follow the mantra of knowledge in service to society.”

Simmons and his colleagues Melissa Vetterkind, director of the Office of Federal Relations, and Paul Vick, associate vice president for government relations for the Duke University Health System, are formally registered with the U.S. Congress because they spend more than 20 percent of their working hours lobbying members of the House and Senate.

The University calculates and reports lobbying expenses based on the salaries of its lobbyists, costs of travel to Washington, D.C. for students, faculty and administrators and the monetary value of time spent communicating with politicians, Simmons said.

Duke’s expenditures on federal lobbying are in line with its peer institutions, according to 2011 data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Harvard and Yale Universities spent more than $500,000, and some state universities, including Texas A&M, allocated more than $1 million to their lobbying efforts.

Many universities, including Harvard and the University of Michigan, maintain offices dedicated to federal relations, Simmons noted. Although Duke recently opened a Washington office, it will serve more as an academic facility and resource for alumni rather than a way to further relations with the federal government.

For-profit schools report lobbying budgets comparable to nonprofit and state schools. Corinthian Colleges and Devry, Inc. both spent more than $700,000 on lobbying last year.

“It’s not surprising that they would have to do that,” said Steve Billet, chief of staff at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “These guys are not in the business of providing education, they’re in the business of making somebody rich.”

What Duke wants

In recent months, the University has focused its advocacy on maintaining lower interest rates on federal student loans, Simmons said.

There is broad agreement across both parties that interest rates should not double, Simmons noted. The University does not endorse a particular method for finding revenue, as long as the lower rate is extended.

“There are so many ways to pay for it that would not impact Duke and its students, so we just want them to figure it out,” Simmons said.

Congress passed an extension of the lower rate June 29.

In order to push for interests such as the rate extension, the University encourages faculty and students to testify in congressional hearings and communicate with members to discuss particularly important issues or areas of research seeking federal support.

For example, Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment, testified June 19 before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, advocating greater federal action to combat climate change.

President Richard Brodhead periodically sends letters to members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation outlining Duke’s priorities in federal appropriations. In a letter sent in February, Brodhead called on Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C. and Kay Hagan, D-N.C. and Rep. David Price, D-N.C., to support more than $30 billion for the National Institutes of Health, more than $7 billion for the National Science Foundation and more than $150 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Brodhead also recommended that Congress provide sufficient funding for Pell Grants and work-study funding.

These federal research and financial aid programs are facing major cuts in 2013. With the automatic cuts triggered by Congress’ failed supercommittee budget negotiations last November, the NIH and NSF could see their funding cut by up to 7.8 percent. Although Pell Grants would avoid cuts under the sequesters, other federal financial aid programs would be cut $134 million.

Although politicians are attempting to undo the sequester for defense spending, there are currently no proposals to directly undo cuts to other major agencies such as the NSF and NIH, Billet noted. That could change rapidly in the coming months before election day. Representatives try to avoid drastic cuts that would anger their constituencies, which include universities.

Beyond securing federal dollars, Simmons noted that Duke also lobbies for efforts to improve access to higher education, most recently with the DREAM Act, which would offer legal status to young illegal immigrants who plan to attend college or join the military.

Although Burr does not support the DREAM Act, Simmons encouraged Hagan to support the measure. The DREAM Act passed the House in December 2010, but was filibustered in the Senate. Despite the contentious debates about federal spending in Washington, the interests of higher education receive broad bipartisan support, Simmons noted.

Nonetheless, certain members of Congress point to some university spending as wasting federal dollars. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, named three Duke researchers in a 2011 report scrutinizing the NSF and alleging misuse of funds by the organization.

Although deficit hawks may occasionally voice criticism, Simmons noted, most members understand that research at Duke addresses relevant issues and goes through a thorough peer review process before receiving a major grant.


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