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It’s never easy to be a lobbyist for the University of the District of Columbia. Especially not in 2011. Since taking over the House, Republicans have banned earmarks. President Barack Obama’s budget—which features a few goodies for the District’s comparatively unknown public university—languishes in political gridlock. In the heat of the summer, you don’t have to snoop around to find out that the school could use some help: The administration building on its brutalist, 1970s-era campus is still equipped with a boiler. It’s steamy inside.
“It’s hot in here now,” says Aimee Occhetti, who back in 2009 took a job as the school’s first federal lobbyist. Occhetti, whose taste runs to bright blazers and a short haircut falling just above her eye, finds her office a little more rumpled. “It’s either hot, too hot, too cold.”
Alas, Occhetti’s boss hasn’t made things any easier. He’s been in the news this year over dubious university-funded trips to places like Cairo, where he spent a few hours visiting a UDC sister school before sightseeing and shopping. It’s likely that the profligacy represented the first time many folks on the Hill had ever heard of UDC.
“It may be problematic,” Occhetti, UDC’s vice president for government relations, says. At least one member of Congress has already mentioned Allen Sessoms’s expenses to her, although she won’t say who it was.
Sessoms may be hindering the lobbying office now, but as it happens he also created it. Sessoms, the former president of Delaware State and New York’s Queens College, singled out federal lobbying as a focus for his administration while interviewing for the president’s job, according to former Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso. He kept his promise. In 2010, the under-resourced institution spent some $167,000 lobbying the feds—far outpacing every other four-year D.C. institution. In fact, the number is nearly double that of Georgetown University, the second-biggest lobbying spender among the city’s universities.
Sessoms, who took the job in 2008, hired Occhetti in February 2009 to lead the school’s government relations office. The school already had a lobbyist for local government, Thomas Redmond, but registration records state that Occhetti was UDC’s first employee to lobby the federal government.
From 2009 until the end of June 2011, UDC spent $394,000 on lobbying the federal government. The president’s rationale for ramping up efforts was simple: He’d been charged with making UDC into a great state university, and federal funding could help him achieve that.
It sounds great, but for one problem: All that money hasn’t brought one federal dollar to UDC.
That’s not for lack of trying. Using two outside lobbying firms on top of Occhetti and an in-house lobbyist colleague, UDC chased a variety of earmarks: for a green law school, a teaching academy, the “UDC Renewable Energy Institute.” Two of the earmarks, worth a total of $750,000, did get into committees. But the university’s chances of receiving any at all died when Republicans banned earmarks.
The lobbyists also tried to influence Obama’s budget proposal, which ultimately set aside $2.5 million for the development of the UDC community college. Occhetti says being in the budget is so amazing that she almost fell out of her chair when she heard about it. But a proposal is just a proposal, and with the budget locked in negotiations, it’s not clear whether the school’s lobbying dollars will help it become any more than that. After Obama compromised on D.C. abortion funding to achieve consensus in an earlier budget discussion, it’s not hard to imagine him trading away UDC, too.
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That would leave the university $394,000 poorer after two years of lobbying, with no money to show for it. “I can’t help that Congress changed,” Occhetti says.
The explanation, though, doesn’t quite cover it all: Occhetti started her job in February 2009, giving her nearly two years to cajole a Democratic Congress before Republicans took over last winter.
Occhetti says it’s not fair to compare the lobbying spending at UDC and other District universities. The law that requires lobbying clients to disclose how much they spend is vague enough, she says, that other schools can find ways to get around the law. She says that UDC, by contrast, reports as much as they can out of an abundance of caution.
“The Lobbying Disclosure Act doesn’t give you a nice calculation of, OK, punch in how many hours a week you did this and that,” says Patrick Bateman, another lobbyist at UDC.
A calculation, though, is exactly what Georgetown, the District university that came in second to UDC in 2010 lobbying spending, uses to make its disclosures. While Scott Fleming, Georgetown’s in-house lobbyist, wouldn’t talk about other universities’ government relations operations, he says Georgetown’s lobbying expenses are rigorously checked.
When Fleming takes a Georgetown employee to lobby Congress, for example, administrators use a formula to figure out how much that lobbying cost. The formula considers, among other things, the employee’s salary, vacation days, and office space. It even factors in different rental rates on Georgetown office buildings. Given that Georgetown isn’t making wild estimates for its disclosures, then, it’s fair to compare the two universities’ expenses.
UDC’s hired guns also say the 36-year-old school needs their services much more desperately than do other local universities, which can take advantage of alums in Congress or Catholic Church affiliations. While all District universities’ efforts are hurt by the lack of voting representation, the others (with stronger alumni networks or other institutional ties) aren’t in quite as dire a position, according to University of Virginia politics Professor James D. Savage, who works as UVA’s executive assistant for federal relations.
“[UDC]’s not just a small school,” says Savage. “They have no hand to play.”
Savage, who has studied higher education lobbying, agrees that it would be difficult to account for every dollar a university spends on lobbying. Dues paid to groups like the Association of American Universities, for example, can end up being used to pay for lobbying that benefits a school, but don’t show up in an itemized fashion on lobbying disclosure forms. (Then again, big associations don’t tend to win earmarks for specific schools, but rather to push for broad priorities.)
The lobbying, though, may not last forever. At a June Board of Trustees meeting, Ibrahim Koroma, the school’s chief financial officer, warned that UDC might have to slash its budget in 2012, even reducing budgets for books and academic conference trips.
“Nothing is sacred,” he said at the meeting.
Occhetti thinks cutting the lobbying budget would be too bad, despite the lack of concrete legislative achievements. UDC, for example, has seen some success with congressional schmoozing. Twenty-one members of Congress attended a reception on May 10, and got a mention in The Hill for it.
“Before I got here, nobody knew what UDC was [in Congress],” Occhetti says. Even if UDC hasn’t received money yet, Occhetti says, it’s important to have a presence around lawmakers.
But all that goodwill is useless if it ultimately doesn’t benefit the larger university. Savage says receptions are superfluous for some schools, which can bank on the name their institutions have won in other ways, like by excelling academically, athletically, or simply by being bigger.
Occhetti did get at least some good news recently. Walking around Congress, she saw Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., wearing a UDC shirt, one of about a dozen UDC gave to supportive legislators. Several people were commenting on it.
“It was kind of a big deal,” Occhetti says. Grijalva turned to her, she recalls, and said the shirt was advertising that didn’t cost anything. A spokesman for Grijalva confirmed the story.
It would be one of the first free things in an expensive campaign that has had few results so far.