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To the general electorate, classifying members of Congress often means naming a party—Democrat, Republican, or Independent.
But elected representatives also ally themselves with a number of smaller, less formal groups. The Congressional Black Caucus has 43 members. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is comprised of 21 Hispanic Democrats. The Blue Dog Coalition has 24 fiscally conservative Democrats.
For Harvard’s Washington lobbying apparatus, the most significant grouping may be the Harvard delegation—the group of congressmen with degrees from the University. With the addition of 14 Harvard alumni elected last Tuesday, the ranks of the crimson congressional contingent grew to 43, a marked increase over the 34 alumni who were members of the original 112th Congress.
Harvard relies on its lobbying efforts for everything from securing federal funding for research to promoting immigration reform. Harvard’s D.C.-based Office of Federal Relations, which coordinates the University’s lobbying efforts, makes an effort to keep members of Congress apprised of University happenings as well as Harvard’s stances on policy issues.
“It’s always useful to get some additional input on issues that matter to the University,” says Congressman John P. S. Sarbanes, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1988. “I think the fact that I attended school and have some understanding of what the priorities are and what the efforts are... it’s helpful to hear from people who have that.”
The existence of a Harvard delegation gives the University a special inroad into Capitol Hill, allowing its lobbyists to appeal to a small group of legislators not just as politicians, but as Harvard alumni.
Members of Congress with Harvard degrees say they feel deep ties to their alma mater—something reflected in their interaction with Harvard officials and the University as a whole.
“Our alumni who are in Congress are in many ways like our alumni in other professions in that their time at Harvard was formative to them and their degree from Harvard is a big part of their identity,” says Christine M. Heenan, Harvard vice president of public affairs and communications.
Four congressmen interviewed for this article say they maintain a sentimentality for their time at Harvard and keep in touch with other members of their graduating class.
“For me, being in Boston and being at Harvard was a good experience that I’ve carried a positive feeling about,” says Sarbanes, who returned to Cambridge last week to lecture at the Law School.
Members of Congress who return to campus often receive special attention from Harvard’s Office of Public Affairs and Communications, the department that also oversees Harvard’s lobbying efforts.
“We’ve had everything from members of Congress who are visiting campus with their children say, ‘Can you connect us with the folks from admissions for a tour’ to ‘We’re going to be speaking at the IOP, can our press office interact with yours?’” says Heenan.
Sometimes members of Congress are reluctant to publicize their Harvard connections. “I think most people in elected office hide their affiliation with Harvard because it doesn’t make [them] popular,” says Congressman Jim H. S. Cooper, who graduated from the Law School in 1980. “There’s a certain arrogance associated with Harvard people.”
“Never mention it because it can only hurt you,” he says of how politicians often manage their ties to Harvard.
Despite ambivalence that some politicians feel about their Harvard affiliation, the Office of Federal Relations has not faced difficulties in making connections with legislators.
“I think it’s up to members how they portray their backgrounds and their affiliations with various organizations and educational institutions,” said Casey.
“We’ve never had any difficulty scheduling meetings because of an affiliation issue.”
For Harvard, lobbying is a serious task that goes beyond fostering connections with alumni.
The University spends hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on lobbying in an effort to encourage members of Congress to vote favorably on issues such as federal funding for research and student aid.
The University spent $350,000 on lobbying in the first two quarters of FY2012 alone, according to public filings made with the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Harvard Associate Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications Kevin Casey says Harvard uses an “educational” approach to discuss policy issues with members of Congress.
“We want to inform members about how important policies would impact students and faculty and research and the kind of things that are important to our mission that the federal government is partner on,” says Casey.
According to Congressman Brian M. Higgins, a graduate of the Kennedy School, the time he spent at Harvard underscored the importance of research funding.
“It informs what your priorities are as a member of Congress,” says Higgins.
When contacting its alumni, Harvard often tries to find creative ways to connect graduates with their alma mater.
Last March when the Harvard men’s basketball team made it to the first round of the NCAA tournament, Harvard tapped into the enthusiasm surrounding March Madness and sent Harvard NCAA apparel to the offices of Harvard alumni in Congress.
When Faust was invited to give a lecture in Washington D.C., the University hosted a reception with some members of the Harvard delegation on the guest list.
During her trips to Washington, Faust makes an effort to reach out to Harvard alumni whenever possible.
When making her pitch for higher education, she says alumni connections to the University allow her concerns to take on a “vividness” and “circumstantiality” that might not exist for congressmen who did not attend Harvard. Harvard is also a good starting point for conversations.
“Usually Harvard alums have something they remember and want to talk about,” Faust says.
But, while talk can be pleasant and entertaining, Faust remains mindful of the goal of Harvard’s interactions with legislators and the conversation quickly switches to business.
“They often will ask questions about things going on on campus, and that does create a bond,” Faust says. “But also, it’s fun for me to be able to tell them something about higher education by focusing on the Harvard context.”
Still, these efforts do not dictate legislation directly.
Kennedy School graduate and Maryland Congressman Christopher Van Hollen says that though his time studying at Harvard has influenced how he approaches policy, Harvard’s positions on issues do not necessarily affect his own political stances.
“I think my experience at the Kennedy School was very helpful in shaping how I think about certain public policy issues,” he says.
“But look, if you’re asking me about whether the position Harvard takes on issues influences [me], I’d have to say no.”
Both Faust and Heenan say that while alumni connections make it easier for them to bring up issues facing higher education during conversations with Harvard graduates, alumni in Congress are only a small piece of the puzzle.
“We would never begin and end our advocacy in Washington with the Harvard delegation,” says Heenan.
—Staff writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Justin C. Worland can be reached at email@example.com.
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