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Harvard likes to win, and for the fourth time in five years, the University has outdone its Ivy League competition at federal lobbying, with an impressive total expenditure of $555,000. The University’s unmatched lobbying efforts cover a broad and sweeping assemblage of issue areas, from pursuing Harvard-specific interests — like lower taxes on our $41.9 billion endowment — to addressing wider, large-scale challenges like student financial aid, immigration laws, and federal pandemic relief for small businesses.
We remain unconvinced that federal lobbying constitutes a race that our University should be so proud to win. Like many, we are concerned about the outsized influence wielded by large corporations, special interests, and myriad other groups with cash to spend in Washington. Lobbying as a form of political engagement is inherently antidemocratic. Our government cannot simply answer to those who can afford lobbyists; at its most fundamental level, a democracy must work for the residents governed, respect the popular interest, and carry out the will of the people.
However, we understand that the mechanisms of political progress are complicated. (And we know, too, that even $555,000 is not a huge spend for Harvard.) We may wish for a Capitol free from the swarms of lobbyists and lobbying firms, but we also understand that, at present, this is an elusive and far-off ideal. Inevitably, wielding financial power on some issues and refusing to do so on others is a statement about what matters most to an institution. Alas, until the lobbying-free utopia comes — or until Congress passes stronger anti-lobbying regulation or bans the practice altogether, which really seems just as unlikely — the stance Harvard chooses to take will determine our support or encouragement for that particular University initiative.
Harvard must be political, and the spending practices of an institution are inherently political. The institutions and people that the University chooses to take its donations from, spend its money on, or invest its savings in, matter and mean much. But throwing Harvard money around Capitol Hill is not always our most effective advocacy strategy.
Instead, there exist bolder, bigger, and broader political acts whose meaning and impact are often greater than those of lobbying efforts in Washington. Whether it be a lawsuit that charts its course through the justice system, or a statement that garners national news coverage, overt and careful political endeavors like these have real, time-tested power. Policies changed, for instance, when Harvard sued federal authorities to block a directive that would have expelled all international students from staying in the United States to take online classes. Transformative feats like these serve as a testament to the tremendous influence that the University, through its political choices, has the potential to bring about.
Unfortunately, the University’s willingness to draw upon such strong tacts seems to be a wavering, inconsistent choice. The University decides when to exert its power and influence — when to be proudly and publicly political and when, seemingly in the name of convenience, to forego its values and remain silent and removed from controversy. But even as the University’s political energy seesaws, the moral imperative to be political never fades.
The administration must always promote the ideals for which Harvard strives to stand, in both its internal policies and its external advocacy. When it does so in 2021, we hope that Harvard will prioritize those strategies that leave lobbying behind.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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