Meet Richard Jacob, Yale’s lobbyist

Richard Jacob is Yale’s lobbyist. That’s what he calls himself — because that’s what he is.

But he’s no Jack Abramoff, dressed like a Chicago mob boss. And he’s not Nick Naylor, Aaron Eckhart’s silver-tongued tobacco flack in “Thank You For Smoking.”

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Rather, he is the lead player in Yale’s $500,000 role in the $3 billion business that greases the wheels of Washington. He’s not into campaign slush and lavish lunches or secret deals. But he is into nitty-gritty maneuvers — preferably those that stay out of the public eye — that shape public policy in a way that benefits his client, Yale. He believes those efforts also benefit the country.

“We rely on him greatly for being our eyes and ears in Washington, for being alert to trends in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill,” University President Richard Levin said in a recent interview. “He keeps us informed, he’s our liaison to major associations of colleges and universities, he keeps track of legislation that affects higher education and plays just an extraordinarily constructive role in providing useful guidance to the university community in general.”

ORCHESTRATING BUREAUCRATIC GRIDLOCK

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as the Bush administration scrambled to tighten security, among its targets was the leak of sensitive technologies. Officials began reviewing a long-standing policy that fundamental research in university laboratories should be unrestricted.

Under their proposal, releasing sensitive technology or technical data to a foreigner would be controlled. For example, Yale would need special permission for an international student from, say, Pakistan to study, say, nuclear physics in a Yale laboratory.

To Yale and other universities, the potential restrictions seemed overly burdensome and threatened to stunt their ability to conduct research. They had to block the change.

So Jacob — whose official title is Yale’s associate vice president for federal relations — got on the phone with his colleagues at other universities, masterminding a campaign of letters, policy statements, meetings and conferences to rally against the proposal. Sometimes the issue was distinguishing between the technologies involved in the conduct versus the results of research. Or whether students should be classified based on their birth country or their latest citizenship. Sometimes the debate hinged on the use of the word “and” or “or”. Sometimes it could be solved by sitting down with government officials and just explaining, “We don’t think you mean to do this, but there’s this whole set of issues,” as Jacob put it in an interview.

Jacob and his partners finally managed to gain some ground in May 2006 with the formation of a new advisory committee to review the proposed restrictions. In December 2007, the committee’s report recommended overhauling the existing rule but not going forward with the restrictions.

In other words, Jacob and his allies successfully orchestrated bureaucratic gridlock for six years to block a change they opposed. Jacob says he doesn’t think of it as gumming up the works as much as convincing lawmakers to rethink the implications of a policy change before it wreaked consequences they didn’t expect.

It was all behind the scenes, Jacob says, and that’s how he prefers to work. It is not the kind of story that lends itself to a headline; it is complicated, bureaucratic and too easy to spin. But it’s a true story about how policy gets made in Washington.

‘ROLLING UP YOUR SLEEVES’

If it sounds like a maze of letters, committees and reports, that’s exactly what it is. And it’s not always as sexy as national security. Other times it’s tax codes, which, yes, is just as tedious as it sounds. That’s when lobbyists can have the most influence: when something is important but technical and boring.

All the minutiae can be “mind-numbing,” admitted Pamela Lokken, Jacob’s counterpart at Washington University in St. Louis. But not to Jacob. He dives in and masters an issue, she says, seeking out the advice of experts until he becomes one himself. Indeed, Jacob seems baffled when asked how he handles the more abstruse corners of his job. He says he didn’t understand the question. He just chalks it up to “rolling up your sleeves and digging in.”

“He’s being modest,” interrupted his associate, Kara Haas. “It’s about knowing which levers to press to really get things done. You have to know who you need to reach out to.”

They don’t get into the details. Partly because it’s a blur of conferences, conference calls, policy statements, briefings, fact sheets and letters. And partly because slogging through the esoteric web of Washington bureaucracy is exactly the task lobbyists reserve for themselves.

If it’s hard to grasp exactly what Jacob does, it’s clear that he’s good at it.

It’s not just because he’s the guy from Yale — though that doesn’t hurt (and his tweed sport coats look the part). It’s not just because he’s spent his whole adult life studying the choreography of Washington. It’s not just because he’s been on the job for 13 years.

“When Rich speaks, people listen because he has a reputation for being such a thoughtful and smart person,” Lokken said. “He’s one of the top people and best leaders in the area of government relations.”

THE MAKING OF A LOBBYIST

After studying ethics and political philosophy at Oberlin College and earning a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago, Jacob went to work for the White House Office of Management and Budget from 1984 until 1989. The modus operandi at the time, in the late Reagan era, was to be a check on spending by all the other agencies, Jacob said — “as mischievous and as devious as possible.”

Jacob’s exposure to the inner workings of the budget and funding mechanisms of the National Institutes of Health readied him for his next post, as special assistant to the dean of the Stanford School of Medicine, then David Korn. Korn, now a vice provost at Harvard University, said Jacob was like his “chief of staff,” charged with screening, organizing and prioritizing his business — to the point where medical school chairmen would go directly to Jacob, knowing they could trust him to handle their requests, rather than waiting for Korn.

“He has a wonderfully analytical mind,” Korn said. “He really takes problems apart in an incredibly profound fashion and analyzes them with great concentration.”

At Stanford, Jacob honed the skills that would make him a successful lobbyist: analyzing budgets and proposals, drafting documents and consulting with experts.

Jacob said he wasn’t intending to become a lobbyist until the job at Yale opened up. Jacob declined to talk about how he got the job in January 1995, and Levin said he did not recall the details about his hiring.

LOBBYING ACROSS HIGHER ED

Higher education has spent a steady $90 million per year on lobbying in the past several years, topping off at $102 million in 2008. According to Yale’s most recent tax filings, the University spent $500,000 on lobbying in the 2007 fiscal year — a figure Jacob said represents the administration’s best estimate of the time and travel expenses that he and other officials spend directly trying to influence lawmaking.

That expenditure is mid-range for comparable universities. In 2008, Stanford University spent $380,000, Princeton University spent $300,000 and Johns Hopkins spent $1.2 million. Harvard spent $720,000 in 2008, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Besides the five staffers in its Washington-based office of federal relations, Harvard also hires external consultants from the firms O’Niell, Athy & Casey and Dutko Worldwide.

Universities have long had advocates in their presidents, but only recently have they started registering federal lobbyists, said professor James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. With all the ways in which federal policy impacts universities, Thurber said, it’s no wonder they need someone watching what happens in Washington — lots of someones who are among the more than 15,000 registered lobbyists in Washington today.

Asked why Yale needs a lobbyist, Levin said Yale needs to stay abreast of how issues in Washington affect the University’s work in New Haven and, when necessary, to take a stand on those issues.

“There’s so much money at stake,” said Sheila Krumholz, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a lobbying watchdog. “It’s not at all surprising that they’re angling to get some of that wealth.”

It’s a system that would benefit from more transparency, Thurber said, but not one that’s inherently bad. “There are bad ones,” he said. “They’re called ex-lobbyists.”

AVOIDING POLITICIZATION

The distinctions are clear. First of all, Yale is not out to snag earmarks.

“I have no objection to politics driving the process for deciding where a bridge is built,” Jacob said, “but when it comes to basic research funding for universities, I think it should be merit-based.”

In fact, he has sometimes intervened to prevent the politicization of research, he said. Legislators sometimes add last-minute amendments to appropriations bills, trying to slash some research grants, such as those involving game theory or sex workers. When that happens, Jacob and Haas rally to kill those motions. Sometimes they just have to explain that game theory is not the study of games — rather, it’s sophisticated economic theory — or that studying sex workers can be critical to AIDS research.

Second, Yale doesn’t make campaign contributions — as a rule, nonprofit organizations can’t. Yale’s lobbyists also can’t mobilize hordes of supporters to pressure their representatives like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the AARP do.

That’s not to say that Yale students and professors don’t weigh in on politics or make contributions. Yale faculty members donated $109,590 to President Barack Obama’s campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records from the past year. But they don’t do so in a coordinated way.

And while Jacob might not command a mass grass-roots network like the AARP, he can count on the eight senators and a dozen representatives who hold Yale degrees. Jacob said he has sometimes called on Yale’s wealthy and influential alumni, whether in Congress, in business or in other sectors, to support him. The Yale brand gives Jacob and Haas a “large megaphone when going on the Hill,” Haas said.

‘A NOBLE CAUSE’

Because of all the baggage associated with the term, some lobbyists shun the term entirely, Haas said, preferring to be called educators. They hate being lumped with Abramoff and the others, whom they consider odious.

“If you’re a lobbyist that does policy work like we do, it disgusts us more than anyone else,” said Sarah Flanagan, vice president for government relations and policy at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, “not only because of the reputation of the business, but because when you have people corrupting the system, it makes it harder for us to do our jobs.”

But Jacob doesn’t shrink from the term, although he does distance himself from some of its darker connotations. Just like the great American economic engine, American democracy turns on people who peddle their self-interest. But in the aggregate, their competition is supposed to propel the public good, or at least so the theory goes.

“People who lobby range from people who lobby for the National Resource Defense Council and the Nature Conservancy to guys like Abramoff who are hired guns,” Jacob said. “We identify issues of concern and explain what we’re all about. That’s lobbying, but in this case, I believe it’s a noble cause.”

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