WASHINGTON – As stories about convicted Washington lobbyists like Jack Abramoff have dominated newspaper headlines in recent months,Jon Murphy said people may have the wrong idea about what goes into his job.
“We're an advocate,if you will. Lobbying,especially nowadays,has a negative connotation to it,that you're out there wheeling and dealing,” Murphy said. “I think people have a perception of what lobbying is,you know,and that is not what academic lobbyists do.”
Murphy,Iowa State University's director for federal government relations,guides the university's lobbying efforts from Washington. He lives in the District of Columbia,but said he visits the ISU campus at least five or six days every month.
Murphy said it's his responsibility to inform Iowa's five representatives and two senators what the university wants from the federal government.
“My main role is to provide information about Iowa State's priorities and strengths to the congressional delegation to help them make decisions as they are going forward,” Murphy said. “If you didn't have somebody coordinating the message of what Iowa State is saying as a university – we have a very diverse campus – you would have all these people coming to our delegation with no coordination.”
Gary Steinke,executive director of the Iowa Board of Regents,oversaw Iowa State's federal lobbying efforts and opened the Washington office before Murphy took the federal responsibilities in 2001.He said it was more difficult to make inroads with Washington politicians before opening the D.C. office.
“I did that alone for a number of years,and it just became obvious you were either a player in Washington politics or just a visitor,” Steinke said.
The University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa each has an official responsible for lobbying the federal government,though neither has an office in Washington,Steinke said.
Murphy said that,in addition to lobbying in Washington,he works closely with administrators and professors on campus to set a federal agenda of the university's top priorities.
“We go over every agenda item that has been submitted for the federal agenda,” he said. “We talk about the scientific merits and we talk about some of the political lay of the land.”
In 2005,Iowa State spent $160,042 on its federal lobbying efforts,according to legislative records. The university received more than $181 million in federal funding for campus research and facilities during the 2005 fiscal year.
Steinke said that Murphy's efforts in Washington make him an “unsung hero” at Iowa State.
“He knows every congressional staffer in Washington,D.C.,” Steinke said. “He just knows people all over town,and that's just the key to the whole process.”
A Des Moines native and 1994 ISU alumnus,Murphy worked for Rep. Leonard Boswell,D-Iowa,before assuming his post at Iowa State.
Murphy said he also works on issues directly affecting students.
“We work with our student aid folks on campus to make sure that our delegation is familiar with the issues that are affecting our students as it relates to federal student loans and so on,” he said.
Even after a $12 billion reduction in federal student aid in February and loan interest rates set to rise Saturday,Murphy said members of Congress did not believe cutting funds was a major concern.
“I just think that there are people who did not agree with the information that was being put forward by the higher education community,” he said. “If you said there was going to be $12 billion in student aid cut,they simply did not agree with that. They said,‘Show me the cuts.' ”
Despite the cuts to student aid and recent approval of a $200 per student surcharge to cover utility costs and faculty raises,Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said that tuition rates remain competitive.
“We still,relative to other universities in other states,have competitive tuitions,and I think hopefully we'll continue that,” Vilsack,a Democrat,said during an interview while he was in Washington June 23. “Having said that,I think it's important for future legislators to do a better job than has been done providing support in the university system.”
“I think Iowa State has a very competitive tuition despite the increases that have happened,” he said. “I think on the federal level,we can make college more affordable by keeping those opportunities for Pell Grants and Perkins Loans accessible but by keeping the percentages low.”
For students who may be interested in lobbying as a career,Iowa State offers an unpaid internship at its Washington office. Information is available on the Web at http://www.gov.iastate.edu/federal
“We really want to get Iowa State students interested in coming out to D.C.,” Murphy said.
But lobbying isn't the only side to Iowa State's voice in Washington.
Murphy,who lives near the Capitol,is getting married in September.
He said he met his fiancé,Katherine Lefert,through networking with friends about three years ago. She is a physical therapist from Wisconsin who works at Children's National Medical Center in Washington.
It's a relief to live with someone who doesn't work on Capitol Hill,Murphy said.
“I'm so glad that she's not in politics,” he said. “It would drive both of us crazy.”
Murphy said while he's excited about starting a new chapter in his life,he doesn't know how long he wants to stay in Washington,though he said he hasn't given the idea of moving much thought.
“D.C. and the East Coast are fantastic,but we are drawn to the Midwest,” he said. “We've got to get this getting married thing out of the way first.”