Three signed pieces of legislation on the wall of her Washington, D.C., office testify that Joyce Rechtschaffen ’75 came to her current job as Princeton’s chief lobbyist after a long career as a congressional aide. Rechtschaffen served on the staff of Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman for 17 years, stepping down as the Democratic staff director of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to take over as Princeton’s director of government affairs in 2006. She spoke to PAW about her job and how the changing political landscape will affect her work.
What does Princeton’s lobbyist do?
First of all, we don’t ask for money specifically for Princeton. The University has a long-standing policy of not seeking earmarks, those specific funding grants that are put into legislation. What I do is seek support for policies that are important to higher education generally: things such as increased research funding, support for undergraduate financial aid and aid for low-income students generally, and graduate-student support such as research grants and fellowships. We also support policies that encourage charitable giving, which is very important to Princeton and all educational institutions.
Why does Princeton need a lobbyist?
Government and universities have a long relationship, but they don’t always understand each other very well. A large part of my job is to explain the University to folks in Washington and explain Washington to folks on campus.
I also have a lot of ambassadorial roles, such as bringing people from Princeton down to Washington to talk about their work. When Yemen was a big issue, for example, I made sure that all the relevant committees on the Hill knew that the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine, was on our faculty and available to brief members of Congress.
Which party is more supportive of issues that concern Princeton?
Traditionally, research issues have been very bipartisan. The America COMPETES Act, for example, which grew out of a study by Princeton alumnus Norm Augustine [’57 *59] and recommended a doubling of funding for the physical sciences, was passed in 2007 with support from both parties.
Republicans will have a majority in the House next year. Will that affect your work?
There certainly will be new players chairing and staffing the relevant congressional committees. We will need to introduce ourselves to new leaders and explain what we’re all about. There will likely be efforts to reduce the deficit. We will make the case that basic research contributes to economic growth and innovation. That’s one of the messages that we will be taking to Congress.
What has been your biggest success?
I think of three things. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the so-called stimulus plan, contained $22 billion for research funding. We hosted a roundtable at Princeton in the fall of 2008 with several congressional leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and had some of our best scientists make presentations about the importance of investment in the sciences. They came away from that with a renewed commitment to science funding, and I think it was reflected in the legislation.
In 2007, there was a real effort to mandate what would have amounted to standardized testing for higher education; such a requirement would have fundamentally affected the type of education that Princeton and many other institutions provide. That was something we worked on, and the final bill did not include that provision. We have worked on educating Congress about our endowment and how it is used to support things like our financial-aid programs. I think that helped blunt proposals in Congress to impose a mandatory payout rate on university endowments.
What has been your biggest frustration?
Our researchers would benefit from greater predictability in what their funding is going to be. It can be hard to explain to them why funding can go up and down from year to year, which makes it harder to plan. We have been on a good trajectory since 2008, but next year could be a difficult year. The 2011 fiscal year has already begun, and Congress has not settled the year’s appropriations. Everyone else gets their business done — why can’t Congress?
— Interview conducted and condensed by Mark F. Bernstein ’83