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Linda Robertson
Lobbying Force
The vice president for government, community and public affairs talks about what it takes to succeed as an advocate in Washington’s halls of power


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Karen Boyle

Before you joined Johns Hopkins in 2002, you worked on federal legislative issues in both the government and private sector for 25 years. What’s different about lobbying for Hopkins?

The issues here involving research, education and patient care are fundamental to our nation’s overall advancement. They’re at the core of what our policymakers in Washington and elsewhere are thinking about. Thus, we can be strong participants in that policymaking process.

What’s the biggest challenge facing Johns Hopkins now in Washington?

One of our most vigorous efforts is to recommit the nation’s investment in biomedical research, funded primarily through the National Institutes of Health, by explaining to policymakers what we at Hopkins are doing. There was a belief that the NIH had sufficient resources, that appropriations given to the agency could level off for a period, and that there would still be sufficient investment to sustain us. We’ve been explaining how the downturn in NIH funding has had a harmful effect.

And the outlook?

Good. I won’t yet call it a sea change, but there’s at least a “river flow” of new thinking. We saw that in the additional money added in February to the current NIH budget. I think we will see an even better picture in the next fiscal year. You never know about these things, but NIH’s budget could be on a track to beat inflation, if not do a bit better. Then, after the 2008 presidential election, it will be a new playing field.

Has anything in particular turned the situation around?

I’d like to believe Hopkins’ leadership in advocacy played a critical role. Last fall we worked with several scientists across our institution to tell the story in very human terms. We showed why these folks have such a passion for their research and how the NIH has fueled their efforts on the frontiers of biomedical research.

Of all the politicians you’ve dealt with, whom do you admire most?

I spent eight years at the Treasury Department. I was around the White House for all of Bill Clinton’s administration. On occasion I worked with him in his deliberations on economic matters. He’s an absolutely fascinating intellect and thinker.

I remember being in the Oval Office one night with others from Treasury. It was after midnight. Secretary [Robert] Rubin had presented the case for providing Mexico with a debt relief program. We pointed out to President Clinton that a very substantial majority of the American populace was against it but told him it was absolutely the right thing to do. He didn’t hesitate for a moment.

Who’s the most colorful political figure you’ve run into?

In a very positive way, Newt Gingrich. Both he and Clinton are extremely smart people who think through policy.

What’s been the most enjoyable aspect of lobbying for Hopkins?

Getting to know the people at this institution—amazing individuals committed to their work, our community, our country. To be a part of advancing that is an absolutely fascinating experience.

How do you lobby on issues when there are policy disagreements among faculty?

We respect those differences of opinion and present the facts. A main reason for Johns Hopkins’ success in the advocacy field is that we are first and foremost viewed as good outside experts. We’ve worked hard to protect that—to be known as honest brokers and reliable sources, with people who are willing to provide informed opinion. Ultimately, the key to our success is that everybody wants to do the right thing here. I’ve never been in an institution where that was so true.

How does lobbying in Annapolis differ from lobbying in Washington?

There are striking similarities. You start with your institution’s commitment to an issue and the position it takes. The role your institution plays in presenting the facts is paramount. The important thing is to develop a partnership where you’re viewed as an asset to policymakers. The sort of window dressing people read about with respect to lobbying—all that, I think, is highly secondary.

Then why does the public have a negative impression of lobbyists?

So many times the story is told by the aberration, by the example that doesn’t represent the core. In fact, most of those involved in lobbying play a very vital role in advancing information about the preferences and desires of the private sector to the government officials who make the policy decisions. 

—Barry Rascovar

 

 

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