Windy City Muscle

Long after most major research universities have done so, the U. of Chicago is establishing a lobbying presence in Washington.

July 16, 2008

Holding a copy of The Politico beneath his arm, Scott Sudduth shuffles into a law office on 19th Street in Washington. With his blue pin-striped shirt and smooth-shaven head, Sudduth looks like a cross between a stock broker and Mr. Clean. But Sudduth, 49, is neither. He is, instead, a true creature of the District – a longtime lobbyist who’s spent nearly two decades representing universities on Capitol Hill.

Now Sudduth is charged with what may be his biggest challenge to date. He’s planting a flag in D.C. for the University of Chicago, which is arguably the most prominent research institution in the country to not already have a full-time presence in Washington.

“They’ve been AWOL from Washington,” Sudduth says of his new employer.

Under a newly launched plan, however, Chicago expects to spend $500,000 year on D.C. operations, providing Sudduth with a staff and office space.

Sudduth first came to D.C. as a fresh-faced college kid from Texas. He quickly scored a job with Lloyd Bentsen, the powerful Democratic senator from his home state. Before long, Sudduth was a key player in the higher education lobbying apparatus. He founded the first office of governmental relations at his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, and has spent the last 10 years as head of federal lobbying efforts for the University of California system.

Threatened Lab Boosted D.C. Interest

Sudduth’s recent hiring as associate vice president for federal relations is no coincidence. University officials have seen how a lack of representation in Washington can be crippling. In 2006, after decades of managing Argonne National Laboratory, Chicago had to compete for the first time to retain its its coveted contract running the prestigious center of scientific innovation. The competitive bidding process for the lab, which drew proposals from the private sector, was a “wake-up call” for a university that had never seen its status as head of Argonne threatened, Sudduth said.

Chicago, which also manages Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, is one of just two universities in the country that manages two national labs. The other is the California system, where Sudduth previously headed federal relations.

The two Chicago-run labs are considered jewels in the scientific community, and offering faculty and students a chance to work in them is a major recruitment incentive that most universities can’t provide. The labs collectively attract almost $900 million annually in federal research funding.

At Fermilab, scientists study high energy physics and, in a $260 million project called NOvA, they are exploring the origin of the universe. Argonne, which focuses on security issues, traces its roots back to the Manhattan Project.

A Broad Agenda

Chicago officials are quick to point out that there were reasons to expand into D.C., even before the university’s Argonne contract was challenged. The university wants to help shape public policy on subjects as diverse as health care and student loans, becoming more of an advocate for higher education as a whole – a role others have hoped to see it play for some time.

“Chicago’s absence had been noticed on many issues,” Sudduth acknowledged.

Taking on an increased public policy role may be all the more timely, now that a former Chicago law professor, Sen. Barack Obama, and a former administrator, Michelle Obama, could become the next president and first lady of the United States, respectively.

Chicago’s presence in D.C. wasn’t completely lacking before now. The university had a director of federal relations – a position that has since been eliminated – who lobbied Washington lawmakers from a Chicago-based office.

The expansion is a welcome move in the view of the Association of American Universities, a coalition of top research universities. “It’s not that they were not active before,” said Barry Toiv, the association's vice president for public affairs. “They were active on federal issues, but it’s clear that -- not only in opening the Washington Office, but also in hiring Scott -- they have sent a very clear message that they intend to be very active on federal issues. And we appreciate that because our strength is the strength of who are members are.”

The Department of Energy, which contracts with Chicago to manage Argonne and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, certainly favored Chicago’s expansion as well. The department has long fought to steer resources toward national labs, but now there is increased pressure on Chicago to put some of its own muscle behind the lobbying effort.

“There’s the sense that we have a real obligation to be able to both represent the interests of the labs in Washington and, at the same time, to understand better the concerns and direction of the agencies, including DOE,” said David Greene, the university’s vice president for strategic initiatives to whom Sudduth reports.

The Department of Energy has also made it clear that it wants Chicago to play a more active role in the fiscal management and security of the labs, instead of focusing so exclusively on the science the lab produces. That shift in emphasis is demonstrated by the makeup of the Board of Governors at Argonne and Fermilab, where leaders from the private sector are increasingly represented.

“We’re getting more corporate and management types on the board,” said Donald Levy, Chicago’s vice president of research and national labs. “By the nature of the people that are on the board, it’s looking more into management and strategic issues than perhaps it did in the past.”

A recent example of this strategic focus comes in the area of security. James Porter, an Argonne board member and vice president at DuPont, recently headed up a review of lab security. Porter has orally reported his committee’s preliminary findings, and he will later issue a full written report that will presumably lead to enhancements or changes in security protocols at the lab.

A Longtime Ally Departs House

The increased emphasis on federal lobbying by Chicago, and by extension the two labs it operates, is illustrative of changes in the Washington establishment. For years, it had been accepted that the powerful Republican House speaker, Rep. Dennis Hastert, would insure the labs in his home state were taken care of in the budget. But after Hastert resigned in 2007, long-held traditions appeared to dissolve.

For Fermilab, the 2008 fiscal year budget was slated to be cut by $52 million, a bleak scenario that would have led to painful layoffs. But Chicago and Department of Energy officials leaned on other members of the Illinois delegation, notably Sen. Dick Durbin, who helped add nearly $30 million in new money for Fermilab into the recently signed supplemental funding bill. As a result, lab officials estimate that about 90 layoffs were avoided.

Sudduth, who was hired by Chicago during the tail end of the budget negotiations, said “the rest of the delegation didn’t worry about” lab funding because it had so reliably been taken care of during the Hastert era.

In part, Sudduth’s new role is about educating Congress on the importance of the labs – something that was not as necessary before. That means talking about high energy physics in ways that make sense, touting the role of the labs in boosting American competitiveness and, as Sudduth puts it, making the case that “these national lab facilities are the envy of the world.”

“If what turns you on in the morning is cutting edge research at one of the best facilities in the world,” he said, “you’re going to want to work at one of these labs.”


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