Politics

Harvard Tradition Agitates Democrats’ Left Wing

Number of lobbyists, not identifying some as such, at orientation for incoming Democrats draws criticism

New York Democratic Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke out against the many corporate interests present at the Harvard Bipartisanship Orientation for New Members. (Mario Tama/Getty Images file photo)

A prestigious, 50-year-old orientation for new members of Congress at Harvard University predicated on the virtues of bipartisanship and civility has drawn intense criticism this week for the presence of lobbyists and business executives — evidence of the growing influence of the left wing of the Democratic Party that has abstained from corporate PAC money.

Most incoming members of Congress attend the storied Bipartisan Program for Newly Elected Members of Congress, which ran from Tuesday to Thursday. Since 1972, the Harvard Institute of Politics has hosted more than 700 current and former representatives, according to the school’s website.

But the time-honored tradition has received unprecedented scrutiny this year due to an “alternative orientation” led by activists on the left who demonstrated right outside Harvard’s doors. Organizers with the Center for Popular Democracy were critical of Harvard for cohosting the forum with the American Enterprise Institute and Center for Strategic and International Studies, think tanks that accept grants and other contributions from corporations with a financial stake in shaping public policy, and of the school’s own private sector donors.

“Ivy League universities and D.C. think tanks get millions of dollars from corporations to influence the legislative process,” said Jennifer Flynn Walker, director of mobilization and advocacy at the Center for Popular Democracy. “We need less corporate power and more people power to move our nation in the right direction.”

Several members-elect who belong to party’s insurgent left who were in Cambridge for the Harvard forum spoke at the alternative orientation.

In the days that followed, both Reps.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan also criticized the Harvard sessions for being dominated by lobbyists and corporations while there was no representation from labor unions or community activists.

“Lobbyists are here. Goldman Sachs is here. Where‘s labor? Activists? Frontline community leaders?” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

An itinerary obtained by Roll Call shows no labor representatives were on the program.

Lobbyists for CVS Health, Oracle and Duberstein Group — a multimillion firm representing major blue chip companies like Amgen and PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry’s trade group — were present at the Harvard orientation, The Hill reported. And the CEOs of General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, and Boeing spoke at a business roundtable.

But a closer inspection of the itinerary shows the influence of K Street was more pervasive than Harvard made immediately apparent.

For example, Sheila Burke, a strategic adviser to the firm Baker Donelson, spoke at a panel about “finding common ground on drug prices.” Baker Donelson is law firm and lobbying group that has represented PhRMA and other health care interests. On the agenda, Burke is identified only by her academic credentials and as a former congressional aide.

“I am not registered and in fact do no lobbying work for any client,” Burke said. “I would have been fine with my connection with Baker being noted” on the agenda.

Acting director of the Harvard Institute of Politics William Delahunt, a former Democratic congressman, leads his own lobbying firm. His primary client is Fuels America, a biochemical trade association. He also serves as strategic counsel at the the law firm Eckert Seamans on health care and financial services regulations.

Delahunt gave opening remarks at the orientation, according to the agenda, but his consulting work is not mentioned.

“That’s an issue,” said Public Citizen Vice President for Legislative Affairs Lisa Gilbert, but “utterly unsurprising.”

“Any opportunity for corporations to get their agenda heard, they’re going to seize it,” she said.

A spokesman for the Harvard Institute of Politics insisted the speakers’ business affiliations were transparent.

“Members received a binder upon arrival that include lengthy bios of all participants, including their businesses,” he said, but did not provide a copy.

Progressive groups criticized the orientation as little more than a venue for corporations to get facetime with incoming lawmakers.

“It is unfortunate but not surprising that Harvard Institute of Politics' training for new members is bipartisan in the sense that is reflects both center-right and corporate interests,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at the grassroots group Demand Progress.

Some freshman lawmakers, including members of the Progressive Caucus, praised the event in a news conference with reporters Thursday night.

Rep.-elect Andy Levin, D-Michigan, spoke at the Center for Popular Democracy’s competing orientation, but at the news conference, he praised Harvard’s traditional event too.

"Since I was one of the people who went out and met with students who were here protesting I want to speak to that … I thought this forum was outstanding and it represented a broad spectrum of views,” he said. “The Institute does an amazing job of presenting a wide variety of perspectives to us and they also listen super carefully to how they should continue to expand that.”

Watchdog groups cheer the fact that an orientation packed with D.C. insiders has drawn new scrutiny, saying it reflects a positive trend. Politicians are recognizing that influence peddling and corruption are increasingly a public concern, they say.

The Harvard orientation “has always reflected establishment priorities and perspectives, but it was the recent blue wave that emboldened members to describe it for what it is — and for what it is not,” Schuman said.

Members who fall into the “establishment” policy mold taught at Harvard’s orientation may do so at their own peril, he said.

“Harvard's [Institute of Politics] reflects how we ended up a legislative branch that suffers from historically high unpopularity.”

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