Washington, D.C. and the Orange Bubble: A Study in Politics and the University

By David Byler ’14

The “Orange Bubble” – that term effectively describes how many of us Princeton students view the University. We feel happily secluded from the rest of the world with everything we need located no further than a walk to Nassau Street. A little bit of investigation, however, shows that this assumption is not completely valid. Princeton has a large presence outside the town of Princeton, and that presence extends all the way to Capitol Hill. Throughout the years, the University has had its interests represented on the national level, and the current situation is no different. By means of direct lobbying and other sources of funding, the University has made several fiscal and policy-related gains in Washington DC.  Some of these gains come from Princeton’s Congressman, Rush Holt.

Over the years, Princeton has given its unwavering support to Congressman Holt. This one-time Assistant Director of the Plasma Physics Laboratory was elected to New Jersey’s 12th District in 1998, and has represented the district that contains the University since then.  Congressman Holt, a liberal Democrat, has, in fact, enjoyed much favor with the University. Princeton has consistently been Holt’s greatest contributor by far, giving a total of $321,450 to Holt over the course of his career. The next highest contributor has been Rutgers University, donating $112,457 – only a little more than a third of what the University gave him. Holt has faced some difficult races throughout his tenure as Congressman, but each time that he has run into trouble the University has given more money to try to ensure his victory. For example, in the 2010 election, when Holt was running for his sixth term in a very anti-incumbent atmosphere, the University contributed a total of $53,863 to his campaign. This stands in stark contrast to the election of 2008, when Holt won by a large margin and the University contributed only $23,625 to his campaign.

Yet Congressman Holt isn’t the only person representing Princeton in the Capitol. Princeton has had a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., for over 25 years, and has spent 1.27 million dollars on lobbying since 2006. Our current lobbyist, Joyce Rechtschaffen ‘75, is a Princeton alumna who has worked various jobs on Capitol Hill, including staffing for Joe Lieberman. Her job description includes analyzing public policy and how it will affect issues related to Princeton, representing the interests of the University, and working and interacting with other important figures in the legislature. In an interview with Princeton Alumni Weekly, Rechtschaffen enumerated some of her biggest victories. One involved stopping a provision that would have mandated universities to spend a certain amount of their endowment every year, and another involved blunting a proposal aimed at requiring standardized testing for University students. Of Ms. Rechtschaffen’s accomplishments, perhaps the most interesting is her role in the stimulus debate. Due in part to her efforts, the stimulus bill contained 22 billion dollars in funding for research and science, some of which came back to Princeton.

As previously stated, Princeton has spent well over a million dollars on lobbying since 2006 and has, as a whole, contributed over $300,000 to Rush Holt over the course of his career. Many Congressmen might try to pay back Princeton in the form of earmarks, but neither Holt nor the University want to take that route. Holt has avoided the contentious issue of spending federal funds on large campaign contributors by using funds from the stimulus package to get 13.8 million dollars in federal funding for the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. In this way, Holt pays back Princeton for its sustained contribution, puts federal money into a personal project, and avoids criticism for earmarking funds to Princeton while performing an equivalent action.

Another significant aspect of the University’s political contributions to Holt comes from the definition of the word “contributor.”  When Princeton is listed as a “contributor” by the Center for Responsive Politics (the main source of data for this article), it is unclear whether the University itself is being referred to, or whether that term merely measures the contributions of individual employees of the University. Both possibilities, however, lead to interesting questions. If the University itself did support Holt – a politician with high ratings from NARAL Pro-Choice America who supported the repeal of “Don’t ask Don’t Tell” – then they would be taking a clear stand on certain social issues. On the other hand, if the donations from individual employees of Princeton are summed up to calculate Princeton’s contributions to Holt, then another problem arises. In that case, the enormous gap in the last election between funding for Holt and his Republican challenger, Scott Siprelle, is a sign of liberal bias amongst those employed by the University.

But however “contributor” is defined, the question of the stimulus funding still remains. Is there a connection between Joyce Rechtschaffen’s advocacy for the 22 billion dollars in research funding in the stimulus and the 13.8 million dollars that went to the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab? How many other potentially suspicious exchanges involving Princeton and the federal government have occurred? It’s impossible to know the answer to these questions, but Princeton’s relationship with Capitol Hill remains a source of suspicion that deserves attention and scrutiny.

Similar investigations might find that other interesting relationships between Princeton and loci of influence and power also exist. While these connections are speculative, the point of this article is to show how our seemingly insular University extends its influence onto the national political stage. As a nickname, then, the “Orange Bubble” doesn’t always fit.

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One thought on “Washington, D.C. and the Orange Bubble: A Study in Politics and the University

  • March 11, 2011 at 11:38 pm
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    This is a terrible article. The author did only cursory research. Why leave the reader with lingering questions? A good article would do the research and answer those questions.

    As a nonprofit institution, the university is not allowed to donate to political candidates. A quick interview with the university’s Office of Government Relations or Office of Community and Regional Affairs, or with Rep. Holt’s office, would confirm this and would thus clarify the author’s skepticism at how the Center for Responsive Politics defines “contributor.” And if there is a liberal bias among those employed by the university, so what? Is the university obligated to employ an equal number of democrats and republicans? Such an idea is ludicrous.

    Stop trying to create controversy where there isn’t any.

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