Education Opinion

The Insider’s Insider: Education Lobbyist Ellin Nolan On The HotSeat

By Alexander Russo — February 27, 2007 7 min read
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Education lobbyist Ellin Nolan is one of those folks who never gets much publicity in DC -- she doesn’t want it. But that doesn’t mean she’s not well know or influential in her own right. President of Washington Partners LLC, Nolan has helped turn the firm into a powerhouse full-service education lobbying firm.

Staffers and members of Congress may come and go, but lobbyists like Nolan are always there. On the HotSeat, Nolan dispells everyone’s notions about how lobbyists work (ie, in the dark of night), describes her favorite lobbying reform (attach lobbyists’ names to projects), explains how education earmarks are different from other kinds (earmarks are harder to get), and dishes on which is more fun -- authorizing or appropriating (you can anticipate this one).

She won’t tell what the most infamous education “bridge to nowhere” earmark is (there’s gotta be one-tell me if you know) or how much she lost in the FY07 budget process, but it’s still a fascinating peek into the world of folks who hang out outside committee rooms and seem to know everyone. Based on the State of the Union, what do you think about a budget request or earmark for Baby Einstein’s creator, Julie Aigner-Clark?

EN: I say she probably has plenty of money but also has a good shot at getting more. In the earmark world, it’s still all about being in the right place at the right time, having a good idea to sell and the right person to sell it to. She wins on all counts.

Authorizing or appropriating – which is more fun? Be honest, now. We all know it’s appropriations.

EN: Honestly, appropriating is more about winners and losers and that is often more fun. A year begins and ends on a defined schedule. Sure, there are delays and extensions, but at the end of the day, the Congress must write and pass a budget for the year.

So everything in appropriations is cut and dried?

EN: No, not at all. In the world of appropriations a whole new language is spoken, full of remarkable contradictions and nuances. Even when the top guys say “no more earmarks!” you have to dig deep to figure out what they really mean by the word “no.”

Whatever happened to the Spellings Commission and that whole thing about making higher ed as accountable as K-12?

EN: I think the work of the Spellings Commission did in fact contribute to slowing down consideration of HEA –a factor among many other factors. In conversation with Democratic staffers, the topic of at least linking policy issues in NCLB and HEA relevant to teacher education is now being mentioned. Regarding actual accountability, public education is just that—public as well as mandatory for kids to a certain age. Higher education is voluntary and often private.

Why shouldn’t higher ed be just as accountable as K12?

EN: Higher ed is not simply an extension of high school. To say there is no accountability in higher ed because it doesn’t operate the same way as K-12 schools is incorrect.

What’s the rule on who registers as a lobbyist, and does anyone really care if you or anyone else at Washington Partners are?

EN: If someone pays you a threshold amount in a six-month period to lobby, you are obligated to report that income. A quirky aspect of the lobbying community in DC is that consultants generally over-report because they want to be listed as representing such-and-such a client. Bragging rights, I suppose.

What’s the threshold, who’s registered at WPLLC, and who are your big clients?

EN: $6,000 in a six month period. We are all registered on behalf of those clients where we are required to do so.

Who else is out their lobbying on education issues, and how big a business is it?

EN: Lots of small and large firms have entered the realm of education lobbying. These are issues and organizations that lobbyists like to take on--white hats as they say. When Washington Partners first got started, we were pretty much the only boutique education firm. I like to think we demonstrated that it was an issue area where you could be successful and it had the extra benefit that you were representing mission-driven organizations and causes you believed in. The fact that we have lots of competition these days proves my point. Just look around and see where all the former Bush politicos at ED have gone, as well as many former staffers on the HELP and Education and Labor Committees.

If the higher ed lobbyists and the K-12 lobbyists played Frisbee golf, which side would win, why, and whose side would you plan on?

EN: As a middle child whose sport in high school was cheerleading (can’t believe I am admitting this), I would most likely be playing referee or rooting from the sidelines. As a betting person (which I am not), I don’t think there would be a winner or a loser. Congress would lock them in a room and force them to compromise.

You just beat out Richard Lee Colvin as having given the most evasive answer ever on the HotSeat. How do you feel about that?

EN: Who in the world have you been interviewing?

Up until now, has earmarking increased as much in education as in the rest of the budget?

EN: In order to write a CR this year, the Congress found $20 billion in earmarks from the House and Senate drafted bills that had not passed and spent that money instead on authorized programs. Education had its fair share—spread all throughout agencies of government, not just the Department of Education.

Where else are the education earmarks? Defense, right? Anywhere else? I won’t tell.

EN: You can find earmarks that are directed to or benefit education entities or interests throughout the federal budget.

How many earmarks or funding levels did you have in the House bill that are now wiped out and have to be done again, or lost?

EN: None. That’s what I mean. You really have to research that word “no”.

So you’re telling me you had nothing in the FY07 spending bills for your clients? You’re bragging about that?

EN: Your question was about funding that was wiped out or lost. I answered you honestly.

What if lobbyists had to attach their names to earmarks as well as members?

EN: Bring it on. If you are good at what you do, why would you not want to be identified with an issue or cause? You can say no to client representation [define client representation] and if I was too embarrassed to identify myself with a person or entity or issue, which is what I would do. And believe me, it’s true of the majority of lobbyists that I know.

Who have you turned down, or who would you turn down?

EN: I have to say people who come to WP looking for our services know we specialize in education. They have generally been referred to us by someone who knows our work. Sometimes you turn down work because you feel it would be a conflict of some sort with work you are doing for another client or it is just not a good fit. For instance, I would not be interested in representing the tobacco industry but frankly they wouldn’t be interested in me either.

Right around now, education groups start to get all worked up about the budget resolution. Why – does it really make a difference?

EN: The budget resolution is something all education groups can agree on—collectively we support increasing the federal investment in education. Period. Writing a budget resolution is the opening play in the year-long game of writing and passing a bill. It sets the tone and lets all of us know who is with you and who is against you. So yes, it does matter.

Are there any infamous education earmarks, along the lines of the “bridge to nowhere?”

EN: Perhaps—but you will have to go elsewhere for that one.

What’s harder to get – an earmark or a 1 percent set-aside?

EN: An earmark as a general rule. They are most often one-time appropriations for a specific purpose. A set-aside is a special rule in a statute authorizing annual spending for a program—in other words a gift that keeps on giving.

What’s your proudest or most prominent moment as a lobbyist?

EN: Now that’s a tough one. The very nature of my work is behind the scenes, urging others to take action on behalf of the programs that I represent. You can have a great victory that very few people would credit with your work. If I wanted the glory I’d run for public office.

What’s the most common misconception about what you do, or how you get things done?

EN: That lobbying is about buying influence. Lobbying is about doing your homework, establishing trusting relationships with staff and Members who know they can count on you to advise them well and honestly.

The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.