After congressional gridlock resulted in a government shutdown at midnight on Tuesday, The Daily Princetonian spoke by phone with Joyce Rechtschaffen ’75, director of the University’s D.C.-based Office of Government Affairs, who serves as the primary liaison between the University and lawmakers in Washington. Although she characterized the shutdown as a negative development, Rechtschaffen explained that much of the office’s work on longer-term initiatives — such as lobbying for increasing federal funding for scientific research in the face of the sequester — would continue anyway.
The Daily Princetonian: First of all, obviously this was the first day of the government shutdown, and my general question is: Was the Office of Government Affairs at all affected by the shutdown, and if so, how?
Joyce Rechtschaffen: Well, no, we have not been affected on the first day, other than a couple of things … There was a meeting scheduled this afternoon with two staffers for the health committee — Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee — to talk about the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, just to get an update about where the committee was going. And that was canceled; that meeting was canceled. Tomorrow … there’s a conference with the Coalition for Education Funding … but the Secretary [of Education], Arne Duncan, was supposed to come and address the conference, and he is not coming. So those are the two impacts I would say so far.
DP: So, did your office anticipate a government shutdown, and did you make any preparations for the possibility?
JR: If you’ve been following what’s been going on in Washington, I don’t think anyone could have anticipated what was going to happen next. I mean, it really was just stay up ’til midnight to know it was happening. But we certainly knew it was possible.
DP: Do you have any meetings that have been scheduled for the coming days or coming weeks that you think could possibly be canceled or moved into the future as a result of the government shutdown?
JR: I mentioned the one today and tomorrow, and certainly we’d probably be in the process of scheduling something relating to some pieces of legislation, those things that are ongoing, but we don’t know if those will go forward or not. On the Hill, each individual office makes their own decision on who will work and who will not. So we really have to work on an individual-office basis to see if they’re scheduling meetings, or et cetera.
DP: Really? Even if all of your points of contact and liaisons within government are not coming to work? Will there still be things for your staff to do in the office if this government shutdown lasts for a week or two weeks?
JR: We are focused on advocacy for research funding and concerns about how the sequestration, for example, is impacting research funding. And we talk about the strategies — what are our strategies for dealing with that — what are new ways? Today … we had a meeting at our association with … the semiconductor industry and some of the defense industry, which really relies on innovation coming out of universities. And indeed, we talked about the partnership to fight for research funding, to fight against the sequestration. So these kind of issues continue to go forward, and strategizing about these issues continues to go forward.
DP: But in light of the fact that the president’s health care law became the focal point of this most recent government shutdown, and in light of indications that this issue won’t go away, and that stopping the government shutdown could be rolled into a larger discussion of raising the debt limit, do you think it’s likely that your office will actually be able to work productively with Congress on the issue of increased research funding in the near future? Or do you think that all of the oxygen in Washington is sucked up by other issues?
JR: I do. One thing we have learned is there was full bipartisan support for research funding. So, for example, a number of appropriation bills had already gone through a committee, and all of them suggest more support for research funding. So, yes, I believe we will continue a productive relationship.
DP: You already mentioned that you’ve been with meeting with some people in the semiconductor and defense industries to discuss the importance of research funding. But what do you see as the major issues that your office will be advocating in the coming months? Do you have any particular initiatives or plans or meetings on the books with members of Congress or the president?
JR: Sure. So, just in general, it wasn’t a specific meeting that I had with the semiconductor [industry]; this was the whole of the association. In general … we are advocates for strong research funding; we hope the appropriations bills will go forward [for] NSF, NIH, DOD, basic research, NOAA, NASA. We are strong advocates for Pell Grant funding; that’s one of our top priorities. There’s the DOE Office of Science. As you know, we are strong advocates for the Office of Fusion Energy as for the basic research at the Office of Science. So those are — [and] NEH, the National Endowment for Humanities — these are research priorities, of course. And financial aid for students, Pell Grants for students and graduate funding for students. So those are some of the initiatives we’re working on … We’re working on advocating for strong funding for the social sciences, which, as you know, is an important part of Princeton. So that’s some of the work. Congress is going to be working on a lot of things — the Higher Education Act. As you know, we’ve been real strong. President Eisgruber — President Tilghman before him — were strong advocates against the movement toward standardized testing for undergraduates. We will continue to work on those kinds of issues. We are very concerned about the innovation deficit, the education deficit, that’s coming from sequestration, and that’s a very high priority for our work.
DP: Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
JR: The impact upon higher education and research right now in the short term is mild, but we don’t know what the impact will be in the long-term. So we will be watching it, and we’ll just continue to do everything we can to keep the University up-to-date, to work on our strategies so if there’s a long-term solution to this whole crisis, including the debt and the shutdown and everything else, it includes strong robust funding for research and strong funding for financial aid for our students.