A powerful lobby

One of the nuttiest passages in “The Israel Lobby,” the co-production of professors Stephen Walt (Harvard) and John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago), occurs in the very first footnote. (It’s in the full version, on the website of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.)

Indeed, the mere existence of the [pro-Israel] Lobby suggests that unconditional support for Israel is not in the American national interest. If it was, one would not need an organized special interest group to bring it about. But because Israel is a strategic and moral liability, it takes relentless political pressure to keep U.S. support intact.

Other commentators have pointed to the absurdity of this statement, since every conceivable special interest has a lobby in Washington, and they can’t all be working against the national interest. “By that standard,” writes Max Boot, “Social Security, the 2nd Amendment and Roe vs. Wade must not be ‘in the American national interest’ either, because they are all defended by even more powerful lobbies.” Caroline Glick hits even harder:

Every semi-sentient person with even an incidental knowledge of American politics knows that there is no area of human endeavor that is not represented by a lobby in the US. Walt and Mearsheimer’s asinine assertion means is that every American interest group–from the elderly to the insurance industry, from the Muslims to gun owners to organic food lovers–stands opposed to the American national interest simply by existing. Any professor who made a similar assertion about any other interest group would be imperiling his career.

You can be absolutely sure no professor will make that assertion about one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington: the higher education lobby.

Start with Harvard’s own Office of Federal Relations, conveniently described on its own website. There we learn the following: “Harvard’s federal relations teams in Cambridge and Washington, D.C. work to maintain a positive and ongoing relationship between Harvard and the Congressional and Executive branches of government.”

There you have it, Professor Walt! Evidence that federal support for Harvard is not in the American national interest! If it was, Harvard would not need federal relations “teams” operating out of Cambridge and Washington to bring it about. But because so many Harvard professors are intellectual and moral liabilities, it takes relentless political pressure to keep federal support intact.

Even if Harvard is sitting on a $26 billion endowment, and collecting tens of millions from Saudi princes, it still needs your money. But it’s not just Harvard. Every major research university, and lots of lesser ones, have offices of “government relations”–in-house lobbies that often keep branches in Washington. The downtown Washington office of the University of California, the largest, has a professional staff of twelve. Universities also contract K Street lobbyists when they need them. For example, the Chicago Tribune reported in January that the University of Chicago has hired the Federalist Group, a Washington lobbying firm, to help it win what is supposed to be a merit-based competition to manage the Argonne National Laboratory. The university is applying political pressure to preserve its established hold on the laboratory. What say you, Professor Mearsheimer?

Beyond the lobbying efforts of individual institutions, there’s an alphabet soup of about fifty Washington-based higher ed organizations, led by the mighty American Council on Education (ACE). “There’s a virtual armada of professional educational lobbyists who, more often than not, move in lock step to preserve the status quo,” the spokesman of the House education committee reports. The universities’ main game is to raise tuition faster than inflation, and then get the taxpayers to foot the bill through student aid, mostly in loans ($90 billion in federal money last year). According to the College Board, the overall tuition and fees at private four-year schools in the United States rose an average annual rate of 5.8 percent from 2001 to 2006. If you paid that, or graduated with a mountain of debt, thank the higher ed lobby.

What would happen if you ran the higher ed lobby against the pro-Israel lobby, in a battle of the titans? Walt and Mearsheimer criticize “the efforts Jewish groups have made to push Congress into establishing mechanisms to monitor what professors say. If they manage to get this passed, universities judged to have an anti-Israel bias would be denied federal funding. Their efforts have not yet succeeded, but they are an indication of the importance placed on controlling debate.”

That’s a lie. There is no Jewish-inspired mechanism being “pushed” on Congress that would monitor what professors say or punish anti-Israel bias. There is a Republican-led effort to get something back from area studies programs that suck subsidies out of Washington. I can testify, from first-hand knowledge, that most Jewish organizations haven’t and won’t go up to the Hill to support that effort. They’re not absolutely sure the reform will do anything for Israel, and they have an innate fear of confronting the higher ed lobby.

Why? First, the higher ed crowd will accuse you of McCarthyism on the slightest pretext, and Jewish organizations are super-sensitive to that. Second, within living memory, America’s great universities limited the access of Jews, so Jewish organizations don’t want to rock the boat. If any reform of these programs passes, it’ll be thanks to conservative Republican congressmen who are fed up with the way liberal-left academe stiffs them on area studies. They want to see some grads come out of these programs who really know difficult languages and are willing to sign on for national service. Benefit to America? Potentially immense. Benefit to Israel? Not obvious.

In conclusion: If we accept Walt and Mearsheimer’s claim that a lobby, by definition, works against the national interest, then this must be equally true of the Harvard lobby, the University of Chicago lobby, and the entire higher ed lobby, all of which work for them. There might even be some evidence for such a determination: tuitions rise everywhere and so do taxpayer subsidies, yet nonsense pervades the faculties of America’s greatest universities. Still, it would be foolish to argue that universities are conspiring against the rest of us. It’s just the American way. And if it weren’t for lobbies (and their cousins, think tanks), Washington would be a city short on ideas. We’d be left to rely on uneven if not shoddy “scholarship” that’s dogmatic, one-dimensional and simplistic. “The Israel Lobby” is a case in point.