Thought Control

November 19, 2003 |
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In his book, The Paradox of American Democracy, John Judis recounts numerous anecdotes about several of Washington's most prominent think tanks. He asserts that the convergence of think tanks, corporate dollars, rich individuals, and foundations has birthed a new breed of influence peddlers.

This breed is being rapidly cloned and it's adding a toxic element to important national policy debates. It's also changing the fundamental nature of the way think tanks operate.

It used to be that think tanks were funded to do independent basic research that upheld the organizations' missions but wasn't targeted at creating a specific effect. Increasingly, though, think tanks are being funded to do applied research aimed at creating what's called an "advocacy impact," seducing legislators and administration officials to adopt their policy proposals or to heed their counsel on important policy questions.

If that sounds like lobbying to you, you should know that it does to a lot of people who are a part of the think tank world and are concerned about these changes.

Judis includes a story about the earlier days at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that provides a refreshing glimpse of a time when think tanks used to be less for sale. He notes how, in the early 1970s, AEI's leadership worried about attracting IRS wrath if its policy reports appeared to influence Congressional votes. So they did what they could to make it seem as if they were staying away from legislative arm-twisting. For instance, then-AEI President William Baroody delayed the release of a study supporting a Nixon administration supersonic transport aircraft program until two days after the Senate had voted on it. Some of AEI's friends, though, thought their fear of creating an advocacy impact was foolish, a kind of self-inflicted irrelevance.

That's, in part, what gave Paul Weyrich and Edward Feulner the impetus to launch the Heritage Foundation, which they said would have more "quick response capability." Such capability was very attractive to all kinds of funders who wanted their money to create action, not academic conversation. Today, Heritage is the most influential think tank in the country.

And there are many Heritage wannabes scattered all over the political spectrum. They thrive to the degree that they connect big financial support with work that leads to measurable legislative and policy results.

The problems with this model are multitudinous. When policy analysis is compromised, so is the quality of the national debate. And when those seeking to influence policy turn to think tanks to get hard results, it becomes increasingly difficult for think tanks to raise money that isn't results oriented. So, think tanks act more like lobbying firms.

But the rules for lobbyists and think tanks are different -- lobbyists are regulated and compelled to be transparent, and think tanks are only minimally so. Lobbying laws mandate -- among many other activities -- the disclosure of meals purchased, trips sponsored, and gifts provided to government officials, and a number of ethics-monitoring centers are in place to enforce the regulations.

Virtually none of these requirements are applied to think tanks. Yet, think tanks are seen as such important vehicles for advocacy that a popular Georgetown University course on lobbying lists them as the second item in a roster called the "Lobbyist's Tool Kit." And some of the nation's leading publications, including The Washington Post, National Journal and Roll Call, have sections in their paper entirely dedicated to the industry.

The framers of the U. S. Constitution did not provide for lobbyists in their theories of government. Lobbying, broadly defined, can refer to anyone or any group attempting to influence policy. Over time, the term lobbyist has come to mean a paid agent of influence, an advocacy agent -- often a lawyer, public relations representative, or former government official -- whose knowledge of the back corridors of government can provide an edge in influencing political decisions.

Most think tanks are organized in American corporate law under the same umbrella as charities and educational organizations -- what are called 501(c)3 organizations. As such, think tanks can't devote more than a trivial 5 percent of their total resources to lobbying and political advocacy.

But the line is fuzzy. If DaimlerChrysler, for instance, wanted to educate a group of Congressional staffers or members about the ways in which Korea was failing to live up to the terms of a bilateral auto agreement, or if the Biotechnology Industry Association wanted to lay out the reasons why Europe's "precautionary principle" regarding genetically modified products was a violation of science, free trade and modernity itself, then these interests might try to get an organization to help them make their points. So they might call my employer (the New America Foundation) or the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Cato Institute, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace or the American Enterprise Institute to host a luncheon or a conference to provide "education" for public officials about these issues. These special interests could also ask a non-profit entity to organize a fancy trip to study biotech issues in Australia or to go to Seoul or Brussels to compare the practices of European and Korean automotive companies.

One reason why think tanks are so attractive to moneyed political players is that the intellectuals who work for them seem more legitimate than corporate spokespeople or lobbyists. So part of what's being bought is credibility.

Also attractive is that the contributions are tax-deductible. In other words, a group of wealthy individuals worried about the negative impact on their businesses of trade with China could either give money to members of Congress and political parties -- which is not tax deductible -- or they could make major, unlimited contributions to various think tanks to host Congressional staff for dinners, conferences and trips.

Not only are the contributions tax-deductible, they don't have to be disclosed. It's that quiet, undisclosed advocacy that has given rise to a term for all of this: "deep lobbying." Deep lobbying is helping the think-tank sector thrive, while enlightened policy decisions wither in the well-worn grooves of a paralyzed debate.

For think tanks to grow in this climate they often struggle with a Faustian bargain -- taking money from donors and, while maintaining the guise of policy objectivity and seriousness, doing the bidding of lobbyists.

The lack of IRS resources to investigate the non-profit sector in any serious way, combined with the inherent fuzziness in differentiating between "public education" and lobbying, must be addressed. Yes, think tanks could voluntarily commit to more ethical governance and improved transparency. But, inevitably, not all organizations will play along. So the IRS will ultimately have to get involved. It could begin by looking into non-profit institutions that fail to deliver credible services to the public and that tend to act more as tax-sheltered income machines for key principals in the organization.

Money will always be part of the think-tank business. But when that money and the interests behind it lurk in the shadows of the policy debate, the nation's interests are put at risk.

And it's a risk we can no longer afford to take.

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