Many D.C. think tanks now players in partisan wars
Twelfth in a series.
WASHINGTON — The August recess traditionally gives members of Congress a chance to go home and hear directly from local constituents clamoring for personal contact with their elected representatives.
But in some districts, a different stripe of player will be competing for political attention: the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank specializing in public policy research.
The nine-city “Defund Obamacare Town Hall Tour,’’ to be headlined by the think tank’s president, former Republican senator and Tea Party movement leader Jim DeMint, is appealing to supporters to “join fellow conservatives in your area and learn how to get America back on track.”
It is a new and startlingly aggressive role for a leading Washington research institution, even one with the ideological underpinnings of Heritage, and emblematic of a larger trend. Not long ago, Washington’s think tanks constituted a rarefied world of policy-minded scholars supported by healthy endowments and quietly sought solutions to some of the nation’s biggest challenges. But now Congress and the executive branch are served a limitless feast of supposedly independent research from hundreds of nonprofit institutions that are pursuing fiercely partisan agendas and are funded by undisclosed corporations, wealthy individuals, or both.
The shift is upending the role of think tanks, prompting some researchers to worry it is eroding trust in these institutions.
Indeed, it now is difficult to tell the difference between truly objective advice and high-priced advocacy for political or private profit, according to a Globe review of public and internal documents and interviews with dozens of current and former think tank scholars, management staff, and donors.
Some say Washington’s once-heralded “ideas industry” steadily looks like a “think tank-industrial complex.”
“They have evolved into what looks like a business,” said Alan Dye, a Washington attorney who has represented think tanks, including Heritage, for three decades. “A brain trust for sale.”
Some thinks tanks on the left and the right of the ideological spectrum have grown so political that, to avoid losing their tax status as charitable organizations, they have established separate operations dedicated to lobbying and other advocacy work.
The Heritage town hall tour, one of the most high-profile examples of merging scholarship with political salesmanship, is being organized by Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm Heritage launched three years ago under the same roof.
The aggressive politicking is making even some of the think tank’s own scholars uncomfortable, according to a number of insiders who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal.
Heritage Action for America has even begun grading members of Congress on their conservative bona fides, which some scholars at Heritage privately say is degrading the organization’s reputation on Capitol Hill as a thoughtful hub of policy research.
Heritage insists that the aggressive partisanship of its advocacy arm does not color its principled approach to public policy research.
“They are inviting Senator DeMint to come along,” Michael Gonzalez, Heritage’s vice president for communications, said of Heritage Action for America. “The lines are not being blurred with the think tanks. We created Heritage Action so that the lines will not be blurred.”
Think tanks have long occupied a unique niche in Washington: nonprofits straddling the worlds of academia and government. For decades they have served as influential havens for top policy experts, as well as aspiring and former government officials.
The term “think tank” was coined during World War II to describe a secure facility where scientists and military planners plotted strategy, according to a 2002 history published by the Department of State. The definition was later expanded to include a variety of respected institutions.
Founded by leading philanthropists and intellectuals, the first groups included the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which seeks to reduce international conflict; the vast and multidisciplinary Brookings Institution, which is widely considered left-leaning; the conservative Hoover Institution; the Council on Foreign Relations, which remains a who’s who of the foreign policy establishment from both parties; the conservative American Enterprise Institute; and the government-funded Rand Corporation, which was established by the Pentagon at the dawn of the Cold War.
“They were sleepy places, mainly for scholars who didn’t want to teach at universities,” said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The number of think tanks in the United States has more than doubled since 1980, to 1,823, according to a 2012 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.
The study found that the newer think tanks are increasingly specialized and “focused on a single issue or area of policy.” A greater share of their funding is also tightly targeted.
Individual scholars at the institutions have joined the hunt for dollars.
“There is a huge amount of time spent raising money,” said Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of defense and state who helped establish the liberal Center for a New American Security in 2009.
The intense pressure to raise money, say observers, has damaged the sense of independence.
“The notion of policy objectivity is eroding,” said Steve Clemons, a cofounder and senior fellow of the New America Foundation, another Democratic-leaning think tank established in 1999.
Campbell puts in more bluntly, saying at some think tanks the very meaning of “objective analysis” is changing:
“This is your objective. Now go do the analysis.”
From start, pushing agenda
The growing fusion of scholarly research and acute partisanship is hardly the exclusive preserve of the right.
The founding principle of the Center for American Progress, established a decade ago by former Clinton administration officials, was to use policy studies to press a liberal agenda. In the process it helped pioneer the new breed of aggressively ideological think tank.
“Part of the analysis was that there wasn’t an ideological think tank on the left,” Neera Tanden, the center’s president, said in a recent interview in her office, where she proudly displays photos of President Obama and Hillary Clinton, for whom she once worked.
CAP, as it is widely known in policy circles, has about $34 million in annual revenues. Like other think tanks, according to internal documents, it relies on a mix of corporations, foundations, and wealthy benefactors to fund its research, including banking and telecommunications firms, and major players in the energy and health care industries.
What sets CAP apart is that, from the moment it was created, its founders sought to aggressively push an agenda on Congress and the White House.
Think tanks are prohibited from engaging in most political advocacy under the Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3), which gives them nonprofit status as educational organizations and makes donations to them tax-deductible. So CAP organizers established a parallel organization — the Center for American Progress Action Fund — under the 501(c)(4) section of the IRS code that by definition is permitted to lobby.
The fund pursues its agenda through direct lobbying, as well as through a website, thinkprogress.org, and a grass-roots organizing group, Campus Progress.
The fund has spent $3.5 million on lobbying since 2004, including nearly $700,000 alone in the first quarter of 2010 to help enact President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military, according to lobbying disclosure reports.
“We do care about policy impact,” Tanden explained. “We are interested in policy change.”
The hybrid CAP pioneered has prompted other institutions with an ideological orientation to catch up, most visibly, the Heritage Foundation.
Established in 1973 by a trio of wealthy conservative Republicans who thought President Richard Nixon was too moderate, Heritage is one of the most well-funded think tanks, with $72 million in revenues in 2011, according to the IRS.
Heritage Action for America, the advocacy and lobbying arm, reported $5 million in revenue to the IRS in 2011, the latest year for which data are available.
“We wanted to do the things that [the think tank] could not do,” explained Gonzalez, the Heritage Foundation vice president.
Heritage’s lobbying efforts this year have been focused on defeating proposals in Congress backed by think tanks like CAP, such as the extension of unemployment benefits and immigration reform. It has also lobbied against Obama’s nominations for federal judgeships.
“You want to be more aggressive but not give up the perception as a scholarly research outfit,” said Dye, the attorney with the firm Webster, Chamberlain & Bean who has represented a host of think tanks and nonprofits for three decades.
Heritage added to its edge earlier this year when it hired DeMint, a strident and outspoken former senator from South Carolina.
DeMint wasted little time before penning a private fund-raising letter with striking similarities to those used by political office seekers. It called on conservatives around the country to help it “thwart,” “resist,” and “fight” the so-called “age of Obama.”
“We’ll provide the fuel for the very necessary resistance and defense of these next four years,” pledged DeMint, who declined repeated requests for an interview.
Big money, big questions
This sharp partisan turn at many think tanks hasn’t stopped officials from turning to them for advice and ideas.
“The government doesn’t have the time or the resources to think long term,” said Robert Work, a former undersecretary of the Navy who is now the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security, which was established in 2009 by former Clinton administration officials. “They often ask you to do the thinking for them.”
That is particularly true of the Department of Defense, he said. And Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a former Republican Senator from Nebraska, is himself a creature of the think tank world.
As chairman of the Atlantic Council of the United States from 2009 to 2013, he presided over a massive expansion of an organization that had been among Washington’s smaller foreign policy think tanks. During his tenure its annual revenues more than doubled, to $14 million.
Hagel’s role came under scrutiny when he was nominated by Obama earlier this year. As a result, the Atlantic Council was required by Congress to disclose its foreign donors, offering a rare window into a typically secret world.
Its financial backers include oil-rich kingdoms including Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, and state-run oil companies such as the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan and Turkish Petroleum Corporation.
An example of the hidden reach of such sponsorships arose in June, when Hagel arrived in Singapore’s plush Shangri-La Hotel for one of his first major policy addresses to a large gathering of defense ministers and generals from across Asia. He outlined plans for a long-term — and costly — US security umbrella requiring a greater commitment of forces, warships, training, and foreign weapons sales.
Undisclosed to Hagel’s audience — or the public, for that matter — was the fact that his remarks were crafted with help from scholars at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of the most respected of Washington think tanks.
National security agencies increasingly rely on the center to help formulate strategy, even as the think tank receives its biggest share of tax-deductible contributions for research from arms manufacturers, energy companies, and other major corporations seeking to shape policy — nearly a third of its $33 million in revenues last year, according to think tank officials and public records.
Roughly 4 percent of annual revenue is raised from foreign governments, including the Canadian province of Alberta; Norway; and several Persian Gulf emirates.
CSIS is building a new 15,000-square foot, $100 million headquarters in Washington with money raised by a high-powered collection of former senior government officials and titans of industry representing defense giants Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon, along with pharmaceutical conglomerate Procter & Gamble, oil giant Chevron, and a top adviser to the Sultan of Oman, according to CSIS officers and documents.
CSIS maintains that it has rigorous internal procedures to prevent donors’ interests from infecting scholarship or its large volume of advice to the government.
“We have 130 projects right now, and I keep close track of them. I know who is funding each of them,” said John Hamre, a former deputy defense secretary who has been president of CSIS since 2000.
Its full-time researchers, meanwhile, must annually disclose any outside business clients to an internal management committee, he said. That applies to at least one member of the team whose assistance was sought by senior Pentagon officials on Hagel’s Asia speech: Ernest Bower, a leading Asia scholar at CSIS who also runs a large business consulting firm, Bower Group Asia, with offices in nine Asian countries.
Bower told the Globe he discloses all of his business clients to CSIS, but he says he cannot reveal their identities publicly, due to contractual agreements.
“We listened to ideas from experts at several think tanks,” said Pentagon press secretary George Little. He would not identify the think tanks, however.
“It’s perfectly appropriate for government officials to listen to ideas from nongovernment sources, including think tank experts,” he said. “This is America, after all, where compelling ideas don’t always originate inside government agencies and departments.’’
But Hagel's office acknowledged that it was not aware when it sought Bower's independent advice that he is also a paid consultant for unidentified companies with interests in Asia. It declined to respond to questions about whether Hagel or his aides believe they should have been made aware.
Some think tanks are resisting the trend, trying to navigate a course through the growing thicket of partisanship and corporate influence. They are finding it hard going.
The Bipartisan Policy Center, as its name suggests, was started in 2007 by former leaders of both parties, including former Senate majority leaders Bob Dole, a Republican, and Democrat George Mitchell.
The founders were motivated by the alarming trend toward partisanship among other think tanks, said Jason Grumet, the founder and president. “Those organizations are all capable of defeating things, but almost none of them are capable of achieving things.”
Its attempt at being nonideological has come at a cost. By occupying what Grumet calls a “vast and lonely” space on the think tank continuum, fund-raising has been exceedingly difficult.
“We’re living on the edge,” he said. “We need to raise $10 million to get through the year.”
But in the face of a glut of well-funded partisan think tanks, the Bipartisan Policy Center quickly realized that scholarship alone was not sufficient to punch through the political noise. It, too, has established its own lobbying arm.
According to lobbying disclosure records, the Bipartisan Policy Center Advocacy Network has spent nearly $10 million since 2008 lobbying Congress and the executive branch in favor of issues ranging from the Obama administration’s economic stimulus spending to clean-energy legislation — more than double that of CAP and Heritage combined. Without such advocacy, in Grumet’s view, the think tank would be irrelevant.
“We have to try and crash into the real world.”
As part of its work, the center recently offered what it billed as a “healthy debate” about an overhaul of immigration law, which the Senate has passed but is stalled in the House.
In what appears to be the new normal for increasingly partisan think tanks, the ostensibly high-minded forum quickly turned into an arena for partisan attacks.
Robert G. Lynch of the Center for American Progress called conclusions of a study by his counterpart, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, “astonishing.”
“Mr. Rector’s study is riddled with methodological errors, and . . . when you correct these methodological errors you reverse his result,” Lynch said.
Asked to respond by the moderator, Rector defended the integrity of his research about the costs of permitting illegal immigrants to win citizenship.
Any “common-sense citizen” would agree with his scholarly analysis, he said.
Two weeks later, Heritage cited Rector’s research as it launched an aggressive online advertising campaign designed to kill the immigration bill, part of a $100,000 public campaign.
The think tank promised to “cut through the spin and show the proposal for what it really is.”
An ad warned voters to be wary about the claims of immigration reformers: “Washington just gave us another reason to be suspicious.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect title for Steve Clemons. The story has been updated to note Clemons is a cofounder and senior fellow at the New America Foundation.