Think-tanking and lobbying

The New Republic ran a piece by Ken Silverstein about salary inflation at DC think tanks in February 2013.

Jim DeMint had recently left the Senate to become president of the Heritage Foundation, going from $174,000 a year to $1.2 million or more.

Once upon a time, the only way for a pol to cash in like that was to leave elected office in order to become a lobbyista nice living, but one that carries with it a stigma that would likely kill any future ambitions for high office. By contrast, a gig at Heritage, the main voice of the conservative movement, could be a good launching pad for a potential 2016 presidential bid. Candidate DeMint could run as a man of ideas, not another pol out shilling for his donors.

Yes and that’s the thing – these think tanks are only tenuously related to ideas.

The problem with that wholesome imageand the anachronistic thing about Rubin’s lament over Heritage’s potential loss of intellectual virginityis that think-tanking and lobbying have come to look more and more alike. Just like lobbyists, think tanks can frame policy debates and generate political pressurefor the right price.

Heritage had $109 million in assets in 2002, a figure that has ballooned to $174 million in 2011, according to its tax filings. During the same period its annual fundraising haul (in contributions and grants) climbed from $40 million to more than $65 million. Donors include major companies like Boeing and Chevron and conservative foundations such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. In addition to Feulner, at least 19 other officials there cleared $200,000, including former attorney general Ed Meese ($420,000), former congressman Ernest Istook ($303,000), and former labor secretary Elaine Chao ($290,000).

AEI makes an appearance.

  • The American Enterprise Institute had assets of $155 million and raised $37 million from contributions and grants, up from $40 million and $16 million, respectively, in 2002, according to tax filings. According to its2012 annual report, AEI gets 39 percent of its funding from foundations and 15 percent from corporations. Arthur Brooks, head of AEI, took in $645,000 in 2011. Meanwhile, AEI’s 2011 tax filing shows Dick Cheney received $210,000 for toiling an average of one hour per week as a board trustee.1 Poor John Bolton, a senior fellow, took in roughly the same as Cheney even though those same tax documents say he spends 60 hours per week on AEI work.

Brookings and the Center for American Progress show the same pattern (and have more money than AEI).

There are plenty of well-respected scholars at prominent Beltway think-tank positions. But supporting such large organizations requires the same ceaseless fundraising that politicians conduct when running for reelectionand the same sort of ignoble temptations. “Things have to be paid for, I respect that,” one former think tank staffer, who quit his job in disgust due to the intellectual horse-trading he observed, told me. “But at some point it becomes hard to turn down money from [big donors] and then it becomes hard not to do their bidding.”

I can’t see that applying to Sommers though. Her contribution is political, not corporate.

“Think tanks have become more like PR and lobbying shops than research organizations,” says Steve Clemons, a former executive vice president at the New America Foundation. “That they’re lesser regulated than lobbyists makes them especially attractive to some funders.”

Intellectual promiscuity, of course, doesn’t just happen because a donor wants to steer research in some particular direction. The more partisan outfits, like Heritage and CAP, display high a degree of deference to political allies (a group that often overlaps with financial patrons).

When George W. Bush was president, CAP tended to view U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as a bungled failure and the war in Iraq as a neoconservative-spawned debacle. It became far more supportive after Obama took office…

So that’s where Sommers fits – the partisan box as opposed to the corporate box.

The end result of all this has been a general degradation of think tank research. Bruce Bartlett, who was fired from the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis after writing a book critical of George W. Bush’s policies, says much think tank scholarship today is akin to market research. “You don’t study data to see what position you should take, because you know your position in advance,” he says. “Now you do research to help better advocate for your position and identify constituencies that you can target and bring along. It’s like P&G studying the coffee market to see if it can come up with a new niche brand and take a few customers away from the competition.”

So Sommers represents the outreach to Republican-style “feminists” – the lean in crowd, the toughen up crowd, the we already have equality crowd.

Political messages do need testing and tweaking in order to be more effective. But that’s a job for well-paid market-research typesDeMint’s avocation before entering politicsrather than humble scholars. Anyone confused as to which category describes large chunks of Washington’s think-tank output need only to look at their payrolls.

It can be informative to check their Twitter timelines, too.



  1. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Do Progressive think tank pay nearly as well?

    Are there any real progressive think tanks?

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