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Think Tanks for Sale

The New York Times came out with a blockbuster exposé on Sunday about how foreign governments are buying influence in Washington through nonprofit think tanks—while lawmakers who depend on supposedly “independent” research from these organizations to set policy are caught unawares. (Audible gasp.)

“The money is increasingly transforming the once-staid think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington,” the authors write. The Brookings Institution, the Center for Global Development, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and others are implicated, as are the governments of particularly oil-rich nations in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

“Some scholars say the donations have led to implicit agreements that the research groups would refrain from criticizing the donor governments,” according to the Times report. “In their contracts and internal documents, however, foreign governments are often explicit about what they expect from the research groups they finance.” Furthermore, the think tanks aren’t registering as lobbyists, or as “foreign agents,” the article points out, which possibly violates a federal law passed in 1938 to ward off Nazi propaganda in the United States. (Double gasp.)

These quid-pro-quo agreements between the foreign governments and the think tanks amounts to lobbying without the proper disclosure; it’s influence disguised as scholarship. No reader of The Baffler will be surprised to learn that nonprofit organizations in D.C. are not nearly as “independent” as they portray themselves to be. Issue 23 of the magazine featured a pair of deeply reported essays by Jim Newell and Ken Silverstein on the shady dealings and the rapidly-growing, arm-twisting influence of think tanks—on both sides of our bipolar political system.

Jim Newell wrote “Good Enough for Government Work: Conservatism in the tank” about the Heritage Foundation and what it demonstrated about “the ongoing shift of power in Washington away from the people’s business—and toward the ideological donor class.” Here’s an excerpt:

Heritage’s new advocacy shop, Heritage Action, brings the organization the sort of power that Washington’s predominant think tanks never previously considered theirs to wield: that of enforcing conservative ideological orthodoxy among lawmakers. Instead of handing them conservative policy research to inform decision-making, it’s issuing scorecards that gauge lawmakers’ ideological fealty to pet conservative causes—and ensuring that these scores get circulated far and wide among the powerful donors behind the conservative movement. While technically separated from its ideological parents at the Heritage Foundation by its 501(c)(4) status, Heritage Action “seeks to convert the think tank’s more than 700,000 members into a potent political force,” according to an admiring notice in the National Review. As outgoing Heritage Foundation president Ed Feulner described Heritage’s two wings upon Heritage Action’s conception—riffing on a Ronald Reagan quotation—“The Heritage Foundation makes [politicians] see the light, Heritage Action makes them feel the heat.”

Ken Silverstein’s “They Pretend to Think, We Pretend to Listen: Liberalism in the Tank” put the Center for American Progress under the microscope in his examination of “how the world of liberal think tanks has been upended, ever so gently, by a steady onrush of corporate funding—and corporate-friendly policy agendas.” Here’s Silverstein:

Any suggestion that CAP is in the business of airing dispassionate policy research and then letting the chips fall where they may for the sake of broadening the scope of intellectual debate in Washington should, of course, be greeted by a torrent of bitter laughter. A review of CAP’s research track record shows that the group’s work is dictated by two simple mainsprings: its obvious and overwhelming fealty to the Democratic Party, and the pursuit of corporate cash. For evidence of the former, one need look no further than the frenetically revolving door that connects the think tank and the Obama administration. […]

… the other plank of the CAP research agenda—the eager acquisition of greater corporate backing—commands an increasing share of the group’s efforts. There’s little functional difference between the Democratic Party and the corporate world when it comes to running campaigns and elections; why should the promotion of policy debate be any different? In 2007, CAP launched the Business Alliance, which is a Membership Rewards–style program for big donors. Though CAP refuses to release any of these donors’ names, I obtained various lists (as I first disclosed in The Nation), and they have included Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, Wal-Mart, Comcast, Goldman Sachs, the Carlyle Group, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, GE, General Motors, Amgen, Pfizer, and Verizon.

Read all of Newell’s piece here, and Silverstein’s here, and gasp away.