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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Think Tanks and Interest Groups

Our chapter on interest groups (see esp. pp. 243-244 of the 2d edition) considers the role of think tanks and notes that they have come under fire for short-term analysis instead of careful deliberation about first principles. Taking off from the resignation of Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) to take a high-paying job as head of the the Heritage Foundation, The New Republic, Ken Silverstein writes:
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 reelection—and 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.”
Think tanks prefer to get general funding that they can use however they like. Donors, though, want measurable impact and are increasingly inclined to offer short-term funding earmarked for specific projects. Even centrist, mainstream organizations use the ability to target and influence policymakers as a way to entice donors. For example, a CSIS pitch to donors says the think tank is “in a unique position to bring together leaders of both the public and private sectors in small, often off-the-record meetings to build consensus around important policy issues.”
Nowadays if donors don’t like the results they get, they are increasingly inclined to move their money to more compliant think tanks, or to more expressly political operations. “Think tanks are competing with consulting firms, law firms, Super PACS, lobbyists and advocacy groups,” says James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. “That puts pressure on think tanks to be more responsive to donors.” The new buzz term among private and public donors is “high impact philanthropy,” McCann says.
“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.”