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Think Tanks Go Lobbying as Washington’s Lines Blur

Norwegian foreign minister Børge Brende lectures at the Brookings Institution in June. Utenriksdepartementet UD / cc

On Saturday,  just as Congressmen and their staffs were trickling back into town to take up pre-election unproductivity, the New York Times dropped a bombshell on the Beltway: “Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks.” Oil-rich countries like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Norway are said to have spent millions of dollars on Washington think tanks in order to buy everything from generic D.C. influence to help obtaining very specific Congressional appropriations for the countries in question. According to experts the Times consulted, several of the arrangements bring into question whether the think tanks, including the original and perhaps most esteemed of them all, the Brookings Institution, should have been registered as foreign agents.

Norway’s governmental activities are examined particularly closely, thanks to “Documents obtained under that country’s unusually broad open records laws,” indicating that Norway’s actions could be par for the course. Brookings has forged a close relationship with Norway, receiving millions of dollars from the Norwegian government while hosting Norwegian officials for events while arranging meetings with U.S. government officials. Norway also donated substantial sums to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which has recently issued reports urging U.S. military support in the oil-rich Arctic, a key Norwegian priority. The Center for Global Development, however, appears to have dispensed with any ambiguity in the nature of its relationship with the Norwegians, by including in its correspondence an explicit pledge to seek a doubling of U.S. forest protection funding (another Norwegian interest) to $500 million a year. An internal Norwegian government document explains that for a small country, “Funding powerful think tanks is one way to gain such access, and some think tanks in Washington are openly conveying that they can service only those foreign governments that provide funding.” The Center for Global Development Chief Operating Officer, upon seeing the Times‘s documents, responded, “Yikes. … We will absolutely seek counsel on this.”

As the Times indicates, think tanks are increasingly looking to foreign states for funding as the proliferation of, and increasing competition among, think tanks has strained their budgets and expansion plans. This is precisely the same mechanism that Tevi Troy identified as being responsible for the increasingly partisan and political nature of D.C. think tanks in his 2012 National Affairs article, “Devaluing the Think Tank.”

Troy gives a helpful history of the development of the think tank starting with the Brookings Institution, founded as a new model for formulating policy befitting the Progressive era. AEI’s Washington iteration was founded after World War II in order to clarify the unwisdom of the continuance of price and wage controls. The think tank was traditionally conceived as a “university without students,” allowing independent scholars to contribute to the body of policy knowledge without being swept into politics. In fact, think tanks were traditionally so determined to avoid politicization (or the jeopardizing of their 501(c)(3) tax status that they would occasionally err on the side of irrelevance. Troy relates a classic story that sums up just how differently think tanks operated then, in contrast with the present day of CAP and Heritage Action:

In his book The Power of Ideas, Heritage Foundation fellow Lee Edwards describes a pivotal moment in this evolution when, in 1971, AEI produced a study of the benefits and drawbacks of the supersonic transport aircraft that Congress was considering funding for the Pentagon. The study was delivered to congressional offices a few days after the Senate had defeated funding for the project in a close 51-46 vote. After receiving the apparently tardy report, Paul Weyrich — then an aide to Colorado Republican senator Gordon Allott — called AEI president William Baroody to ask why the helpful analysis could not have been available before the vote. Baroody’s response, according to Edwards, was that AEI “didn’t want to try to affect the outcome of the vote.”

And so Weyrich would go on to found the Heritage Foundation as an explicit repudiation of such a mentality. Drawing on mass-mail fundraising, Heritage often ran more like a political campaign than a university, and it proved the inspiration for many of the institutions to follow, left and right.

Foreign policy think tanks dipping their toes into foreign agency is just one more step along the path of the Washington political machine’s co-opting of its best resource of independence. Heritage and the Center for American Progress each have 501(c)(4) political action arms, and even AEI has been gradually trending in a more politics and newscycle-driven direction.

Power is the currency of Washington, and eventually its pursuit washes out all distinctions.

about the author

Jonathan Coppage is a TAC associate editor. He received a BA in Political Science from North Carolina State University, and previously attended the University of Chicago, where he studied in the Fundamentals: Issues and Texts great books concentration. Jonathan also worked at The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. Jon can be followed on Twitter @JonCoppage, or reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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