Devaluing the Think TankOne of the most peculiar, and least understood, features of the Washington policy process is the extraordinary dependence of policymakers on the work of think tanks. Most Americans — even most of those who follow politics closely — would probably struggle to name a think tank or to explain precisely what a think tank does. Yet over the past half-century, think tanks have come to play a central role in policy development — and even in the surrounding political combat.
Over that period, however, the balance between those two functions — policy development and political combat — has been steadily shifting. And with that shift, the work of Washington think tanks has undergone a transformation. Today, while most think tanks continue to serve as homes for some academic-style scholarship regarding public policy, many have also come to play more active (if informal) roles in politics. Some serve as governments-in-waiting for the party out of power, providing professional perches for former officials who hope to be back in office when their party next takes control of the White House or Congress. Some serve as training grounds for young activists. Some serve as unofficial public-relations and rapid-response teams for one of the political parties — providing instant critiques of the opposition's ideas and public arguments in defense of favored policies.
Some new think tanks have even been created as direct responses to particular, narrow political exigencies. As each party has drawn lessons from various electoral failures over recent decades, their conclusions have frequently pointed to the need for new think tanks (often modeled on counterparts on the opposite side of the political aisle).
After Democrats lost the 2000 elections, for example, some liberal intellectuals and activists concluded that they were being outgunned in the arena of political communication, and created, among other institutions, the Center for American Progress — a think tank with a heavy emphasis on message development. And in 2008, after Republicans lost amid deep concern about the financial crisis and the ensuing economic downturn, some conservatives concluded that they needed more creative economic thinking, and this yielded, among other projects, e21 — a right-of-center economic-policy think tank based in Washington and New York. This trend — which might be summed up as "lose an election, gain a think tank" — has not only increased the proliferation of such institutions, but has also tended to make their work all the more responsive to political needs and developments, for better and for worse.
Today, think tanks are highly influential in our politics; their research and scholars are heavily consulted and relied on by our elected leaders. And in a time of both daunting policy challenges and highly polarized political debates, there is every reason to expect that think tanks will grow only more important in Washington.
As they become more political, however, think tanks — especially the newer and more advocacy-oriented institutions founded in the past decade or so — risk becoming both more conventional and less valuable. At a moment when we have too much noise in politics and too few constructive ideas, these institutions may simply become part of the intellectual echo chamber of our politics, rather than providing alternative sources of policy analysis and intellectual innovation. Given these concerns, it is worth reflecting on the evolution of the Washington think tank and its consequences for the nation.
"SYSTEMATIC STUDY"For many decades, the classic definition of think tanks as "universities without students" fit reasonably well. From their beginnings in the early 20th century well into the post-war period, Washington think tanks tended to be research centers modeled on academic institutions and devoted to addressing technical questions relevant to government policy.
The Brookings Institution, founded in 1916 as the Institute for Government Research, is generally considered the original Washington think tank. Its founder, businessman and philanthropist Robert Brookings, defined the new entity (in the words of the institution's official history) as "the first private organization devoted to the fact-based study of national public policy." Brookings grew out of the reformist sentiment of the Progressive era, and was dedicated to finding government efficiencies and pursuing budgetary reform. According to James A. Smith's The Idea Brokers, Brookings was one of a number of institutions propelled by the metaphor of social afflictions as maladies and public-policy experts as the physicians who could heal the patient. Brookings scholars were generally academics on loan; in its early years, in fact, the institution actually served as a kind of university with students, operating a graduate school in Washington that granted a small number of degrees.
Brookings was also, for the most part, a bipartisan institution. In the 1930s, for instance, a number of its scholars conducted a study on the causes of the Great Depression that helped President Franklin Roosevelt's administration design its early economic agenda. And yet the institution's president — former University of Chicago economist Harold Moulton — and several other Brookings scholars were among the leading opponents of the New Deal, arguing that it would hamper economic recovery.
Other early think tanks followed a similar model. For instance, the Hoover Institution (originally called the Hoover War Collection) was established on Stanford's campus in 1919 with the purpose of "constantly and dynamically point[ing] the road to peace, to personal freedom, and to the safeguards of the American system." And the Council on Foreign Relations was founded in New York in 1921 as "a program of systematic study by groups of knowledgeable specialists of differing ideological inclinations," intended to help "guide the statecraft of policymakers," as Peter Grose put it in Continuing the Inquiry, a history of the CFR.
By the late 1930s, critics had begun to argue that some of these institutions — while formally non-partisan and largely academic — represented a left-leaning intellectual consensus and required some counterbalance. In 1938, a group of New York businessmen and pro-market academics (like Harvard's Roscoe Pound) created the American Enterprise Association. The organization's purpose, as they put it, was to promote "greater public knowledge and understanding of the social and economic advantages accruing to the American people through the maintenance of the system of free, competitive enterprise." When, in the midst of the Second World War, officials in Washington (aided by some Brookings scholars) began openly discussing the possibility of retaining wartime price and production controls after the war in order to avoid another depression, the AEA's leaders decided they needed a Washington presence to make the case against such a turn to managed economics. They relocated the organization in 1943, and eventually renamed it the American Enterprise Institute.
In the decades following the war, these think tanks — joined by about 40 other institutions, such as the RAND Corporation (founded in 1946), the Aspen Institute (in 1950), and the Hudson Institute (in 1961) — played an increasingly significant role in the development of federal policy. Brookings was deeply involved in the design of what became the Marshall Plan for the post-war redevelopment of Western Europe. The Council on Foreign Relations was pivotal in shaping the policy of containment toward the Soviet Union. The AEA helped engineer the dismantling of wartime production and price controls. And other think tanks increasingly came to supply outside researchers and policy architects to federal officials often overwhelmed by the growing size and complexity of the government.
The development of these institutions was greatly helped along by the fact that they were, from the start, granted tax-exempt status, meaning that contributions to them were (and remain) exempted from the contributors' income-tax liabilities. Because think tanks are understood to offer important support to the process of making good public policy, they have been included among the charitable and other public-service institutions exempted from the income tax since its creation in 1913.
But this tax-exempt status results in some important limits on what think tanks may do in the political arena. In 1954, Senator Lyndon Johnson offered an amendment to tax-reform legislation that restricted political activity by tax-exempt groups (under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code), and Congress has refined and clarified this provision over the years, usually with the intent of making the restrictions on political activity more difficult to circumvent. Thus, since the mid-1950s, think tanks have had to be careful not to cross the line from policy research into explicit political or partisan activity. They can be very actively involved in policy debates, but may not offer material support to specific parties or candidates for office.