No More Thinking With Think Tanks

Policymakers used to rely on think tanks for independent analysis and advice. But lately, think tanks have become tools for partisan perspective and advocacy.

| May/June 2012

  • Think Tank
    By the 1980s, many right-leaning intellectuals regarded the academic world as stultifying and unwelcoming. Conservative think tanks allowed these scholars to flourish free from the strictures of oppressive political orthodoxies.

  • Think Tank

One of the most peculiar, and least understood, features of the Washington policy process is the extraordinary dependence of policy makers on think tanks. Most Americans—even those who follow politics closely—would probably struggle to name a think tank or explain precisely what one does. Yet over the past half century, they’ve come to play a central role in government policy development—and in the surrounding political combat. And over that period, the work of think tanks has undergone a profound transformation.

From their beginnings, think tanks were described as “universities without students.” The Brookings Institution, founded in 1916, is considered the original Washington think tank. Its founder, philanthropist Robert Brookings, conceived the new entity as a research center modeled on academic institutions and focused on addressing the questions of the federal government.

Brookings was a bipartisan institution. In the 1930s, 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 was a leading opponent of the New Deal. Other early think tanks followed a similar bipartisan model. The Council on Foreign Relations was founded in 1921 to bring together “knowledgeable specialists of differing ideological inclinations,” explains Peter Grose in Continuing the Inquiry.

These think tanks—joined by about 40 others, such as the American Enterprise Association (founded in 1938)—played a significant role in developing postwar federal policy. Brookings was deeply involved in the design of the Marshall Plan for the redevelopment of Western Europe. The Council on Foreign Relations was pivotal in shaping the Soviet Union containment policy. And the AEA helped engineer the dismantling of wartime price controls.

These institutions were helped along by their tax-exempt status. Because think tanks are understood to offer important support to making good public policy, they are included among the charitable and public-service institutions exempted from income tax. But this status results in some important limits. Since 1954, when Senator Lyndon Johnson offered an amendment to tax-reform legislation that restricted the political activity of tax-exempt groups, think tanks were careful not to cross the line from policy research into partisan activity. Their role was to clarify alternatives but not choose among them.

Frustration with this studied aloofness ushered in the age of activist think tanks. Heritage Foundation fellow Lee Edwards describes a pivotal moment when, in 1971, the American Enterprise Institute (which grew out of the AEA) produced a study of the benefits and drawbacks of the supersonic transport aircraft Congress was considering funding for the Pentagon. The study was delivered to congressional offices a few days after the Senate denied funding in a close 51–46 vote. After receiving the apparently tardy report, a senatorial aide called AEI’s president to ask why the analysis could not have been available earlier. The response: AEI “didn’t want to try to affect the outcome of the vote.”

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