Are think tanks the new lobbyists?

8 March 2013

A couple of weeks ago, we reported on this blog that former U.S. Republican Senator Jim DeMint had founded a conservative think tank in South Carolina and invested $300,000 in it, showing that the jump from public office to the academic sphere in the US was a common occurrence. The same Senator is now president of the Heritage Foundation – and his new salary has been taken to be a signal that think tanks are becoming more and more like lobbyists, according to Ken Silverstein of the Center for Ethics at Harvard University.

Outgoing Heritage president Ed Fuelner earned around $1.2 million in 2011, according to the organisation’s tax filing.  By those standards, and if he earns more (which is expected) then DeMint will have a salary 700% times higher than his $174,000 salary as a senator. It used to be that the only way to obtain such a salary was by being a lobbyist, and while some have decried DeMint’s appointment because he is not a “serious scholar”, thus pointing out that think tanks must maintain ideological and political independence, it is now anachronistic to think that think tanks and lobbyists are separate entities.

“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.”

That does not mean, however, that think tanks wildly change their political stance every time a donor approaches them. Donors might look for those organisations more attuned to their interests and ideological positions, but think tanks like the Heritage Foundation or the Center for American Progress have clearly partisan views and are highly loyal to them.

It is not such a negative thing, after all, to be a partisan think tank. If your main goal is to produce research that promotes advocacy on certain ideas, then it is a good strategy to seek funds from those donors who think alike. It is also good strategy to add to your governance members who can obtain the funds from said donors and strengthen linkages with your key audience – like politicians. That just might have been Heritage’s view.