The Alarming Corruption of the Think Tanks
This model worked very well and was greatly improved by the advent of the Internet, which allowed even faster dissemination of research. It also turned out that the sort of political immediacy of the new era of think tank studies very well suited the media as well as policymakers. Reporters writing on deadline often found Heritage issue briefs easier to digest than the academic quality research coming from Brookings.
Unfortunately, one consequence of this fact was a degrading in the quality of experts the media turned to for analysis. The views of world class scholars such as Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution now carried no more weight than the simplistic talking points regurgitated by a Heritage Foundation analyst a couple of years out of college.
One reason for this is that it is tough to explain complex issues in areas such as health or taxation without sacrificing critical nuance. Scholars often become tongue-tied trying to speak in sound-bite and reporters have difficulty quoting them. It’s much easier to quote a Heritage analyst only concerned with coating the Republican agenda in Congress with a thin gloss of think tank respectability.
The effectiveness of think tanks in advancing a political agenda increased their budgets and the salaries of their leaders. It’s reported that Ed Feulner, retiring head of the Heritage Foundation, makes more than $1 million per year. It’s now common for think tank analysts to have six-figure salaries.
The next step was for think tanks to abandon any pretense of objectivity and scholarship and become full-blown political action committees. Now many think tanks, which are tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, have affiliated lobbying and PR operations that are not tax-exempt and are organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code.
Thus the Heritage Foundation has a C4 affiliate called Heritage Action for America, the Center for American Progress has one called the Center for American Progress Action Fund and so on. It’s become common for people to move back and forth between government, lobbying, political campaigns and think tanks. This corruption of the academic ideal of the think tank would have been unthinkable not too many years ago.
As Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin put it in commenting on Sen. DeMint’s move from politics to think tank head, “By embracing him, Heritage, to a greater extent than ever before, becomes a political instrument in service of extremism, not a well-respected think tank and source of scholarship.”