Some Think Tanks Blur Line Between Research and Lobbying

With increasing frequency, high-profile think tanks are pushing agendas that are important to their corporate donors, at times blurring the line between research and lobbying, the New York Times and New England Center for Investigative Reporting report.

Major think tanks carry weight in government policy debates in part because they are seen as research organizations that operate independently of moneyed interests. But the Brookings Institution and other top think tanks, all of them tax exempt, accept millions of dollars from corporations even as they produce research and papers on policy debates that affect corporate interests. According to documents obtained by the Times and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, internal memos and confidential correspondence between Brookings and its corporate donors reveal that corporate financial support often is linked to promises of "donation benefits," including events where corporate executives hobnob with government officials. Similar arrangements exist at many think tanks.

According to the Times, Brookings' annual budget has doubled over the last decade, to $100 million, while the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the American Enterprise Institute have spent $100 million and $80 million, respectively, on new office buildings. That kind of growth has raised eyebrows and generated concerns in policy circles about donors applying undue pressure on brand-name think tanks and threatening their standing as independent arbiters in important policy debates.

"This is about giant corporations who figured out that by spending, hey, a few tens of millions of dollars, if they can influence outcomes here in Washington, they can make billions of dollars," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a frequent critic of undisclosed Wall Street donations to think tanks.

Executives at Brookings, CSIS, and other think tanks told the Times they have systems in place to ensure that their policy recommendations are based on the conclusions of independent scholars. "We strongly believe in our model of seeking solutions to some of our country's most difficult problems," said John J. Hamre, chief executive at CSIS. "We gather stakeholders, vet ideas, find areas of agreement, and highlight areas of disagreement." But Brookings' executive vice president Martin S. Indyk acknowledged that the decision to appoint as a senior fellow an executive at Lennar Corporation, which made $400,000 in donations to Brookings as it was promoting a Lennar redevelopment project in San Francisco, had created the "appearance of a conflict of interest." In the interest of transparency, Indyk added, Brookings recently decided to prohibit corporations or corporate-backed foundations from making anonymous contributions.

"People think of think tanks as do-gooders, uncompromised and not bought like others in the political class," said Bill Goodfellow, executive director of the Center for International Policy. "But it's absurd to suggest that donors don't have influence. The danger is we in the think tank world are being corrupted in the same way as the political world. And all of us should be worried about it."

(Update: On August 11, Brookings posted a point-by-point response to the two-part Times series.)

Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams. "Researchers or Corporate Allies? Think Tanks Blur the Line." New York Times 08/07/2016. Eric Lipton, Nicholas Confessore, Brooke Williams. "Seeming Independent, Think Tank Scholars Often Profit as Corporate Lobbyists, Consultants." New England Center for Investigative Reporting 08/08/2016.