D.C. Think Tanks: Shadow Government in Plain Sight

Almost all the political buzz in Washington, D.C., revolves around the current president and Congress. But there is a shadow government that few know about, also said to be the city’smajor industry.

It’s the policy ideas industry, based in the over 400 think tanks in D.C. — the most of any city in the world. D.C. think tank budgets range from a few hundred thousand dollars to $80 million, making them a significant driver of D.C.’s economy, although many are nonprofits and may not pay full if any commercial property and income taxes.

The think tank industry produces a constant stream of books, policy papers, reports, analyses and commentary on everything from health care to taxes, defense and immigration. Think tanks are homes to the top policy makers in America, who directly affect the way legislation and governmental policy are written and established.

This “shadow government” is hiding in plain sight.

While they are located especially on the Hill or in Georgetown, the 1700 block of Massachusetts Avenue, just off Dupont Circle, is known as Think Tank Ground Zero. Most of the major think tanks are located within a two-block radius of the Metro Red Line station.

D.C. residents and visitors readily can attend, often for free, most of the dozens of think tank panel discussions, briefings and lectures held every day — along with breakfasts, lunches, dinners, receptions and refreshments in between. They can even ask questions and get deliberated answers from the top policy makers in the world. Think tanks make D.C. a nirvana for wonks.

Yet few Washingtonians, even news reporters, anchors, editors and producers, know about the vast spectrum of think tanks active in the city. Almost everyone has heard of the top one: the Brookings Institution, a block from Dupont Circle, with popular Washington Post pundit E.J. Dionne as one of its most acclaimed political experts. But where does it lie on the political spectrum? And what others balance it?

Dozens of think tank experts are interviewed and quoted every day in the mainstream media, but rarely are their think tank slants ever identified. Few people know where the experts are coming from, except by their appearance on politically-slanted news shows on Fox, MSNBC and, increasingly, CNN.

The Think Tank Political Spectrum
D.C.’s hundreds of think tanks are not neutral. They are not universities with a mission toeducate students and do academic research. They supposedly are not lobbyists pushing or opposing specific legislation that affects the bottom line of a particular interest group or commodity.

But, while think tanks generally claim their mission is to expand public knowledge, in the end most are established to influence the making of laws and governmental policies towards certain ideological positions.

Almost all the think tanks are organized around issues: some general, some narrow and specific such as economics, foreign policy and immigration. But they all lie somewhere along a wide political spectrum from far-left liberal to far-right conservative, center left and center right and, the most mixed of all, libertarian.

You can tell where a think tank lies on the political spectrum from the bios of its star experts and members of the board of directors, by the politics of their funders (increasingly wealthy donors with strings attached to their donations) and by the positions they take.

Four of the most popular think tanks in D.C. — almost always named in lists of the top 10 — epitomize this spectrum. They are:

FAR LEFT: Center for American Progress
CENTER LEFT: Brookings Institution

CENTER RIGHT: American Enterprise Institute

FAR RIGHT: Heritage Foundation

The Center for American Progress, on the far left, is one of the newest. Founded in 2003, CAP has an openly liberal democratic focus, oriented especially to millennials through its “Generation Progress” program. It can be said to be the Democratic administration’s in-government recruitment and policy think tank.

John Podesta, its first CEO and president, was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, then Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman in 2016; in 2008, he was President Barack Obama’stransition chief. More than 50 of CAP employees ended up employed in the Obama administration and almost all had direct access to it. CAP’s current president is former Senate Leader Tom Daschle, with a large number of Democrats on the payroll — in waiting for the 2020 elections and beyond. Refreshments tip: Dozens of interns tend to devour all the sandwich wraps way before the noontime panel discussions begin.

But CAP is only a copy of the right-leaning think tank the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market conservative and neo-conservative think tank established in 1938. More than 20 staff members served either in a Bush administration policy post or on one of the government’s many panels and commissions, including Dick Cheney, vice president of the United States under George W. Bush; John R. Bolton, former ambassador to the United Nations and currently President Donald Trump’s national security advisor; Lynne Cheney, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy secretary of defense. AEI’S current well-known scholars and authors include: Jonah Goldburg, Christian Hoff Sommers, Norman Ornstein, Charles Murray and Jon Kyl, David From, and Dinesh D’souza, among many others. Former famous pundits closely connected to AEI include Milton Friedman, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Michael Ledeen, Semour Lipset, Michael Novak, Antonin Scalia, Robert Bork and Charles Krautheimer. AEI recently just bought and totally renovated the stunning old American Heritage Society building on the corner of Massachusetts and 19th Street NW. Refreshments tip: AEI routinely offers hot meals and wine receptions.

The far-right Heritage Foundation played a similar role in Ronald Reagan’s transition and administration in the 1980s and in every conservative administration since. Among its experts, trustees and board members who have served in government include Richard V. Allen, L. Paul Bremer, Elaine Chao, Lawrence Di Rita, Michael Johns, John Lehman and Attorney General Edwin Meese III. It has a strong college conservatives program that hosts, places in internships and jobs and houses hundreds of college interns every year. The Heritage Foundation, under former Sen. Jim deMint, came out early in support for President Trump and had a strong influence in the transition. Refreshments tip: The Heritage Foundation’s sandwich lunches are served late, but provide a place for good audience post-debates.

The Brookings Institution is the best known, the largest and one of the first (founded in 1913) of the D.C. think tanks. It currently funds five “research” programs and 13 study area “centers” in D.C. and three abroad in India, China and Qatar. Its issues are broad but also focus on metropolitan D.C. — especially changing demographics — and U.S. party politics where E.J. Dionne, the Georgetown professor and Washington Post op-ed columnist brings in a crowd. Refreshments tip: There are panels almost every day with appropriate finger food befitting the time of the event, as well as an economical and well-stocked cafeteria.

Brookings and now its neighbor AEI often have joint events, especially on education issues, at which Brookings academic education expert Frederick Hess often butts heads respectfully with AEI’s provocateur Charles Murray.

Dozens of others fall in between. The top 20 are listed in a sidebar. Where they fall on the left-to-right spectrum sometimes depends on the issue; issues are complicated and no think tank can be monolithic political.

In addition to their own in-house experts, most think tanks use advisers for their
sides, often including colleagues from the other not-so-far side of the spectrum. They often use prominent university professors, former government officials, journalists and authors.

Typical is Georgetown’s own Madeleine Albright, a decades-long resident of 34th Street, professor at Georgetown University and first woman secretary of state, who founded her own Albright Stonebridge Advisory Group and has authored several books, most recently “Fascism: A Warning.” Just last week, Albright was featured on panels and keynote interviews at the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress.

Power and Warning
Think tank power used to be rated by the number of media appearances, quotes and articles in the mainstream media. Now, social media is making a new dynamic: clickbait vs expert analysis, according to a 2014 article in the Washington Post.

But the hundreds of think tanks in D.C. are also, in effect, sitting on a seesaw. Sometimes they are up with their colleagues in government sitting on top; sometimes they are on the bottom, sitting on the ground, out of office and acting as a holding tank for their experts, writing papers demanding change, eagerly and anxiously waiting for the next election to favor them and their policies.

Funding for all of the D.C. think tanks, like everything else in the city, increasingly originates from narrow-based donors with political interests. The diverse think tank source of the expert being interviewed on television or writing a blog inarguably affects the message.

Other Top Think Tanks in D.C.
Washington, D.C., has more than 400 think tanks. Many are well known because their associates are prominent newsmakers — often former government officials — and their opinions appear frequently in the media. Listed below alphabetically are just a few of the well-known general think tanks in town. Many more could be listed according to specialized areas of interest, including economics; international, social and environmental affairs; constitutional law; and immigration. Others could be categorized by left-to-right ideology or based on their presidential founders, such as Kennedy, Nixon, Eisenhower and Wilson. Almost all offer regular events open to the public. This list does not include the numerous university-affiliated academic institutes based in D.C.

Aspen Institute
Atlantic Council
Bipartisan Policy Center
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace CATO Institute
Center for Immigration Studies
Center for the National Interest
Center for Public Justice
Competitive Enterprise Institute
Council on Foreign Relations
Center for Strategic and International Studies German Marshall Fund
Hudson Institute
International Center for Research on Women Migration Policy Institute
National Endowment for Democracy
New America Foundation
Peterson Institute for International Economics Pew Research Center

Third Way

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars


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