To Win the Battle of Ideas, Send in the Think Tanks

By Burton, Douglas | Insight on the News, March 6, 1995 | Go to article overview

To Win the Battle of Ideas, Send in the Think Tanks


Burton, Douglas, Insight on the News


Make way for Washington's emerging fifth estate. While policy incubators have been around for decades, several conservative foundations are creating a dynamic, high-profile role for themselves.

The meaning of the GOP's electoral sweep in November may be debated in the media for months to come. But to Washington's growing community of conservative think tanks, the elections mean one thing - business.

Just ask Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican. As the congressman rose on the House floor Jan. 26 to push his version of a balanced-budget amendment, he held in his hand a chart provided just days before by the right-wing Heritage Foundation. It compared tax-rate increases in states with and without the supermajority provision Barton wanted.

"We could have used the Congressional Research Service to get that information, but Heritage had already done a study on the impact of supermajority provisions for tax increases by states and had a much better grasp of the economic consequences," says Barton's press spokesman, Craig Murphy. But the congressman had an impact on Heritage too: A lecture on the balanced-budget amendment that he gave at Heritage in early January was transcribed by Heritage staffers, mailed out as an essay under Barton's name and published in the Washington Times a few days later.

All this was simply to fulfill Heritage's stated mission "to provide the Washington policy-making community, the national news media and the general public with the facts and analysis needed to make an informed decision on the important issues of the day." Heritage, like virtually all the 101 organizations listed under the heading "Think Tanks" in a Washington directory called The Capital Source, is officially a nonprofit and nonpartisan public-research organization. Unofficially, liberals shop for ideas there as often as Princess Diana goes to Kmart. Most other think tanks, such as the 79-year-old Brookings Institution, are avowedly centrist or, like the Urban Institute, emphatically nonideological. Some, including the Institute for Policy Studies and the Economic Policy Institute, proudly lean to the left.

Think tanks have been nudging and shaping Washington's public-policy agenda since 1910, when the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace set up shop to guide the foreign-policy decisions of Washington's government elite. And until 20 years ago, the field was dominated by a dozen or so groups that took upon themselves the roles of providing policy ideas (usually liberal ones), evaluating government programs or serving as sources of government personnel.

In the mid-1970s, however, conservative organizations realized that they weren't getting a fair hearing in the popular press, says Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Under the leadership of then-president Bill Baroody Sr., AEI began to expand the role of think tanks, marketing their ideas to constituencies outside government - chiefly the media and the public. Baroody initiated televised debates and newspaper columns on policy issues to bring the war of ideas to voters. Says Wattenberg, "Think tanks do well when there is a public-policy ferment in the intellectual community, and that is true now."

"We've largely won the battle of ideas at this stage," says Kate Walsh O'Beirne, who presides over the government-relations department at the Heritage Foundation. "We are in the implementation stage now. But we are more sophisticated than conservatives were during the Reagan budget years"' she says, recalling that as a Health and Human Services official she had worked hard for a welfare-reform bill in 1988 that passed in such a fatally compromised form that she couldn't bear to attend the White House signing ceremony.

The 1994 election changed the mood and the momentum at Heritage dramatically In the first three weeks of the 104th Congress, Heritage policy experts testified before congressional committees 11 times, compared with 19 visits during the preceding two years. …

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