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Think Tanks or Partisan Advocates? Distinction Is Getting Harder to See

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
With DeMint taking the helm in April, The Heritage Foundation will have the look and feel of a shadow Republican Party equipped with a bustling political team and six registered lobbyists, a counterweight to the Democratic Center for American Progress.

While Heritage and CAP are the only think tanks that now field registered lobbyists and have advocacy arms, nearly all of the major research institutes in Washington have a team advocating their policies on Capitol Hill. As of September, CAP Action Fund spent nearly $200,000 on lobbying Congress and Heritage Action spent $120,000, Senate reports show.

“We don’t think it is enough to write about our ideas, we want to see them actually improve people’s lives,” said CAP President Neera Tanden, who served as a domestic policy director for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

The Heritage Foundation also uses congressional travel to promote its polices, focusing in particular on the House Republican Study Committee, the conservative wing of the Republican caucus.

A representative described a retreat last January in Philadelphia as “a 50,000-foot extended dissertation” on the organization’s principles. It cost Heritage more than $50,000 to send 40 members and a handful of staffers on the three-day visit to the City of Brotherly Love, where they attended panels and visited the Liberty Bell.

In 2011, Heritage spent almost $125,000 to fly about 50 lawmakers and a few staffers — along with spouses and other family members — to a Simi Valley, Calif., retreat at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library.

Though think tanks including the Brookings Institution, The Cato Institute and the Center for American Progress also sponsor congressional travel, Heritage’s expenditures far exceed the others.

Some worry that DeMint will make Heritage so overtly political that its scholars will be reluctant to tackle controversial policy issues if they run counter to the party line.

Bill Antholis, managing director at The Brookings Institution, said the shift narrows the field for scholars committed to bipartisan research.

“Many of us have seen this as an opportunity to capture the ground that cuts across both parties,” he said.

Earlier this year, scholars at the libertarian Cato Institute successfully fought off efforts by conservative philanthropists David and Charles Koch to seize control of the organization, arguing it would damage the institute’s reputation for independence.

Heritage, however, says outgoing President Edwin Feulner founded the institution with political activism in mind, after House Republicans lost a vote on an amendment he had championed. Just days later, policy scholars approached Feulner, then the executive director of the RSC, with a white paper supporting the measure. They had waited to release the report, the story goes, so they wouldn’t influence the vote. Soon, Heritage was born.

“Some people may knock us for not being think-tanky enough,” a Heritage official told CQ Roll Call on Dec. 7. “We’ve always been an activist think thank. That’s why we existed from the beginning.”

Amanda Becker contributed to this report.

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