Washington’s think tanks are morphing into powerful activist organizations, blurring a longtime distinction between academia and advocacy.
With Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., 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.
Both think tanks are barred from politicking. They rely instead on politically active nonprofits, which are separate legal entities, to influence elections in favor of candidates who support their policies.
“Heritage over time, and CAP to the same degree, have really pushed the envelope in terms of 501(c)(3) status,” said James McGann, who studies think tanks at the University of Pennsylvania. “It not only puts in peril the institution but the entire think tank community because it blurs the line.”
“Historically, in terms of the IRS, think tanks have not had a problem,” he added.
But that may soon change as some institutions push their policy ideas aside and more outwardly embrace their party affiliations.
The Heritage Foundation set up its affiliate Heritage Action, a 501(c)(4), in September 2010, shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened the door for tax-exempt groups to spend money freely in politics. It raised more than $4.5 million in 2011, tax documents show, and is on pace to match that in 2012, according to a Heritage official. The group, which has two field offices, aims to increase its presence in lawmakers’ districts in preparation for 2014, the official said.
“We wanted to have our ideas promoted just as aggressively as special interests were,” said Jim Weidman, a spokesman for the foundation, which raised almost $80 million in 2011.
An increasingly polarized climate in Washington has only greased the wheels. The think tanks are competing for donations with a new set of players such as Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC, and the conservative grass-roots Americans for Prosperity, which says it raised more than $110 million this year.
“Now [think tanks] have to promote their ideas and explicitly tell the members ‘if you don’t pay attention to those ideas were not going to rate you very favorably,’” said former Republican Rep. David M. McIntosh of Indiana. “[DeMint] will have a great understanding of the potential that Heritage has to really make a difference with the changes in the law.”