A think tank does not immediately appear to be a lobbying entity, since people who work for them are not called “lobbyists.” However, according to a joint New York Times and New England Center for Investigative Reporting investigation published on Sunday, this impression is, in many instances, false.
The investigation found that several major think tanks, while they profess to be purely research-driven organizations eager to assist in America’s robust policy debates, court companies for charitable donations in exchanges for pushing their corporate agendas.
There are several advantages to masquerading as an institution that promotes the public good, not corporate profit. Donations to think tanks are tax-exempt, and think tanks have an easier time getting away with not filing lobbying reports on their financial transactions, because what lobbyists?
The Times report focused on the financial ties between the Brookings Institute, a wealthy Washington-based think tank and the Lennar Corporation, one of the largest home builders in the country. The investigation revealed that Lennar donated $400,000 to Brookings. Meanwhile, Brookings promised to “provide public validation” for a real-estate project Lennar was working on in San Francisco, and named Kofi Bonner, a Lennar executive in charge on the development, as one of the institute’s senior fellows.
“Thousands of pages of internal memos and confidential correspondence between Brookings and other donors — like JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank; K.K.R., the global investment firm; Microsoft, the software giant; and Hitachi the Japanese conglomerate — show that financial support often came with assurances from Brookings that it would provide “donation benefits,” including setting up events featuring corporate executives with government officials, according to documents obtained by The New York Times and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
Similar arrangements exist at many think tanks. On issues as varied as military sales to foreign countries, international trade, highway management systems and real estate development, think tanks have frequently become vehicles for corporate influence and branding campaigns.”
The article also notes that as non-profits struggle to meet donor goals, the think tank industry is thriving. Small think tanks with narrow interests have proliferated in Washington recently, while the big guns, like Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute, fatten their budgets.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, who’s been critical of financial ties between think tanks (Brookings, in particular, now knows not to fuck with her) and corporations in the past, told the Times, “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.”
Think tank executives maintain their research is objective and scholarly, they even have “systems in place” to make sure of it and everything.