The Wealthy (Conservative) Think Tanks

Covert Action Quarterly, Winter 1998


No set of institutions has done more to set the national policy agenda than the heavily-funded conservative think tanks and advocacy groups. Over the 1992-1994 period, the 12 key foundations poured almost $80 million into these organizations: $64 million was invested in multi-issue policy institutions trying to shape national domestic policy; $15.2 million went to policy research and advocacy organizations emphasizing national security and foreign policy issues.


The top recipients follow in order of grant size over the 1992-1994 period:

* The Heritage Foundation -- garnered close to $9 million in 42 separate grants. Founded in 1973, its revenues more than doubled from $14 million in 1936 to $29.7 million in 1995. "The unique thing we have done," says Heritage's Stuart Butler, "is combine the serious, high-quality research of a 'traditional think sank' like the Hoover Institution or Brookings Institution with the intense marketing and 'issue management' capabilities of an activist organization."

Heritage stresses a production model to deliver a stream of policy products to key audiences on a timely and efficient basis. `'We come up with the ideas," said official David Mason, and then Heritage hires dozens of relatively inexperienced policy analysts who are largely told what to write and how to write it. The product is then marketed, "to people who will champion those ideas in the political arena."

In 1995, its 100-plus management and professional staff, communications specialists, policy analysts, and senior fellows-including former high-ranking government officials such as William Bennett, Jack Kemp, and Edwin Meese- produced more than 200 policy products, distributing them widely to Congressional aides, lawmakers, journalists, and activist constituencies. The "delivery system consists of separate marketing divisions: Public Relations markets ideas to the media and the public; Government Relations to Congress, the Executive branch, and government agencies; Academic Relations to the university community; Resource Bank to institutions (including state think tanks), and the international conservative immigrant and health services, like this one in Washington, DC, are a particular right wing target network; and Corporate Relations to business and trades."

In its equally important activist role, Heritage links policy analysts, Republican Party officials, conservative scholars, and grassroots constituencies. It maintains a data bank and disseminates a Resource Guide to Public Policy Experts that lists more than 2,000 individuals and 400 organizations working from the right on a range of issues. Its analysts appeared more than 500 times on radio talk shows. Heritage also runs a bi-monthly working group of conservative organizations, maintains a speakers bureau to bring its messages to college campuses, holds policy briefings in House and Senate offices (200 in 1995), and publishes on the Internet.

* The American Enterprise Institute -- formed in 1943 as a traditional think tank, was granted almost $7 million. Senior AEI staff include Robert Bork, Lynne Cheney, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Charles Murray, Michael Novak, Richard Perle, Ben Wattenberg, and 30 other conservative public intellectuals and activists, many of whom are closely intertwined with the institutional apparatus of the New Right. After being labeled too centrist in the mid-1930s and losing funding, AEI moved right and took a more aggressive public-policy role in domestic and foreign policy affairs, producing material of "immediate, practical utility" aimed at developing solutions to "real world" policy problems. Based snugly within the Beltway, AEI scholars seek to translate the "broad, variegated animus against government into specific policies", including economic, regulatory, welfare, health, and other social policies.

AEI staff appeared on national media several times a day during 1995-96 and organized policy conferences and seminars, including five on Medicare reform, two on welfare policy, and others on tax reform, telecommunications deregulation, 2 and tort reform. Among its more than 600 articles, monographs, and books were Fairness and Efficiency in the Flat Tax, The Frayed Social Contract. Why Social Security Is in Trouble and How It Can Be Fixed, and Slouching toward Gomorrah: Liberalism and American Decline. In 1995, it also published Dinesh D'Souza's racist tract, The End of Racism.

* The Free Congress Research and Education Foundation -- is led by Paul Weynch, who also co-founded the Heritage Foundation. Free Congress' $5 million in grants funded efforts "to return to our nation's origins in limited government and personal liberty, despite the overweening power of the leviathan state." One of its major (and now for-profit, independent) programs is National Empowerment Television (NET), a nationwide, interactive, 24 hour network which carnes "its message of cultural conservatism and anti-Establishment politics into more than 11 million homes." Weekly offerings include Borderline, a panel show on immigration policy; the Cato Forum on the illegitimacy of taxes and government regulation; Legal Notebook on crime; Straight Talk, produced in conjunction with the right-wing Family Research Council; and On Target: with the National Rife Association.

Another major Free Congress program, the Krieble Institute, took advantage of the conservative revolution" at home by switching its focus from communist bloc countries to a US grassroots political training program. The Congress' Center for Conservative Governance launched satellite conferences to develop grassroots conservative leadership, training 1,066 individuals in its first round The curriculum included how to manage the media, frame issues, raise funds, and use technology in the campaign process.

* The Cato institute -- founded in 1977 by libertarian activists, is a multi-million dollar, multi-issue research and advocacy organization dedicated to "increasing the understanding of public policies based on the principles of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace." Its staff of 40-plus senior managers, policy analysts, and communications specialists is supplemented by more than 75 adjunct Cato scholars, including ultra-conservative law professors Richard Epstein (University of Chicago) and Henry G. Manne. Cato publishes books and policy analyses, works extensively through the media, organizes conferences and policy briefings, and testifies regularly before Congress and other policymaking bodies. In 1994, it gave every Congressmember The Cato Handbook, a 358-page, 39-chapter volume of policy reforms and proposals in every vital public policy area, including budget and tax reduction, Social Security, Medicare, education, environmental reform, and foreign and defense policy A year later, its Project on Social Security Privatization, co-chaired by lose Pinera, Chile's former minister of labor and welfare under Pinochet, and William Shipman, of State Street Global Advisors, began pushing private alternatives to Social Security Assisted by a powerful advisory board of business leaders, conservative economists and political leaders, the project plans to spend $2 million in a public relations campaign to depict Social Security as crisis-ridden and in need of significant reform. Cato also promotes medical savings accounts and backs property rights and tort reform.

* Citizens for a Sound Economy -- was granted $3.8 million. Founded in 1984, it openly and aggressively advocates market based solutions to the nation's economic and social problems. Chaired by C. Boyden Gray, former general counsel to President Bush, CSE's self-described mission is `'to fight for less government, lower taxes, and less regulation." In 1995, it spent $17 million to advance its policy objectives and produced more than 130 policy papers, each distributed to every office on Capitol Hill. It also conducted 50 different advertising campaigns, distributed 8,000 pieces of mail, appeared on more than 175 radio and television news shows, placed 235 op-eds, received coverage of CSE positions and activities in more than 4,000 news articles around the nation, released periodic "scorecards" grading the fiscal restraint of key congressional committees and subcommittees, generated more than 42,000 telephone calls from CSE members to elected officials, distributed dozens of faxes summarizing research on the budget, and co-chaired two grassroots coalitions supporting tax relief and a balanced budget. In addition, focus group research has helped CSE "create effective advertising products," propaganda used to develop grassroots and communications tools to promote flat tax proposals. CSE also maintains a sophisticated database of 37,000 "super activists" to whom it can appeal in the larger fight for free enterprise, and has hired 19 field directors to build "strategic alliances" in 17 states.

In 1996, CSE announced plans to spend $2 million "to make the political climate more friendly" to Social Security privatization, paying particular attention to shaping the views of older people, women, and the 20-something generation. CSE plans to maximize impact by focusing "on states represented in Congress by members who sit on the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways & Means Committee, both of which have jurisdiction over Social Security The campaign [which is now in full swing], intended to include newspaper, radio, and TV ads, and the distribution of anti-Social Security tracts.

* The Hoover Institution -- with more than $3.2 million in grants and an operating budget of almost $19 million in 1995, has focused particular attention on tax policy, promoting the flat tax, and opposing federal social welfare policies

* The Ethics and Public Policy Center -- which features convicted Iran-Contra felon Elliott Abrams as its head, is devoted to improving public appreciation of the role of business in a "moral society" Its founder, Ernest Lefever, worried that "US domestic and multinational firms find themselves increasingly under siege at home and abroad. They are accused of producing shoddy and unsafe products, fouling the environment, robbing future generations, wielding enormous power, repressing peoples in the Third World, and generally of being insensitive to human needs. We as a small and ethically oriented center are in a position to respond more directly to ideological critics who insist the corporation is fundamentally unjust.

* The National Center for Policy Analysis -- prides itself on aggressively marketing its products for maximum impact by "targeting key political leaders and special interest groups, establishing ongoing ties with members of the electronic media, and testifying before Congress, federal agencies, state lawmakers, and national associations."

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