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Washington's ‘think tanks’ growing in number, power | (KRT) In the run-up to the presidential election in November, Americans will be bombarded by political pundits from an array of Washington think tanks peddling their analysis and predictions on television news shows and in newspapers.

Think tanks have mushroomed in Washington in the past 30 years, exerting a growing influence on government policy.

"Washington has become a game that everyone wants to play," said Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution, the oldest think tank in the nation's capital. Think tanks are nonprofit research institutes that hire scholars, former administration officials and others to study the major issues of the day in a bid to influence public policy. They provide talking heads for the media, testimony for Congressional committees and reports on current events.

The most influential also serve as kind of a shadow government, and a source for jobs in future administrations, resulting in a revolving door that shuttles the thinkers back and forth.

James G. McGann runs a firm that provides research support and consultative services to think tanks. He estimates the number of think tanks has doubled since 1965. Between 1,200 and 1,500 think tanks now operate in America, with "the vast majority" sited in Washington, he said.

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Most are very small, with annual budgets of less than $600,000 and just a few full-time staff.

Although they call themselves nonpartisan, most think tanks can be identified by an ideological label, liberal or conservative.

Brookings was founded in 1916 by a St. Louis businessman and remains one of the most influential think tanks in Washington, covering everything from the economy to foreign policy.

Like the American Enterprise Institute, set up 61 years ago, Brookings styles itself as a "university without students," where every piece of writing is reviewed by scholars.

Various administrations have poached highly qualified staff from these pseudo-universities in the past. McGann, the think tank consultant, said the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson "raided" Brookings' staff ranks for fresh ideas.

Last year, Bush administration speechwriter David Frum, who coined the phrase "axis of evil" to describe the military threat posed by Iran, Iraq and North Korea, joined the American Enterprise Institute.

Richard Perle, a leading defense strategist who is close to Donald Rumsfeld, is also a "resident fellow." Lynne Cheney is a "senior fellow" on Middle-East issues, while her husband, Vice President Dick Cheney, is a former fellow.

The close contact many think tank experts share with top-level administration officials makes them valuable sources of information and commentary for journalists. Many think tanks invite members of the press to their seminars and talking shops in Washington.

"The informal communications networks are quite strong," said James Allen Smith, a think tank expert and historian at Georgetown University.

So why have think tanks proliferated? McGann says more groups are competing for power and influence. The country's weak political parties and the separation of powers into legislative and executive branches provides think tanks and interest groups with "greater access to government officials and the policy-making process," he said.

"There was also an overall movement toward specialization in all fields and an increased targeting of charitable dollars for specific projects or programs."

R. Kent Weaver, a senior fellow at Brookings and professor of public policy and government at Georgetown, said the founding of the Heritage Foundation in 1973 marked a "turning point" in the growth of advocacy-type think tanks.

He said the rise of Heritage was due partly to a feeling in the conservative camp that the American Enterprise Institute had become "too soft and not ideologically rigorous enough." Heritage began to publish briefer policy papers aimed at Capitol Hill staff. It also "pioneered the idea that marketing and the media were a major part of the operation," said Weaver.

Smith, of Georgetown University, said think tanks "provided the intellectual infrastructure" for the conservative movement's resurgence in the run-up to President Ronald Reagan's election in 1980.

"We presented Reagan with a mandate for leadership when he was elected, with 2,000 recommendations. About 60 percent of them were implemented during his term in office," said Lee Edwards, a fellow at Heritage and an expert on the conservative movement in the United States.

He said Heritage was established partly because "there was nothing quite like Brookings on the right."

While Brookings, the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage cover a waterfront range of issues, other think tanks like the International Institute for Economics have tapped into growing specialist areas.

The International Institute for Economics, founded in 1981 by C. Fred Bergsten, a former official in both the Carter and Nixon administrations, takes credit for work on the reform of the International Monetary Fund and development of the World Trade Organization.

Bergsten said think tanks "are a major source of ideas" for administrations that often have little time for "strategic thinking."

The Center for American Progress, one of Washington's newest think tanks, was founded last year to reform the liberal agenda and compete with conservative ideas. Of the center's 21 senior staff and fellows, almost half served as senior officials in the Clinton administration.

The center's president, John Podesta, was White House chief-of-staff during Clinton's second term, while Gene Sperling, a fellow at the center, served as national economic adviser.

Sarah Wartell, chief operating officer of the center, was former adviser to the Clinton administration on domestic economic policy. She said there was "plenty of room" to air a "consistent, progressive voice" on the left in areas like the economy and foreign policy.

The most obvious sign of how much think tanks have multiplied in recent decades is their increased use as expert sources by journalists. "Promotion and publicity is integral to the operation and the panoply of communications makes this easier," said Edwards, of Heritage.

He said about 10 or 12 media specialists work at Heritage. Their job, as in most other think tanks, is to act like theatrical agents for the organization's experts by scheduling television appearances and peddling articles to op-ed page editors in major newspapers in the United States and around the world.

This often has the effect of sidelining academics, who are usually not as close to policy-makers in Washington and tend to be less accessible to reporters.

Kenneth Warren, professor of political science at St. Louis University, said think tanks "tend to be intellectually dishonest."

"These institutes don't have to stand up in front of classes. They usually have a policy position to pursue. They tend to put a spin on public policy and have a purpose of coming up with research and analysis that promotes a certain position, liberal or conservative," said Warren.

He added that think tanks "do a lot of really good work," but should always be identified with an "ideological label."

Many reporters agree that flagging think tanks with their ideological stamp is problematic. For one thing, most think tanks claim to be nonpartisan. And even if the think tank does flaunt its political bias, like the American Enterprise Institute, for example, which categorizes itself as "right of center," not every member may share that ideology.

David Kimball, assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, said "at some level academics are jealous" of the amount of media exposure think tanks receive, but added that they can act "as a bridge between policy-making and the public."

Smith, of Georgetown University, said op-ed page editors and television producers have "learned to look more widely" for experts and "if the balance has shifted in favor of think tanks it is because the media market has expanded."

It is unclear who pays for think tanks' policy-shaping research. Some think tanks, commonly called contract research institutes, such as the RAND Corp. and the Urban Institute, draw most of their revenues from the government for specific research projects.

But most others rely on philanthropic foundations and wealthy individuals for money. Under United States law, large donations given to nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations must be itemized in their annual tax returns. But the identity of donors does not need to be made public.

Brookings has assets of $228 million, with eight contributors donating more than $500,000 each, according to last year's annual report. The American Enterprise Institute, which chooses to withhold the identities of its donors, reported assets of $37 million last year.

"There are those donors who want dollar-for-dollar exchange, but most understand that there isn't a direct link between policy and money. People know that some research institutes have a particular brand and they're buying that brand," said McGann.

Some academics say that "brand" is the reason certain think tanks cannot be objective in their analysis. Tim Lomperis, professor of political science at St. Louis University, said academics "are not beholden to spin."

But David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, said "all scholars have a point of view."

"Maybe the university doesn't have a point of view, but the individual does. Everyone approaches the issues within a certain framework, or paradigm," he said.

Karlyn H. Bowman, a public opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said "everyone brings a set of unintentional beliefs."

McGann believes there is "a necessary interdependence" between universities and think tanks, with academics doing much of the groundwork for public policy-making. Still, viewed through the media prism at least, academics appear to be receding more into the hallowed halls of universities, while the heyday for think tanks has arrived.

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© 2004, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services