Getting the message across: evaluating think tank influence in Congress

Abstract

Skirting the lines between academic, promotional and advocacy organizations, think tanks spend an inordinate amount of time and money attempting to influence policy debates, all the while being legally barred from lobbying. Think tanks, unlike interest groups, do not bring with them electoral constituencies to advocate on behalf of, so the ways in which they persuade legislators to adopt their opinions cannot simply be electoral in nature. Using a dataset of think tank citations from congressional floor speeches and committee testimony records, I compare the influence of think tanks based on a new measure of their ideologies and, in doing so, show that think tanks engage in strategic ideological positioning to maximize their influence. An additional hypothesis examined is the relationship between think tank members’ previous work experiences in government with the organizations’ overall prominence. By treating think tanks as strategic actors in legislative politics, I show that think tanks’ ideological positioning affects directly how members of Congress engage with them, both by citing them in floor speeches and in calling them to testify, with more extreme think tanks being cited more frequently in floor speeches and more moderate think tanks called more often to testify.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    No articles specifically about think tanks have been published in the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, or the Journal of Politics in the past 30 years (Rich 2005).

  2. 2.

    There is evidence that the rise of new topics to legislate on is rather rare; with the exception of foreign policy/national security issues that sometimes arise rather suddenly, by the time there is ample pressure for Congress to move on a new topic, there has already been a saturation of partisan expertise on the market, such that there is little ambiguity about what each ideological side of a policy looks like (Baumgartner and Jones 2002).

  3. 3.

    Not that we can separate the two readily when it comes to MCs.

  4. 4.

    The foregoing model suggests an important consideration: although rarely will specific testimony matter in the passage or writing of policy, the presence of partisan expert testimony acts as a counterbalancing force between the partisan sides. An equilibrium is reached between both sides, in that the marginal impact of any given testimony is rather slim. If we were to assume a case of no testimony at all, then the presence of a single expert would provide more legitimacy to one ideological side than the other. Furthermore, if one side unilaterally were to withdraw unilaterally from the expertise margin of the legislative debate, MCs from that party would be unable to make persuasive cases at the committee or floor level to push policies in their direction (follows the logic of Cox and McCubbins 1993, 2005). That outcome is reminiscent of concerns from Republican House members in the pre-Heritage Foundation era that they had no resources on which to draw to defend their policy positions. As such, compromises made on legislation were often less favorable to the Republicans than they would have imagined possible (Edwards 1997), owing to the imbalance in partisan information and expertise valence.

  5. 5.

    It is also likely that the same die-hard member of an MC’s primary reelection group would be active enough to potentially contribute to the think tanks too, creating something of a feedback loop. Where strong ideologues and major political donors meet would be where this relationship would be most likely born out: considering that this is beyond the scope of this paper, this is just speculative, but important nonetheless.

  6. 6.

    Then all of the organizations in this paper either are or have an associated 501c(3) wing.

  7. 7.

    The data used here were pulled from his database in the Spring of 2014: he will update his scores given the 2014 election cycle, but those updates are not reflected in this paper.

  8. 8.

    There were many corporate CEOs, high profile investors, politicians, military personnel, and civil servants among those listed as members of a think tanks’ board. They are hardly a random selection of individuals.

  9. 9.

    There are concerns that it is a practice of major investors to obscure who they are when filing these FEC donation forms, and that they will often include misleading information about profession and state of residence (especially since many have residence in multiple states). Bonica mentioned to me that it has made matching unique contributors sometimes more difficult than otherwise would be, although his algorithm, when compared with doing the comparisons by hand, did nearly as well. But these are concerns endemic to any use of contributions data. Further discussions of this are included in the online appendix.

  10. 10.

    The only think tanks I was unable to get enough members to include in my dataset were the Third Millennium Foundation and the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, both of which were largely made up of foreign nationals. For the boards generally, I only included members in my dataset if I could verify that their known giving patterns (from the FEC website) matched their scores in Bonica’s data.

  11. 11.

    While there is small relationship between the size of the boards and their general ideology (larger boards were somewhat more liberal than smaller ones, and generally somewhat less extreme), this does not suggest that this fact is driving the results but instead suggests that board selection is itself a strategic activity designed to alter the perception of a given think tank. See online appendix for more on this.

  12. 12.

    The most significant difference between the two being two distinct think tanks, the Center for the Study of the Presidency, which GM score as highly conservative and I score as neutral, and the Christian Coalition, which GM score as moderately conservative and I score as the most conservative. Since the Center for the Study of the Presidency is a nonideological think tank by design, I am highly confident that its true ideology makes more sense in my scale than in GM. Similarly for the Christian Coalition: since it is the think tank founded by Pat Robertson, it is most likely toward the extreme of the conservative movement, not near the center. Both of these, and the few other reasonable deviations between the scores, are mostly caused by the paucity of citations they received; the Center for the Study of the Presidency and the Christian Coalition were only cited one and three times, respectively.

  13. 13.

    where Y i ~Poisson(λ i ) where λ i ~ exp(x i , β j ) and β j ~ Nk(b0j, β−1). This is estimated with the ‘ bayesglm ’ function from the ‘ arm ’ package in ‘ R ,’ and uses the Student-t distribution for the uninformative prior.

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Correspondence to Joshua Y. Lerner.

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Lerner, J.Y. Getting the message across: evaluating think tank influence in Congress. Public Choice 175, 347–366 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-018-0541-5

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Keywords

  • Think tanks
  • Congress
  • Policymaking