Last year the Heritage Foundation celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. For a progressive think tank, a birthday such as this might have been the occasion for a fancy banquet and perhaps a modest fundraising drive. For Heritage, it was an excuse to mount a massive “Leadership for America Campaign” designed to raise $85 million. This effort yielded more than $40 million in 1998, and Heritage expects easily to bring in the full amount before the end of 1999.
Heritage’s success at filling its coffers is dramatic testament to the growing financial resources available to conservative think tanks in the nineties. These institutions have long been familiar players on the political scene. But in recent years, following the Republican takeover of Congress, the scope of their operations has grown dramatically. This decade has proven to be a boom time like no other.
A recent report that I wrote for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy estimates that spending by the top twenty conservative think tanks will likely top $1 billion in the nineties. In 1996 alone, these organizations spent $158 million to develop and disseminate policy ideas–an amount comparable to what the GOP raised in soft-money political donations that year. The $158 million represents a significant increase from 1992, with many organizations more than doubling their budgets over that period. Partial data from 1997 and 1998 suggest that the budgets of conservative think tanks are continuing to grow rapidly.
Much of this money comes from corporations and wealthy businessmen, with conservative think tanks increasingly acting as magnets for special-interest money. More than ever, private-sector leaders see the dividends that come from tax-deductible donations to nonprofit policy groups. These groups put a highbrow spin on the self-interested arguments of corporate America. In effect, gifts to right-wing think tanks have become another form of political campaign donation by those anxious to roll back government regulations, cut corporate taxes and loosen labor laws. Notable examples of this trend in the nineties include the several million dollars that Wall Street firms have given to the Cato Institute and other supporters of Social Security privatization; large donations from telecommunications companies to Citizens for a Sound Economy and like-minded antiregulatory groups that worked hard for passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act; and the millions that Koch Industries, an energy conglomerate, has given to think tanks working to water down federal environmental laws. This swelling river of private money has allowed the network of conservative think tanks to grow and has enhanced the sophistication of their operations. A number of developments in recent years stand out:
The nineties have seen more than half a dozen new conservative think tanks rise to positions of visibility. These newcomers include such aggressively ideological outfits as the National Center for Policy Analysis, the Reason Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Many of these new organizations have doubled or even quadrupled their budgets since 1990. For example, the far-right NCPA’s budget grew from $1.7 million in 1992 to $4.3 million in 1997, making it a major player in the think-tank world. CEI grew from $500,000 in 1990 to $2.5 million in 1996. On issues such as deregulation, Social Security privatization and school vouchers, the smaller think tanks have played an important role in echoing arguments made by the larger institutions and adding a wider array of conservative voices to the national debate.