Think tanks are in Washington’s DNA. But despite their outsized role in our politics and policy debates, the press rarely gives the institutions themselves the scrutiny they deserve. That’s why it’s good to see Bruce Bartlett lift the curtain a bit, with a Forbes piece that declares, “The End Of The Think Tank.”

We hear the term “think tank” quite often, but it’s doubtful that very many people know what it means. They may not need to because the term is increasingly devoid of meaning. At least in Washington, think tanks are becoming so political that they are more like lobbyists than academic institutions.

Bartlett, a renegade conservative economist, certainly has a dog in the think tank fight. A domestic policy aide in the Reagan White House and a Treasury Department official during the first Bush administration, he was fired in 2005 from the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative Dallas-based think tank, over his criticism of President George W. Bush.

But Bartlett has also had a front row seat for the growth of Washington’s think tank culture, and the arc he’s tracing applies pretty well to all parts of the political spectrum. It’s also useful that, before he explains their demise, Bartlett provides a smart summary of how think tanks came to claim their place in the capital.

It all starts with the Brookings Institution, which was “established as a degree-granting graduate school in the 1920s,” but eventually morphed, Bartlett writes, “into the quintessential think tank, a sort of university without students; all research, no teaching.”

The American Enterprise Institute came next, a conservative counterpart to the “moderately liberal perspective” at Brookings. And this is when the story gets really interesting. As the appetite for conservative ideas started to increase in the 1970s, so did frustration with what Bartlett calls “the slow, plodding style of AEI and Brookings, which tended to publish their research in books that often took years to complete.” Enter Ed Feulner, a Republican staffer on the Hill.

From Feulner’s vision the Heritage Foundation was established in 1973. Rather than fill its staff with aging Ph.D.s, he hired people with master’s degrees who had perhaps studied with the small number of conservatives in academia. Their job wasn’t to do original research, but to take the research that had already been done by conservative academics, summarize it and apply it to the specific legislative issues Congress was considering. Instead of writing books of several hundred pages, Heritage studies were typically 10 pages or less.

Bartlett’s experience in the trenches really pays off for readers when he describes the massive Xerox machine in the basement of Heritage, where he worked in the 1980s.

Often, Heritage staffers would grab handfuls of studies as they came out of the machine and literally run to the House or Senate to start distributing them. I know there were occasions when I wrote a quick one-pager on some hot topic and it was in congressional offices the same day. In the Internet era we take such speed for granted, but in the 1970s and 1980s Heritage was operating at light speed, while AEI and Brookings were still using horses and buggies, so to speak.

The need for speed still exists. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the liberal-leaning-but-very-serious think tank, entered the fray last week with a new blog, promising “sharp and timely commentary” on the issues of the day.

Back in the 90s, the competition caught up with Heritage, and, as Bartlett explains it, “The increasing impact of think tanks brought in new money as corporations realized that think tank studies were highly effective ways of influencing legislation. They had a certain cachet that had more impact than the same document would have if produced by a lobbying or public relations shop.”

The new money, usually in the form of tax-exempt contributions, he writes, came with “increased donor pressure to produce bottom line results—getting bills passed or defeated—and had a corrupting effect on the think tanks,” which moved ever closer to politics.

Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.