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.

This is where Bartlett starts to call the end.

It’s one thing to promise a donor some research that would be produced and distributed much faster than could be done by a university professor, the traditional producers of serious policy research—but it was quite another to promise the sort of immediate impact on legislation that a congressman or senator could offer. The result was even more pressure on think tanks to work with congressional offices and coordinate their activities. Now every Washington think tank has congressional liaisons on their staff.

There’s lots more good stuff here, about Hill offices coming to rely on think tanks, Heritage’s new explicitly political arm (Bartlett doesn’t mention it, but the liberal Center for American Progress has made a similar move), and pressure on think tankers to avoid criticism of their political allies.

No need to point that out to David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter who lost his job at AEI last month after criticizing the GOP’s strategy on healthcare—a nice reminder of that earlier conservative dissatisfaction with AEI that led to the creation of Heritage.

And it’s hard to overstate how central think thanks have become to Washington, and the press. Just look at this National Journal story, based on a Brookings study:

The five largest banks have a stranglehold on trading in credit default swaps, a type of security that was at the center of the financial crisis, and those banks will be able to foil congressional reform plans unless the government takes antitrust action, according to a new report.

Doesn’t that sound like the kind of gravity usually reserved for a final report from some sort of government-appointed special commission?

Mark Thoma, a University of Oregon economics professor and blogger, weighed in strongly on Bartlett’s side of the think tank argument, lamenting the damage done to economics by the “blurring of lines between academic research and think tank research—some of which is simply not honest—that has made it appear that there are divisions within the profession that simply do not exist, or that there is stronger support for some ideas than actually exists.”

But Thoma also pointed the finger at the press:

The main problem, I think, is the he said - she said presentation of academic work in the media alongside the papers that think tanks put out as though there is an equivalence (or a similarly structured debate on, say, CNN). Much of the think tank work (but not all) is junk and no such equivalence exists, but the work is often given equal footing in the press. One of the reasons I started this blog was the frustration of hearing what economists “believe” (e.g. “tax cuts pay for themselves”), when those beliefs were anything but widely held. But you wouldn’t know that reading the paper or watching the news.

We’re obviously not fans of the he-said/she-said form, and it’s nice to see Bartlett pick up the media critique in a subsequent post:

One consequence of Heritage’s breakthrough in developing short, readable, time-sensitive policy analyses is that they were just as useful to the media as they were on Capitol Hill. Reporters had the same need for predigested studies written in plain English, as opposed to the sorts of books written in academese that were the stock-in-trade of traditional think tanks like Brookings.

Conservatives also realized that putting out a study saying the exact opposite of a liberal study was sufficient to muddy the water and prevent a reporter from drawing a clear conclusion from the liberal study. It didn’t matter that the liberal study was done by a preeminent scholar in the field and the conservative study was done by a glorified intern. All that mattered is that they came to opposite conclusions, thus leading to on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand stories that everyone hates but the media won’t stop writing.

Bartlett’s analysis of think tanks past and present is an important one, and shows that there’s plenty more to be written about these Washington institutions. In the meantime, it’s a good idea for the press to pause a sec, and give those studies and reports a second thought before diving in the tank.

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