The Think Tank-Lobby Contra Dance

In the world of influencers, think tanks typically keep a distance from lobbying.

Although they’re not legally prohibited from lobby activities, the Internal Revenue Code limits the percentage of resources they can devote to such efforts while maintaining their nonprofit status. (For more detail, see this IRS page.)

We searched our records for 76 major national think tanks and found only three currently registered as lobbying:

  • The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which researches fiscal and tax issues, spent $290,000 on lobbying in the first three quarters of 2011. It employs three registered lobbyists in Washington. The Center is generally regarded as progressive. Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein recently proclaimed it “think tank of the year,” describing it as “the fastest, fairest, and smartest policy think tank in Washington.”
  • The International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan organization that works to resolve conflict, spent $60,000 in the first nine months of last year. It employed two lobbyists. It has not reported lobbying on any legislation since 2008.
  • SRI International, which began as the Stanford Research Institute at Stanford University after World War II, spent $270,000 in the first three quarters. It employed five outside lobby firms: American Business Development Group, American Defense International, Innovative Federal Strategies, Kadesh & Associates, and Three Bridges Advisors.

These three are the exceptions.

While think tanks can exert enormous influence on policy makers, the general view is that their impact is achieved through research and in-house expertise.

Yet their channels of influence are often based on social relationships, just as in the lobby business. The ties that bind think tanks to major lobby clients, lobby firms and lobbyists themselves are many and intertwined.

Corporations that are major lobbyists in Washington donate funds and underwrite programs. Their executives sit on think tank boards, attend and speak at their events, and enroll in their classes.

Major donors to the Brookings Institution, for instance, include AT&T and Microsoft. The Carnegie Endowment has received funding from Chevron, ExxonMobil and General Motors.

The Council on Foreign Relations lists more than 170 corporate members, including 57 Fortune 1000 companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Eight are registered lobby firms:

  • Arnold & Porter
  • BGR Group
  • Bingham McCutchen
  • Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton
  • Covington & Burling
  • Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher
  • Greenberg Traurig
  • Sullivan & Cromwell

According to its web site, the Council offers three levels of corporate membership, at costs ranging from $30,000 to $100,000. Benefits include private briefings with fellows, invitations to the annual dinner and monthly roundtables, and use of the ballroom at the Pratt House, on Park Avenue and 68th Street in Manhattan.

Donald Rumsfeld speaks to the Council on Foreign Relations at the Harold Pratt House, 2004. (Department of Defense photo)

More valuable are the intangible benefits of new relationships and access to people at one of the world’s most highly regarded research organizations.

At both ends of the political spectrum are think tanks with definite philosophies, aligned with corporate donors sharing similar philosophies.

The chemicals and petroleum company Koch Industries, for example, lobbies through an affiliated company, Koch Companies Public Sector, which spent more than $5.5 million in the first three quarters of 2011. It hired eight outside lobby shops:

  • Clark Lytle & Geduldig
  • Cypress Advocacy, LLC
  • Hunton & Williams LLP
  • Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, Inc.
  • Mr. Peter Loughlin
  • MWR Strategies
  • Palmetto Group
  • Siff & Associates, PLLC

David and Charles Koch, the brothers who control the company, both maintain charitable foundations.

The Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation has supported such conservative think tanks as the American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation and Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Not surprisingly, these organizations research many of the same issues that Koch lobbies on.

For instance, company lobbyists targeted the Taxpayer and Gas Price Relief Act of 2011. The Heritage Foundation and the Mackinac Center spoke out on the bill, faulting the Obama administration for price increases.

Koch lobbyists worked against the New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions (NAT GAS) Act, which called for tax credits for alternative fuels using natural gas. Testifying before a House subcommittee in September, a research fellow from the Heritage Foundation criticized the act as subsidizing special interests.

A blogger at Heritage wrote that subsidies created by the legislation would enrich House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The Kochs are often contrasted with liberal financier George Soros, who also gives large amounts to think tanks that advance his beliefs. (Much of his support is channeled through his Open Society Foundations, funder of such organizations as the Atlantic Council of the United States and the Economic Policy Institute.)

Unlike the Kochs, Soros has put little money into business lobbying efforts. His hedge fund, Soros Fund Management, last reported lobbying expenses in 2005.

However, the Open Society Policy Center, an advocacy group founded by Soros, does lobby on issues such as civil rights and foreign relations. The center spent nearly $1.5 million on lobbying in the first three quarters of 2011.

Soros is also a supporter of the prominent liberal think tank, Center for American Progress. More on that later.

This is the first of a four-part series on the relationships between think tanks and the lobbying industry:

Laurie Bennett, a longtime journalist, blogs for First Street and Forbes. She’s a co-founder of


  1. […] Tuesday, January 24: The Think Tank-Lobby Contra Dance […]

  2. […] Tuesday, January 24: The Think Tank-Lobby Contra Dance […]

  3. […] we noted on day one of this series, few think tanks register as lobbying groups. They’re restricted in how much […]

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