Think Tanks and Their Lobbying ‘Sisters’

In some regards, action funds are to think tanks what super PACs are to political campaigns.

They’ve organized separately, to accommodate tax laws. While think tanks are usually 501(c)(3) nonprofits, advocacy groups operate as 501(c)(4) organizations.

Action groups differ from super PACs, however, in some important ways. They needn’t maintain any semblance of being unaffiliated and out of communication with the research groups they support. They don’t have to release the names of donors. And they’re free to lobby extensively.

As we noted on day one of this series, few think tanks register as lobbying groups. They’re restricted in how much politicking they can do and still hold onto their nonprofit status.

But in recent years, some think tanks have affiliated with advocacy groups, typically described as “sister organizations.”

We checked tax returns and other data for the top 50 U.S. think tanks, as identified in the recent study by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

We found four think tanks linked to advocacy groups:

Think tank Advocacy group
Heritage Foundation Heritage Action for America
Center for American Progress Center for American Progress Action Fund
Competitive Enterprise Institute Freedom Action
Open Society Foundations Open Society Policy Center

Heritage Action for America launched in 2010 to work against the Obama health care plan. Its CEO is Michael A. Needham, former chief of staff to Heritage Foundation President Edwin Feulner. The group contracts with the Heritage Foundation for administrative and fundraising activities.

Its mission, as reported to the IRS, is to promote “conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.”

In the first three quarters of 2011, the group spent more than $117,000 lobbying on issues such as trade, states’ rights, abortion, and secret balloting in union elections.

The Center for American Progress Action Fund, known as CAP Action, is essentially the reverse of Heritage Action, supporting Obamacare and a progressive agenda. It spent more than $178,000 in the first three quarters of 2011. Its issues included not only health care but also defense spending, unemployment insurance, and tax loopholes for oil companies.

CAP Action is chaired by John Podesta, who also chairs the Center for American Progress.

Freedom Action was formed in 2009 by individuals at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Fred Smith, president and founder of the think tank, is chair of the advocacy group. Freedom Action is not currently registered as a lobbying client in Washington.

Open Society Foundations, formerly known as the Open Society Institute, is funded by liberal investor George Soros, who also funds a separate advocacy group, the Open Society Policy Center.

The policy center spent $1.45 million in the first three quarters of last year on issues such as defense spending, trade, and criminal justice.

The rise of these sister organizations is an indication of the increasing politicization of think tanks, which were once regarded as independent idea labs.

(We should also note that there is no legal definition for a think tank. Groups are free to describe themselves as such while doing advocacy work.)

As former Treasury Department economist Bruce Bartlett warned in a 2010 column: “At least in Washington, think tanks are becoming so political that they are more like lobbyists than academic institutions.”

But the trend doesn’t apply to all research institutes.

Old-school think tanks such as The Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations don’t have these affiliations. Think tanks that have launched spin-off groups, while claiming to be nonpartisan, have clear political bents.

Indeed, the combination of super PAC, think tank, and lobby organization may well be the new turnkey operation for those seeking to get their message across in Washington.

When he formed the YG Action Fund super PAC in October 2011, John Murray, deputy chief of staff to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, told Politico he also intended to start a think tank and a 501(c)(4) group.

The fund has yet to report any fundraising activity.

This is the final post 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. […] Friday, January 27: Think Tanks and Their Lobbying ‘Sisters’ […]

  2. […] Friday, January 27: Think Tanks and Their Lobbying ‘Sisters’ […]

  3. […] a theme we’ve written about here and elsewhere. Many of the institutions that once fashioned themselves as independent research groups have become […]

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