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May 24, 2013 5:26 PM Niche Markets

By Ed Kilgore

At Ten Miles Square, there’s a piece by Henry Farrell examining the somewhat hazy definitions governing those distinctive Beltway institutions (though they exist all over the place), “think tanks,” playing off some unwelcome recent publicity about such entities employing lobbyists:

It would be grossly simplistic to see think tanks as just clandestine lobbying shops. UC San Diego sociologist Thomas Medvetz has an interesting book on the delicate balancing acts that think tanks have to perform in order to continue and to succeed. He borrows his ideas from Pierre Bourdieu, arguing that think tanks are in a liminal position between the worlds of politics, literature and academia, trying to borrow prestige from each of these worlds while resisting being defined by them.

I’d go further: think tanks emerged into important Washington institutions because of a market failure, primarily in academia, which due to its own internal dynamics could not supply the Washington policy-making machine with the material it needed in a timely fashion. In doing so, think tanks in fact competed with lobbyists, who were also meeting the market demand for justifications (or rationalizations) of specific policies among politicians.

The hazy definition of “think tank” is separate from the hazy definitions governing tax-exempt status for various kinds of political activities that we are hearing about so much right now. Most if not all think tanks are actually 501(c)(3) “charitable” organizations, which unlike the 501(c)(4)s in the news recently cannot engage in campaign activities or even partisan politics at all. But you have (c)(3)s attached to (c)(4)s and even to non-tax-exempt groups, so there’s plenty of gray territory to navigate. For example: the American Legislative Exchange Council, that infamous and very efficient transmission belt that places legislative proposals largely drafted by corporate lobbyists directly into the hands of conservative state legislators, who in turn often inflict them on the their constituents, is a 501(c)(3), and also calls itself a “think tank.”

The important thing to remember is that none of these institutions or the specific names and rules under which they operate makes a whole lot of sense unless you look at the whole political picture. Form doesn’t always follow function, but by and large the money goes where it can have the greatest impact with the least “leakage” in dollars, time, legal scrutiny, and wasted effort. That’s worth keeping in mind next time you hear that the 501(c)(4) “scandal” is all about poor, bare-bones citizens groups just wanting their opinions to be heard.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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