Though their immediate influence is mostly concentrated within the beltway, think tanks in the United States impact politics nationwide and even worldwide. These institutions hire leading academics, as well as former diplomats, policymakers, and military personnel to study and formulate solutions to pressing national and global policy problems. Representatives from think tanks often testify in congressional hearings and provide depth to news stories with their expert insights. And though many such organizations maintain nonpartisan identities, the employees naturally have their own political leanings. A U.S. News analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics, suggests that employees at all but the most conservative organizations gave far more financial support to Democrats than Republicans over the last four election cycles. During this time period (2003 through 2010), Republicans and Democrats each controlled both houses of Congress for four years, and Americans also elected both a Republican and a Democratic president.
Below is a list of the amounts of campaign contributions by employees of some of the top U.S. think tanks, broken down by giving to Republican or conservative candidates and organizations versus those that are Democratic or liberal. The totals go as far back as the 2004 election cycle, the first election cycle during which soft money contributions were illegal. "Soft money" refers to money given to the party as a whole, for purposes such as "party-building activities" and issue ads. These contributions were unlimited and largely unregulated. The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act ended this practice.
|Organization||Political Orientation||2003-2010 Donations||GOP %||Dem %|
|Center for Strategic and International Studies||Centrist||169,620||12.30%||83.80%|
|Center for American Progress||Liberal||164,227||0.30%||98.80%|
|Council on Foreign Relations||Centrist||146,849||30.20%||69.60%|
|American Enterprise Institute||Conservative||85,495||93.00%||0.60%|
|Carnegie Endowment for International Peace||Centrist||53,175||0.90%||99.10%|
|Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars||Centrist||51,895||14.50%||85.50%|
|Kaiser Family Foundation||Centrist||49,500||0.00%||98.00%|
|Center for a New American Security||Centrist||42,750||5.40%||94.60%|
|U.S. Institute of Peace||Centrist||32,661||0.80%||94.20%|
|New America Foundation||Centrist||23,301||5.10%||94.90%|
|Congressional Research Service||Centrist||10,422||0.00%||100.00%|
|Institute for Policy Studies||Liberal||5,850||0.00%||100.00%|
|National Bureau of Economic Research||Centrist||1,750||0.00%||100.00%|
Source: Center for Responsive Politics
(Note: These figures may not provide a complete accounting of the campaign spending habits of these institutions' employees, as donors are not required to provide their employment information, and may also significantly misspell or otherwise misstate the names of their employers. Data only reflects all contributions $200 and greater. Row percentages may not total 100 percent due to donations to third-party candidates and nonpartisan PACs. Certain issue, advocacy, and professional organizations also are not required to disclose their donors.)
Clear political inclinations underlie the work of some think tanks. The Center for American Progress, for example, was founded by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta and is considered one of the nation's leading progressive organizations. Meanwhile, former Vice President Dick Cheney sits on the Board of Trustees at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation claims former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes as a trustee, as well as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a leading figure of conservatism, as a "patron." The campaign contributions from employees of these institutions reflect these biases; Center for American Progress staffers support Democratic candidates and liberal causes almost exclusively, and those from the aforementioned conservative organizations tend to support Republicans and conservative PACs.
However, employee contributions from some of the top moderate think tanks skew decidedly to the left. For example, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the RAND Corporation, two of the policy institutes with the most generous employees, have 84 percent and 91 percent Democratic giving records, respectively. The two think tanks with the most bipartisan spread of campaign contributions--the Council on Foreign Relations and the Aspen Institute--still have seen more than two-thirds of their employees' reported contributions going toward Democrats and liberal PACs since 2003. Even employees of the Congressional Research Service, sometimes called "Congress' think tank," have given 100 percent of their donations since 2003 to Democratic candidates and committees.