The Bipartisan Lobbying Center: How a Washington Think Tank Advocates for Political Unity - and its Top Donors

by Ken Silverstein

The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), says its website, “drives principled solutions through rigorous analysis, reasoned negotiation and respectful dialogue,” and “combines politically-balanced policy making with strong, proactive advocacy and outreach.” The BPC, which is often described in press accounts as a “centrist think tank,” is highly influential and the media and Congress treat its reports and pronouncements as consequential and weighty.

 The BPC’s reputation is further enhanced due to the large number of former government officials and Members of Congress who serve on its board and as "senior fellows." For example, on May 8, 2013, a story in Politico said that two former Senators had thrown “their energy policy weight… to make the case that the private sector — rather than federal government — should decide on whether to export natural gas.” One of the former Senators was Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, who was identified in the story with the reassuringly neutral title of co-chairman of the BPC’s Energy Project. The story cited Dorgan’s recent Congressional testimony, during which he had said, “We believe the market should make the decision about the exports of natural gas.”

The story didn’t mention that Dorgan is a “senior policy advisor” and co-chair of the lobbying practice at Arent Fox, one of Washington’s premiere influence peddling shops. Nor did it say that energy companies, including America’s Natural Gas Alliance, heavily fund the BPC. That’s typical of the free ride the press gives to the BPC, which routinely advocates, under the guise of independent scholarship, for policies that benefit its donors.

The BPC was founded in 2007 by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell, who all cashed in on their government experience by working for Beltway law and lobbying firms, and advising major corporations. The think tank’s funders include foundations, corporations and trade associations, with donors in the last two categories including FedEx, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, the American Bankers Association, BP, Chevron, Citigroup, ConocoPhillips, the Nuclear Energy Institute, and Shell.

A number of prominent BPC “senior fellows” work as lobbyists: These include:

Robert Bennett, the former GOP Senator from Utah, who is also a “senior policy advisor” at Arent Fox and who registered to lobby last January, immediately after he was exempted from the law that bars former elected officials from lobbying for two years after retiring from public service. Bennett, a former member of the Senate Banking Committee, also formed his own consulting firm to advocate on behalf of major financial institutions. His clients have included Americans Standing for Simplification of the Estate Tax (ASSET), a front group working to slash the inheritance tax.

Dan Glickman, the former Secretary of Agriculture and ex-Democratic House member from Kansas, who represented the Motion Picture Association of America and whose lobbying clients while at the firm of Akin Gump Strauss, Hauer & Feld included Dow Chemical, American Financial Group Inc., Alliance of American Insurers, Mortgage Insurance Companies of America, and the Walt Disney Company.

Trent Lott, the former Republican Senator from Mississippi, who has lobbied for numerous companies, including energy giants ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell, and America’s Natural Gas Alliance.

The BPC has programs in health care, economic policy, infrastructure, national security and energy. The latter is led by Dorgan, Lott and William Reilly, who headed the EPA under George Bush Sr., and whose board affiliations have included ConocoPhillips and DuPont. Corporations are the dominant group among the energy project's membership list, including CEOs and executives from Marathon Oil, ExxonMobil, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Exelon Corporation, and Southern Company. For window dressing there is one environmentalist, Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The majority of BPC's funding comes from "philanthropies" and its energy work is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewett Foundation and Climate Works Foundation, Rosemarie Calabro Tully, spokeswoman for the think tank's energy project, told me. "Foundation funding is generally provided to support a specific project, while corporate funding is directed to support BPC's general operations," she said.

Last February, the BPC issued a report, “America’s Energy Resurgence: Sustaining Success, Confronting Challenges,” which included over fifty policy recommendations. The chief outside consultant on the report was William Klinefelter, a lobbyist whose major clients include ExxonMobil.

So it’s hardly a surprise that the report paid lip service to alternative energy but heavily promoted the fossil fuel industry. For example, in terms of oil and gas, it called on Congress to “expand access to oil and gas exploration and production in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico,” and said the Interior Department “should accelerate the timetable for leasing areas off the coasts of the Mid-and South Atlantic states.” In other words, full speed ahead for offshore drilling.

A Wall Street Journal story on the piece quoted Lott – his status as a former Senator and affiliation with the BPC were noted, but not his work as an energy lobbyist – as saying, “I would say to the leaders, Reid and McConnell, if you’re looking for something that historically has been bipartisan, something where you could come together and do good for the country, energy is it.” It said that Lott had recalled the “good old days of bipartisan cooperation,” and that energy would be “a good place” for Congress to start that again. Other BPC personnel testified on the Hill and promoted the report's industry-friendly recommendations.

Meanwhile, the BPC’s Energy Project is holding a series of events to discuss its positions on energy. The affairs are hosted by BPC Senior Fellow and former Republican Senator Pete Domenici (who in 2006 was voted “Worst in the Senate” by Republicans for Environmental Protection due to his efforts to promote oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) and David Goldwyn (who served at the Energy Department under Bill Clinton, then ran a consulting firm that provided “political and business intelligence” to oil companies, then became the State Department’s Coordinator for International Energy Affairs under Obama, and now has returned to the private sector as an energy consultant).

Speakers and panelists at the BPC's first event on June 12, 2013 included a number of energy industry analysts (for example, Edward Morse, Global Head of Commodities Research at Citibank) and former Louisana Senator Bennett Johnston. He has lobbied for energy interests ever since retiring and has also been a Chevron board member and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, a clearinghouse for climate change denial.

The keynote speaker was Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, one of the most pro-energy industry members of Congress. “We…know that this is an issue on which we must take the long view, recognizing that it will play out across decades,” she said, according to a transcript of her remarks. “We will need the best and brightest working on this question, and I see many of you gathered here today. I’m glad to join you – and glad to be part of this conversation – because we really must approach it in a balanced and bipartisan manner.”

And even more importantly to the BPC, in a manner that helps out its donors and the staff’s lobbying clients.


Note: For more on the BPC, see this Nation piece about its work on behalf of US-based retailers who, even in the aftermath of several garment factory disasters in Bangladesh, have refused to sign a binding plan to improve working conditions. Also see this story by David Halperin, who discusses its work on behalf of energy companies.


Research assistant: Diego Arene-Morley