Brooke Williams — Corporate Agendas, Think Tanks, and the Shaping of Public Policy

The November 28, 2012, Lab seminar was led by Edmond J. Safra Lab Fellow and investigative reporter Brooke Williams, who specializes in data-driven journalism and has focused on money and influence in politics. Throughout the course of her fellowship, Williams has spent her time investigating corporate-backed, American think tanks, exposing who is behind them, how they influence public policy, as well as exploring possible solutions. Williams opened the Lab seminar by discussing the extraordinary role think tanks play in the democratic process, and why as a journalist, she finds it necessary to dig deeper into how these entities are influenced by for-profit interests. Lab participants were eager to discuss the differences between advocacy groups, think tanks, and lobbying firms, as well as issues surrounding disclosure of corporate contributions.

As Williams outlined her project, she revealed her ultimate goal of creating a publicly available web application that will enable people to visualize and examine the connections between think tanks, corporate donors and lawmakers and see how private interests shape public policy behind the scenes. Since there isn't mandatory disclosure of corporate contributions to think tanks, she has had to rely on financial data gleaned from IRS Form 990s, corporate reports, lobbying disclosures, and congressional records to piece together a comprehensive picture of how corporate foundations exert political influence through think tanks. At this point in the discussion, several Lab participants recommended that Williams differentiate think tank scholarship from the work that registered lobbyists do. Think tanks bring together scholars who promulgate policy through focused studies, and because of this, think tank scholarship is generally regarded as a more invisible activity than direct lobbying. Williams pointed to the fact that some think tanks sell access and influence for a certain price—similar to lobbyists. On a related note, another participant suggested that Williams investigate prior policy work by think tank scholars to determine potential biases or conflicts of interest. This in turn started a discussion about revolving door practices between think tanks staffers, for-profit corporations, and government officials.

Continuing with her presentation, Williams cited specific examples in which think tank directors, such as Clark Kent Ervin from the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Group, lobbied on behalf of clients that stood to benefit from legislation their think tank was promoting. In her research, Williams found that companies such as Lockheed Martin and IBM were major sponsors of Ervin's Homeland Security Group, and also stood to benefit from the group's legislative recommendations. This example gave way to a debated discussion on how one is to differentiate well-regarded think tanks, such as the Aspen Institute, from "faux tanks", or think tanks that are clearly not doing research and merely acting as conduits for corporate influence.

In summary, Williams discussed the methodology she has employed to research and uncover how for-profit interests compromise the independence and integrity of think tank scholarship. Further, Lab participants engaged in an in-depth discussion on the relationships and differences between think thanks, advocacy groups, and lobbying firms. And finally, Williams brought up the possibility that industry establish ethical policies and practices, while Lab participants discussed the possibilities of legislation requiring corporations to disclose their charitable contributions.