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Research 'Think Tanks' Have Back-and-Forth Relationship with Government

There is a back-and-forth relationship in the U.S. capital between government and 'think tanks.'
There is a back-and-forth relationship in the U.S. capital between government and 'think tanks.'

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Washington D.C.'s research organizations -- the so-called "think tanks -- provide opinions and research on public-policy issues for lawmakers and the U.S. government's Executive Branch.  But they also serve another function.  These "think tanks" commonly house officials from previous administrations who often return to government when their political party comes back in power.

It is the beginning of a new presidential administration.  A huge turnover of Executive Branch personnel is taking place. People who worked for the last president have cleaned out their desks and departed. And ... some of the new people coming into those offices are from research organizations -- so-called 'think tanks' -- in Washington.  

Indeed, there is a back-and-forth relationship in the U.S. capital between government and 'think tanks.'  Just as a new administration draws from the ranks of researchers, those organizations also take in those who carried out policy for the last president.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has seen both sides of that street.  After holding positions in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the 1980s and early 1990s, he went to the research organization American Enterprise Institute as a Senior Vice President. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, Bolton came back to government as Undersecretary of State, and then as an ambassador.  At the end of the Bush administration, he went back to AEI as a Senior Fellow.

Similarly, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is with another Washington research organization, the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  

Also at CSIS is former Ambassador to the U.N. and to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad.  Similar examples can be found in other Washington 'think tanks.'

Ambassador Bolton says this is a normal -- and logical -- aspect of the Washington policy process.

"For people like myself who have the luxury of coming back to a research institute, it is a way to 'recharge our batteries' intellectually," Bolton said. "It is a way to think about policy without having the day-to-day responsibility of making it, or recommending it, or discussing it in the governmental context.  And, I think [that] from the point of view of the overall effectiveness of the American government, that is a very, very important contribution that the 'think tanks' make."

At The Center for American Progress, Chief Operating Officer Neera Tanden says being out of power actually caused her research organization to be created.

"Under First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, I was one of her domestic policy advisors.  And, when she decided to run for the Senate [in 2000], I worked for her then," explained Tanden. "But then, when we came out of power [with the election of Republican George W. Bush], we recognized -- Hillary recognized, [former White House Chief of Staff] John Podesta recognized, [and now former] President Clinton recognized  there was no organization that worked across issues to try and move the debate over the long term in a more progressive direction. That is one of the reasons why I, along with John Podesta, started the Center for American Progress."

While many Washington research organizations have a number of people who served in previous presidential administrations, Jeffrey Hiday says the so-called "revolving door" is smaller, and slower, at the RAND Corporation.

"In the last change of [presidential] administration [Bush - Obama], we may have lost a half dozen researchers to the Obama administration.  We may have picked up a handful [of people] from the [George W.] Bush administration.  But, bear in mind, we have close to 900 researchers. We are a quite large organization," Hiday said.

Creating and carrying out policy is a core function of government. The policy process is complicated, requiring highly experienced people who know in detail what needs to be in place. And, because of that, research organizations -- 'think tanks' -- have been, and will be ... an important, even essential, part of that endeavor.

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