account
search
search

Think tank input at White House declines

By CHRISTIAN BOURGE, UPI Think Tanks Correspondent   |   Jan. 31, 2003 at 7:17 PM
WASHINGTON, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- The important role that think tanks have traditionally played in advising U.S. presidents about policy is being hampered by the Bush administration's intense top-down policymaking process, according to Washington think tank analysts.

"There needs to be some process by which ideas are brought up into the White House so the president can act upon them," Bruce Bartlett, a Republican economist and senior fellow at the market-oriented National Center for Policy Analysis, told United Press International.

"This administration seems to be much more top down (than past ones)," he said. "The White House seems at times to be attempting to keep people and policy in line rather than being a two-way kind of administration where you get ideas from here and give out ideas and go back and forth."

There is a long history of think tanks playing an integral role in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Key White House and agency personnel are often recruited from the ranks of such institutions while think tank analysts often serve as outside advisers. The conservative Heritage Foundation, for instance, had a great deal of influence on the policies of the administration of Ronald Reagan.

The Bush administration does have its share of officials and advisers from such institutions, but many think tank analysts and officials from across the ideological spectrum say that the White House has largely shut out all but a select few analysts who share its rigid ideological vision.

Bartlett said that when it comes to economic policy, the current White House does not ask analysts for their ideas, only for their support.

"What you tend to hear from White House people is that they want you to support something, rather than asking for your input before the final decisions are made," he said. "You kind of feel like you are being used rather than being utilized."

A top official at one liberal-leaning think tank echoed this view.

"In contrast to the Clinton and Reagan administrations, I think their policy is very internally driven, and it is unbending," he said. "I have never seen an administration so bent on bending the input of data and analysis into it as this one, rather than surveying the whole realm of possible policy along the spectrum and making a judicious choice."

However, not everyone in the think tank community is critical of the Bush administration in this regard. Kenneth R. Weinstein, vice president and director of the Washington office of the conservative Hudson Institute, said he believes the administration is open to ideas from outside its ranks.

"I have been very impressed by the administration's willingness to listen to ideas and run with them," he told UPI.

Those in the think tank world who support the administration's actions in this regard also point to the interest the 2000 Bush campaign showed in think tanks and their ideas.

Critics contend that this interest seems to have been fleeting.

"I haven't seen a presidential campaign pay as much attention to the supply of intellectual capital in D.C. as the Bush campaign," said one think tank official. "But I think people have been very surprised how unproductive this has been for their own entry in."

Martin Anderson, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution and a former policy adviser to the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, said that the role played in White House policymaking by external policy research and think tanks is often limited to presidential campaigns.

Martin noted that administrations typically go into office with initiatives that were developed with the help of think tank analysts.

"The basic ideas are set in place already," he said.

Although policy is not made in a vacuum and politics plays a major role, the criticisms from the think tank community align with those made by one former Bush policy adviser in the December issue of Esquire magazine.

John DiIulio, former director of the White House office of faith-based initiatives, is quoted in a story as saying that within the Bush administration, there is, "a complete lack of a policy apparatus," and that decisions are being driven instead solely by political considerations.

DiIulio has since said that his comments were a mistake, but many in the Washington think tank community, the Congress and even the Bush administration say privately that his characterizations are on the mark.

The White House did not return calls for comment on this story. But several White House analysts told UPI that solid research they have done on taxes, the economy, health care, and education has had no impact on policy decisions in these areas because of the way the policy process works.

They indicated that even when they have made small recommendations based on their research -- such as suggesting a minor adjustment in a policy under consideration -- ranking officials typically dismiss the recommendations out of hand.

Bartlett, who was the deputy assistant treasury secretary for economic policy in the administration of George H.W. Bush as well as a Reagan White House staffer, said that since the beginning of the Bush administration, insiders have complained to him that the White House policymaking process is not functioning well.

He added that one negative outcome is that traditional policymaking methods -- such as interagency working groups and policy papers -- have been replaced with talking points and press releases.

But one prominent think tank analyst involved in the development of the Bush administration's welfare policy said these criticisms of White House policymaking do not apply to that issue.

"In terms of welfare, the actual policies were developed in large part by the department of Health and Human Services and the policy recommendations were made directly to the president," said the analyst.

In contrast, one conservative policy analyst with close ties to the administration told UPI that the administration's policymaking efforts are generally too limiting.

"These guys do have clarity but it is rooted in rigidity," he said. "You need to have a broad array of options, a contingency plan in case you happen to be wrong. Think tanks can play a very useful role in helping provide this."

Bush's economic and tax cut initiatives were cited by economists across the political spectrum as examples of policy issues in which analysis seems to have played little part.

Several analysts also cited Bush's decisions on stem cell research as seeming to have been preordained, despite a White House effort to present the decision as having resulted from a rigorous debate.

One policy analyst at the Pentagon told UPI that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who is widely regarded as the chief architect of Bush's pre-emption strategy towards rogue nations, is one administration official who has a strong interest in policy analysis from both within and outside the agency.

This is not surprising given Wolfowitz's reputation in the policy community for his staunch neoconservative take on international affairs. Wolfowitz is a former dean and professor of International Relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, known as SAIS, which is also an influential think tank.

But the analysts also added that when it came to actually implementing policy, Wolfowitz has little interest in ideas that do not conform to his neoconservative view of foreign and military policy.

One analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation said that possessing a neoconservative ideology is one of the keys to gaining influence in the Bush foreign policy process.

This is a phenomenon that he said goes far beyond typical bureaucratic politics.

"It is all about loyalty among a small group of people and playing to neoconservative hands," said the analyst. "It is about remaining centered as far a possible on that neocon ideal because if they widen it, they will bump into realists (traditional conservatives) and (liberal) Wilsonians."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
x
Feedback