Protests reflect think tanks' new role

By CHRISTIAN BOURGE, UPI Think Tank Correspondent  |  April 2, 2002 at 5:41 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 1 (UPI) -- The increasingly visible influence of think tanks upon public policy may be turning these traditionally low-profile, intellectually rarefied institutions into targets for protest groups that disagree with their views, judging by recent events.

Despite their desire to remain outside the general public's view of how legislation is created, think tanks have nevertheless become ever more aggressive in their attempts to expand their influence upon the policymaking process.

In other words, the increasing attention the think tanks are receiving from advocacy groups willing to publicly protest their ideas may be due to their having succeeded too well at these efforts.

"It is a reflection of the changing climate of public policy and politicians in America," said Lee Edwards, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and the think tank's historian. "What is happening today is that the president and politicians are not going only to universities and to their aides for ideas anymore. I think that think tanks have taken a much more prominent position in the public policy and political arena."

Lawrence Mishel, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank focused on examining policy as it effects low- and middle-income workers, said the protests show clearly that promoting ideas has consequences.

"I think when they (think tank policy analysts) become enmeshed in policymaking, they become targets," said Mishel.

Edwards points out that although demonstrations against think tanks have occurred in the past -- the AFL-CIO, for instance, has protested at Heritage -- a recent noisy protest at Heritage that invaded the think tank's premises and specifically targeted one influential policy analyst can be at least partially attributed to the increased importance of think tanks in the discourse on public policy.

In that March 5 incident, protesters against welfare reform staged a public attack on Heritage policy analysts Robert Rector and Jason Turner. Demonstrators and welfare recipients reportedly from as far away as California piled into the Heritage Foundation building waving old shoes and "wanted" posters with Rector's photo on them.

Rector is a prominent policy analyst who has long played a pivotal but low profile role in welfare reform. Turner is a visiting Heritage fellow, former New York welfare commissioner and chief architect of Wisconsin's welfare-to-work program, which was enacted in the mid-1990s and is considered to be the model for the national reform effort.

Brandishing footwear, the demonstrators demanded that Rector "walk in their shoes" to fully comprehend how the reforms he has advocated affect the poor.

After they confronted him, Rector accepted the protesters' challenge to visit poor communities to see the problems they felt welfare has failed to address. Rector is widely acknowledged in welfare policy circles -- and actively promoted by Heritage -- as one of the architects of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act -- known as the Welfare Reform Act -- which has lead to thousands being shifted off welfare roles nationwide.

Protesters were concerned about ties between Rector and Bush White House proposals for further welfare reforms. They're opposed to Congress extending the expiring welfare reforms, which were put in place in 1996.

Charlene Sinclair, director of organization for the group that oversaw the protest -- the Washington-based welfare advocacy group National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support -- told United Press International that Heritage's list of recommendations to the White House on welfare reform, and Rector's policy proposals, all mirror policies enacted by lawmakers in 1996 and changes proposed by the Bush White House.

"If you look at the Heritage Foundation's priorities list for this president you will find that the regressive policies pushed by both administrations (Clinton and Bush) have their basis at the Heritage Foundation," said Sinclair. "It is our opinion that the Heritage Foundation uses the cloak of analysis and research to promote a very racist, sexist and misogynistic (welfare) policy."

Sinclair said another aim of the aggressive, personally targeted protest against the think tank was to shed light on the fact that policy does not exist in a vacuum, and that it can affect everyday people in negative ways, as welfare reforms have. She added that Heritage's behind-the-scenes connections ensure that there is no accountability for the policies that are developed -- something she says needs to be changed through better public awareness.

"I think this was an incredibly important step to (help) keep (analysts) out in the (public) information loop," Sinclair said.

The tone of the protest and the attack on Rector is unusual, and possibly the first time a prominent think tank analyst has been targeted so publicly for his influence in the policy arena.

One conservative Washington-based analyst said that these advocacy groups were correct to push the envelope of policymaking discourse, and accurate in their estimates that think tanks are not "monolithic institutions."

"This is really an interesting dialogue between groups involved in the political process and somewhat unofficial members of the (policy) community," he said. "I think the protesters are right to see that if they want to influence policy, they have to engage in a dialogue, even if it is shouting, with the authors of these ideas. They are aware that the intellectual firepower behind this is coming from Robert (Rector). This is the guy who wrote the welfare reform bill."

According to Rector, the protesters ultimately did little to further their cause -- despite the fact that they did nothing improper, were polite and did no damage to Heritage's facilities. He said this was at least partly due to the fact that the protesters with whom he spoke did not even have a clear understanding of his policy recommendations.

"They (their ideas) were pretty extreme caricatures of anything I say, that would obviously be alarming if anyone took them (the ideas) seriously," Rector told UPI.

According to Mishel, there is nothing wrong with think tank analysts engaging policymakers with ideas. He said this could even be seen as crucial if analysts do not want their research to simply end up unread on a library shelf. Nevertheless, he believes that some think tanks, which are more oriented toward advocating ideas rather than promoting balanced research, may be at greater risk for such attacks.

Mishel said that such protests represent an interesting challenge, because think tanks are not usually subjects of such public displays. He believes that while such actions may be irritating to deal with and create a public relations problem, they could also have the positive effect of adding another level of discourse to the exchange of ideas.

"It is a democratization of the process, instead of just pointy-headed people talking to each other or not talking to each other," Mishel said. "How can that be bad?"

Edwards added that such actions by advocacy groups are to be expected in the current political environment.

"It could be something that we are going to have to be aware of," he said. "The reaction (to policy ideas) is not always going to be an intellectual response, but can be a more politically motivated one, even a public reaction like this."

Protests by advocacy groups against think tanks are not a recent development, says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism policy analyst with the think tank RAND Corp. and acting director of RAND's Washington external affairs office. Anti-nuclear and peace groups picketed RAND's Santa Monica, Calif., headquarters in the early 1980s protesting the think tank's military research.

Hoffman believes recent action against Heritage can be attributed to overall increases in activism by groups on the fringe of policy debates, such as the street protesters who have plagued World Trade Organization meetings over the past several years.

"There was a period when you didn't see many of these types of demonstrations and public protests," he said. "(But) I think in recent years we, in general, have seen more of this. In that sense it is not something that is isolated."

Jay Farrar, vice president for external affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed with Hoffman, and added that the tactics of various advocacy organizations around the world are an effort to get traction for their ideas.

"These groups are much more sophisticated (than they used to be) in how they approach an issue, and they are willing to do things that they believe will have an impact, be a bother and try to create a level of discomfort for people they disagree with," said Farrar. This is especially (true) when these (targeted) people have influence with the administration or lawmakers."

Rector said, however, that it was important to note that due to a lack of interest in welfare policy on the part of conservatives, there is an asymmetry across the political spectrum in the number of people who follow welfare issues. He said the ratio of left-of-center advocates to conservatives is around 99 to 1. Because this kind of imbalance does not exist on other policy issues, he says, the usefulness of such protests could be limited.

"There are not very many people who do conservative analysis and develop conservative policy in welfare, so it is pretty easy to pinpoint me and Jason Turner," said Rector. "Whereas, if you wanted to do the same thing the other way, there are actually too many targets."

Edwards predicted it is only a matter of time before we see more such political actions toward think tanks. He added that the more liberal think tanks like the Brookings Institution are also likely to become targets, because despite the declaration of non-partisanship by most think tanks, few if any of them, on either end of the political spectrum, are actually without bias.

"You will see more of this -- people from the left and right reacting to what we (think tanks) do," he said. "One thing you can say about Heritage is that we are an advocacy tank, whereas Brookings tries to pretend that it is not. But if you really look at what they say, what is written, they do have a point of view. They are advocating a particular point of view."

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