When Schoolhouse Rock described the process by which an idea becomes a law, they left out a few important steps. In the cartoon, earnest citizens recognize a problem in their community and call on their Congressman for help with a solution. Said Congressman, recognizing the merit of their request, sets the phone down, turns his chair toward his typewriter and drafts the bill, the hero of the program.
What’s missing from that scenario, among other things, is an element of the process that will be critical for reconstructing a healthy, relevant Republican Party. Previous posts have outlined a series of institutions and ideas Republicans should restructure in order to restore the party’s fortunes. One of those elements would be vital for a Congressman looking to respond to his constituents’ needs by drafting good legislation – think tanks.
If politics is a sausage-factory, then think tanks are the grinder. In a city starved for glamour there may be no less glamorous job. The best ones function as hives of bright minds, relied on by political leaders to deliver the research, drafting, advocacy, and analysis on which successful legislation is constructed.
Go the 1:12 mark in that famous Schoolhouse Rock video posted below. That’s the point in the process in which think tanks have perhaps their most important role. Armed with what seems like a great idea – school buses should stop at railroad crossings – it is time for our noble representative to draft a bill. It sounds easy. It is not.
Should this bill amend an existing law or add a new provision? Where does it belong in the federal code? Are there new terms it needs to define, or older terms it needs to redefine? Are there existing provisions that it would complicate, confuse, or conflict with? Will it require a Federal agency to issue clarifying regulations and if so, which agency? How do we write the bill in a manner that will prevent an agency from nullifying or over-complicating the new law?
Better yet, how much would the bill cost and who should pay for it? Must the bill be accompanied by some form of appropriation? Are there industries, lobbies, or local political interests in his district that are likely to oppose this effort? How can they be appeased? Who are their major spokesmen?
Congressmen have staff to help with this process. They also have access to resources funded by Congress and by committees to help, to a certain extent, with drafting and editing. But staff is very limited. Assistance provided by the House Legislative Council can be helpful in building a bill with effective language, but they will not help shape your legislation to meet practical political concerns. In short, to draft legislation that will successfully navigate its way toward adoption and also be effective on the ground, more often than not you need help from smart, savvy people who share your interest in the outcome.
That leaves Congressmen to rely on think tanks, interest groups, or to an increasing extent, industry lobbyists. As Republican think tanks become more intensely ideological, bent on orthodoxy in nearly every case regardless how absurd the result, representatives are forced to lean more and more on lobbyists for advice and research.
Building a Republican infrastructure willing to wrestle with reality will probably require us to construct new policy institutes rather trying to reform existing ones. There is a precedent for this.
In his book, The New Democrats and the Return To Power, Al From describes many of the steps taken by the Democratic Leadership Council in the ‘80’s to reform that party’s institutions. This passage describes their decision to support a think tank that was independent of their organization:
I liked the idea of setting up a policy institute separate from the DLC for two reasons. First, I explained, “the only way we are going to generate the amount of new ideas and high quality policy analysis I believe we should is to put together a small staff that does nothing else. Second, while I would expect the DLC to endorse most of the ideas it developed, a separate institute would give us a way to develop and test real cutting-edge ideas, even some that may be too politically hot for the DLC to embrace at first blush.”
Throughout 1988, we developed plans for the think tank. Will Marshall, who would move over to run it day to day, wrote at least half a dozen drafts of a prospectus. I courted and recruited the legendary hedge fund operator Michael Steinhardt to be its chairman and most important financial backer. I would be vice-chairman and chief executive officer.
One can still occasionally glimpse flashes of insight from mainstream Republican think tanks, but on the whole they remain loyal to dogma over discovery. What happened to David Frum and Bruce Bartlett when they expressed independent insights remains a warning to anyone who might step out of line. The best advice a Republican policy maker can get from a mainstream think tank today would come from the American Enterprise Institute. Unfortunately, the most innovative idea they have been permitted to explore so far is the concept that maybe, perhaps, under some unique circumstances, blanket tax cuts aren’t the solution to every problem.
What’s missing from the policy landscape on which Republican candidates and officials rely is any willingness to address the Four Inescapable Realities. No “think tank” is worthy of the name if it is blocked by political considerations from even considering vital, empirically-proven realities. Having an ideological focus is often central to a think tank’s mission. However, if that ideology focus fails to yield to discoveries, then the organization becomes a source of dangerous distortions.
There are few bright spots.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres has worked with Ed Gillespie to found Resurgent Republic. Though perhaps not technically a think tank (it’s a ‘social welfare organization’), the group is working to make Republicans more aware of shifting demographic trends. Based on that shift, they are trying to advocate policies more likely to support a ‘big tent’ Republican vision. Ayres, a pollster, is known for his straightforward analysis of the party’s demographic challenge, outlined in his book, 2016 and Beyond.
In a similar vein, former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis, ousted by the Tea Party in 2010, went on to lead the Energy & Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University. That group developed into RepubicEn. Through RepublicEn, Inglis has become the face of market-oriented policy responses to climate change. His work earned the 2015 Profiles in Courage Award from the Kennedy Library Foundation.
Needless to say, we need more bright spots. Inglis’ work has been groundbreaking, but his impact on Republican rhetoric has so far been limited. Similarly, Ayres work was meticulous and insightful. The GOP’s response to his air-tight case for minority outreach is Donald Trump.
Our example from Schoolhouse Rock can be helpful in understanding how a dysfunctional think tank ecosystem can potentially distort the process. When our representative turns to his typewriter at the 1:12 mark, he will rely on advice and assistance from a pool of smart people to help him meet his constituents’ needs. If the only advice he can get is that we already have too much regulation, but another tax cut will solve the problem, outcomes might be less than ideal.
The first post in this series described the need to develop a simple template of ideas around which a reform movement can coalesce. The second piece described the need to recruit and support a few pundits who can communicate that message. Next we identified a potential donor pool that might fuel further organization.
Supported by such a groundswell, it may be possible to develop think tanks as bright and insightful as RepublicEn and Resurgent Republic that also possess the influence to change the policy discussion. Achieving that goal will be vital to the next step in the process – recruiting and supporting sympathetic, electable candidates for office.
Schoolhouse Rock: I’m Just a Bill
Bob Inglis’s Ted Talk