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This think tank fundraising email offers a disconcerting glimpse into how Washington works

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, in 2010.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, in 2010.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

A few weeks back, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote a gushing tribute to the "courageous" think tank chief Douglas Holtz-Eakin, whom he portrayed as the last honest conservative in Washington.

What did Holtz-Eakin do to earn these plaudits? He and his conservative think tank, the American Action Forum, have been bravely standing up in defense of the Export-Import Bank, bucking "ideologues" who wanted the bank gone by publishing research arguing that the bank was useful. AAF supported the bank, Nocera wrote, "because that’s where the numbers — and the facts — led it."

Yet on Thursday, the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney obtained an interesting email sent last year by Billy Oorbeek, a fundraiser seeking money for this courageous and honest think tank. According to Carney, Oorbeek wrote to "a lobbyist who represented an Ex-Im subsidy recipient seeking ways the lobbyist and AAF could ‘work together.’" Carney continues:

"Doug and the policy experts at AAF are very effective at providing third party research and validation on a variety of issues that may be important to your clients," Oorbeek wrote, explicitly mentioning Export-Import Bank reauthorization. "Doug may provide an additional service you can offer your clients that your firm may not be set up to provide."

Of course, these fundraising methods alone don't tell us whether Holtz-Eakin's research is accurate. They don't even prove that the research was motived by fundraising concerns. In a response to Carney, Holtz-Eakin wrote, "As a matter of policy we don't discuss donors or would-be donors, but it should come as no surprise that our supporters believe in the quality of our organization's research and tend to agree with my longstanding beliefs, such as support for a reformed Ex-Im."

But the fact that a think tank sought to raise money by framing its research as a "service" to a lobbyist's clients is a jarring glimpse behind the scenes of an operation that Nocera portrayed in such glowing terms as merely "following the numbers." Particularly when it comes to the Ex-Im Bank — which is backed by practically every business interest with a Washington presence — taking a position that's unpopular with the conservative base can be very beneficial to the bottom line.

Once a think tank's fundraising becomes dependent on those relationships, then even if the original research was motivated by an honest desire to run the numbers on the Ex-Im Bank, it will be much harder for future research to, say, come to the opposite conclusion.

On broader problems with the Washington think tank model, a classic 2003 essay by Steve Clemons, "The Corruption of Think Tanks," is worth reading. "With think tanks, funders increasingly expect policy achievements that contribute to their bottom line," Clemons wrote back then.

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