The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elizabeth Warren wants banks to disclose think tank donations. Shouldn’t everybody?

The bank-busting Sen. Elizabeth Warren, stung by an attack from the center-left think tank Third Way, responded with a salvo of her own Wednesday: She wants financial institutions to disclose their contributions to all such Beltway institutions that inform political debate with their funders shielded from view. The implication, which Warren leaves to the left-wing press, is that Wall Street is funding the anti-populist backlash.

But why stop there?

Washington asks for a lot of transparency from those who come to influence it. But it's a time-honored rule of politics: When sunlight shines on one dark corner, those who don't want to be seen flee to another. Tough new congressional gifting rules, for example, just gave rise to creative workarounds (pigs in a blanket, anyone?). As NPR has documented, "social welfare groups" have found out ways to be activists while keeping their donors secret. And even new executive rules meant to stop the flow of "dark money" uncorked by Citizens United have loopholes of their own.

The same thing is happening with think tanks. It's increasingly apparent that these institutions have become a convenient outlet for interest groups seeking credible channels by which to espouse their views. And it's not just big business: The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, for example, is funded by labor and puts out research supporting union priorities like pension security and social welfare programs. (The Employment Policies Institute, meanwhile, is funded by low-wage industries to do the opposite.)

Think tanks are incredibly important in shaping discussions in Washington, and therefore policy. Many do disclose their donors, and vigorously insist that their positions have nothing to do with the foundations, corporations, and individuals that fund them. But that simply cannot be true for everyone: Moneyed interests don't just distribute cash out of the goodness of their hearts, after all. It's simply naive to believe that an institution's output wouldn't reflect the priorities of the people who allow it to exist. And besides, if it were true that money doesn't buy influence, why would it be a problem for the public to judge for itself?

Of course, it would be difficult to force all 501(c)(3)s to disclose all of their donors; many do legitimate charitable work and it would be unfortunate if new rules prohibiting anonymity were to chill their supply of funds. But we also can't pretend think tanks don't have as much sway as political campaigns over policy outcomes, and should have to tell us a little more about who's doing the talking.