Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Jack Bergman of Michigan have introduced new legislation that would compel think tanks and other nonprofits to divulge the receipt of money from foreign governments. The Think Tank Transparency Act would do so by imposing disclosure requirements on these organizations that are similar to those applied to lobbyists under the existing Foreign Agent Registration Act. The proposed legislation assumes that think tanks and similar organizations play an important role in shaping American foreign policy and, as a result, the public should know whether their work is being funded by foreign governments. The proposal is a good one, but it does not go far enough in actually forcing the kind of transparency that we deserve.
As someone who worked for an organization that received millions of dollars in support from foreign governments, I can fairly say that many of these donors contribute without making inappropriate demands on recipients. Often, this support goes towards underwriting conferences, seminars, and other events in which a range of opinions are expressed—including viewpoints that are critical of the supporting countries. However, there are cases where money is linked, directly or indirectly, to advocacy and the promotion of specific policy initiatives. While everyone in the business knows that these arrangements occur, it is very hard to assess the extent of this support because of a lack of transparency on the part of think tanks. Most institutions will recognize donors in their annual reports, but often with limited information about the amount or purpose of this support.
The Grassley and Bergman legislation is a start towards making these institutions more transparent about their funding. However, it is only a start, because it focuses solely on direct contributions from governments. There are at least three other means by which money is given to think tanks for specific causes in the interest of foreign governments.
The first route is through friendly companies and other nongovernmental funding sources in a specific country. Much has been written about the role that Russian and other oligarchs might play in shaping the agendas of think tanks, educational institutions, and other nonprofits. Often, this support is benign and used for the kind of convening referenced above. But there are cases in which donations are made explicitly for the promotion of the national interests of foreign governments.
The second path is through public affairs and lobbying firms in Washington, D.C.—which sometimes serve as conduits for foreign-government money into the think-tank community. While these firms are subject to disclosures under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, there is no requirement that they provide information on partners and collaborators in the nonprofit world.
Finally, the third means is through American companies that have close commercial ties to foreign governments. Imagine a situation in which an American defense contractor wants to sell something to a foreign partner, for which U.S. government approval is necessary. If the contractor supports think tanks in Washington (and most of them do), it would not be surprising to suddenly see papers and seminars on the vital importance of country X to the security of the U.S.
The Think Tank Transparency Act would be greatly improved by simply requiring these institutions to provide more-detailed information on all of their funding sources. As it is now written, the legislation might simply mean that foreign governments and their friends would use one or more of the alternative vehicles described above. Would requiring more information put a burden on think tanks? Yes, but it would also improve their credibility and legitimacy as organizations focused on shaping policy debates and outcomes in Washington.