A polarized Congress relies more on party-aligned think tanks

Congress is more polarized and has less capacity to process complex information than ever. These trends are related. As Congress cut the budgets of its own internal think tanks – CRS and CBO – it began to rely more heavily on  party-aligned think tanks. This change makes it more difficult for members and leadership to build consensus and solve policy problems for their constituents.

My work examines the congressional activities of the six largest (by expenditures) party-aligned think tanks. On the right, these include the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, and Cato Institute. On the left, they are the Center for American Progress, New America, and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Collectively, these six institutions have grown to a massive size, while Congress’s internal think tanks, the CBO and CRS, are slowly shrinking. The below figure shows how rapidly these six think tanks have grown since 2001. The three conservative think tanks are collectively larger than the combined budget of the CBO and CRS. The three progressive think tanks, which began the 2000s as tiny blips on the screen, now spend over $100 million collectively.


As they have grown, these party-aligned think tanks have become more influential in Congressional debates. One way that I measure the changing influence of think tanks over time is to observe how frequently they testify in hearings. The figure below charts the number of witnesses from the six think tanks per hearing against the staff witnesses from the CBO, CRS, and OTA. The two trends are mirror images of each other. When Congress cut the budgets of its analytical organizations in the mid-90s, there was a subsequent explosion in think tank witnesses. While this explosion subsided after the 104th Congress, a new equilibrium was established for much of the late-90s and early 2000s. Finally, the series accelerates again in the mid-2000s, as the analytical organization budgets suffered further cuts.


As a result of these two trends, the information environment in Congress is more polarized than ever. Members will struggle to reach consensus on public policy if they do not agree about the causes and severity of problems, and how policy solutions impact those problems. Indeed, the rise of party-aligned think tanks is highly correlated with the rise of polarization.


The relationship between polarization and party-aligned think tank influence extends to issues as well. The figure below plots party disagreement on issues against the proportion of party-aligned think tank testimony on those issues. We see that as issues become more polarized, committees are more likely to call think tank witnesses to testify.


Members should reconsider from where they receive their information. While party-aligned think tanks have a role to play in American politics, they are not likely to be the foundation of bipartisan agreement on public policy. Congress created the CRS, CBO, and other information providers to function as non-partisan, objective sources of information. Even in the age of polarization, they have remained so. Members may disagree based on differing values, constituencies, and political incentives, but they should not disagree about the basic facts underlying policy debates.

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E.J. Fagan
I am a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin. I study agenda setting, political parties, Congress, think tanks, lobbying, and...

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