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How Think Tanks Influence Washington, D.C., Policy Debates

Think tank is an appropriately absurd term for an institution unique to Washington, D.C. For the uninitiated, the term likely conjures images of a magic thinking box or ideas factory, and that’s not too far from the truth.

Think tanks are organizations that employ academics, policy wonks, former politicians, retired generals, and the like. These people do research, write policy papers, hold conferences, make speeches, talk on television, and otherwise advance the brand and prestige of their think tanks.

The line between think tanks and academic institutions can be blurry, but these factors tend to differentiate the two:

  • Think tanks are often established for a particular political purpose, such as advancing the cause of good governance, national security, or liberal or conservative values.

  • The publications that they issue (such as white papers and policy briefs) are not intended for a cloistered academic audience but for a policymaking audience: the deciders.

The basic purpose of any think tank is to inform the policy debate and serve as a quasi-laboratory for proposals that someday may work their way through the bureaucracy and decision-making echelons (including the legislature) to become actual U.S. government policy.

Think tanks are intrinsic not only to the policymaking process but also to Washington. A University of Pennsylvania study found that the D.C. area has more think tanks than any other city in the world; combined, more than 500 think tanks operate in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia.

Not surprisingly, the most influential think tanks are headquartered in the Washington area, and a few well-known institutions that are based elsewhere, such as the Council on Foreign Relations (New York) and Hoover Institution (Stanford University), maintain Washington offices.

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