By Adam Andrzejewski
Washington, D.C. is known for its monuments, but it is also known for its “ivory tower” think tanks. These institutions can serve a valuable role in providing dispassionate and empirical analysis in divided times. One of the pre-eminent D.C. think tanks is the Brookings Institution, which has nearly half-a-billion dollars in assets and deep ties to political leaders on the left.
According to Brookings, its mission is to “conduct in-depth research that leads to new ideas for solving problems facing society at the local, national and global level.” Brookings says it values the independence of its scholars and prides itself on “open-minded” inquiry.
Yet, public spending records captured by our organization at OpenTheBooks.com tell a somewhat different story. Rather than focusing on “open-minded” inquiry, Brookings seems swayed by “open-wallet” inquiry. In many cases, Brookings doesn’t resemble a think tank, but a jukebox – add a little coin and Brookings will play your tune, if the price is right.
And these aren’t just dollars provided by private donors -- these are your tax dollars funding partisan advocacy projects and papers.
Since 2008, Brookings amassed nearly $20 million in contracts and grants from 50 agencies – including the Obama Administration’s Office of the President. Despite assetsof $496 million (IRS990, FY2014), our OpenTheBooks.com audit shows it was not enough. Brookings instituted an aggressive strategy to pursue federal business over the past nine-years.
Under current federal law, none of this is illegal, but the question is whether it’s ethical to secretly coerce taxpayers into supporting partisan causes. Moreover, an organization loses all credibility to hold government accountable when the government becomes a donor. (To see the full list of the 227 federal awards to America’s foremost liberal think-tank, click here.)
An institution originally founded as an independent public policy think-tank, government watchdog, and public charity, Brookings learned how to dial into taxpayer money. A few examples:
- Brookings reaped millions of dollars in fees from federal agencies including billing up to $50,000 for two-day training seminars. Additionally, five Brookings positions charged the agencies between $1,375 and $3,440 per day for “custom training” solutions;
- Brookings collected $23,000 from Barack Obama’s “Office of the President” for employee training (2015);
- Federal agencies – such as Veterans Affairs, Treasury and Energy – paid up to $6,135 to place key employees into Brookings “fellowships.” The Brookings sales pitch to donors touted their “legislative inner circle” and claimed their taxpayer-paid fellows were placed on the staffs of then-Senators Obama and Hillary Clinton and then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid;
- Brookings charged federal agencies $2,575 per head for a seminar called “Inside the White House.”
Review just one Brookings federal contract here – running through 2018.
This is not the first time pay-to-play allegations have dogged Brookings.
In 2014, a New York Times expose alleged that Brookings raked in corporate donations then conferred fellowships and issued policy reports helpful to its donors. Brookings also refused to disclose foreign government donations. From the New York Timesoversight of Brookings:
“If a member of Congress is using the Brookings reports, they should be aware — they are not getting the full story,” said Saleem Ali, who served as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar and who said he had been told during his job interview that he could not take positions critical of the Qatari government in papers. “They may not be getting a false story, but they are not getting the full story.”
Brookings Senior Fellow Jonathan Rauch shockingly argued for “honest graft” in “The Case for Corruption” published by The Atlantic in 2014. Rausch explained, “Dirty graft is parasitic, mere larceny, whereas honest graft helps knit together a patronage network that ensures leaders can lead and followers will follow.” Mr. Rausch is still on staff.
We found examples of public funding suggesting that Brookings is less of a think tank and more of a public affairs shop for establishment-left donors and allied government officials:
- Billed $1.8 million to the Agency for International Development (USAID) in taxpayer-funded grants to provide generic ‘humanitarian assistance.’ In 2016, Brookings published a white paper funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark touting the veracity of the USAID public/private partnerships. But, Brookings paper did not disclose its conflict-of-interest -- USAID direct funding of the organization during the period covered by the study.
- $1.2 million in grants (2008-2018) flowing from the National Science Foundation into the Brookings vertical “Brookings Papers On Economic Activity” – an academic journal published twice a year on a range of macroeconomic topics impacting public policy debates.
- $719,102 in grants (2009-2011) from the Department of Energy flowed to Brookings for their “climate and energy economic policy research.” This Brookings project advocates a domestic cap-and-trade tax and thanks California for taxing carbon.
- $25,000 in National Endowment of the Arts grants (2013) funded Brookings for “promotion of the arts.” Presto! Brookings published research on the Arts and Economic Development. If taxpayers want a copy of the report, Brookings sells it for $30.99.
Certainly it seems Brookings feels justified to every dime of its federal contracts and grants. Here are some more examples of the federal transfer to Brookings:
- Reaped $1.7 million from Health and Human Services (HHS) mostly for “training seminars.” Every dollar paid to Brookings was a dollar not available to provide better care for vulnerable patients.
- The Food and Drug Administration paid $4.6 million in grant funding to Brookings. Its primary role? Official convener of active medical product surveillance discussions.
In America, any organization has a right to seek funding to advance the causes it supports. But when an organization seeks $20 million in public funding, taxpayers have a right to ask whether that organization is advancing the public’s interest or the narrow partisan interests of its donors and friends in power.
Again, while public disclosures show that while Brookings is doing nothing illegal, it may be acting unethically. Records suggest Brookings is progressive jukebox - funded in part by you - that is playing tunes only one side finds pleasing.
Adam Andrzejewski (say: And-G-F-Ski) is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of OpenTheBooks.com – a database containing 3.5 billion captured spending transactions from federal, state and local governments across America.
The Brookings Institute declined to comment or provide context for this piece.