Doug Bandow’s Confession and Call for Debate on Punditry Ethics


Doug Bandow offers a realistic picture of the shoddy state of think tank and public intellectual punditry in Washington in this confessionary op-ed today in the Los Angeles Times.
He writes:

My deal with Abramoff created an appearance of a conflict of interest; it made it seem that I spoke for him (or his clients) rather than for myself when I wrote. That was a mistake, and I’m paying a high price. Fair enough.
But this episode ought to do more; it ought to spur a serious discussion about the punditry game. After all, isn’t it a little unseemly for Washington to be suddenly shocked, shocked at the fact that those with interests in what government does (such as Abramoff and his clients) seek out like-minded advocates (such as me and hundreds of other commentators and organizations)?

Doug Bandow could write an interesting and revealing book on the ideas industry and who owns it. He admits to being part of the machine, but he is by no means anywhere near the worst violators of public trust.
I have written quite a bit already about the structural corruption that undergirds much of the policy industry and have regularly called for a “best practices” effort that may help restore public confidence and trust in this important sector of civil society. I may write the book myself (but I keep telling myself that I have two others I need to do first).
As one extremely prominent but unnamed former Republican official wrote to me recently:

If Abramoff had had the sense to simply contribute his money to a 501(c)3 that then paid Bandow, there would be no problem.
Tax exempts aren’t required to divulge their contributors. Doug and Jack would both be off the hook.
Any number of so-called think tanks would be happy to broker the deal for a small commission.
As they say in Washington, it isn’t the illegal things people do that is a scandal, it’s all these thing they can do that are perfectly legal.

Read those lines again carefully. They are absolutely true. Most of the systematic corruption that pervades Washington is legal but in my view violates the public trust as well as the spirit, if not the law, of the IRS tax code providing exemptions to “public-minded” institutions.
I have always felt that non-profit think tanks were important, even vital, parts of Washington’s public policy industry and of American civil society. However, many of them — and there are reportedly more than 1,500 think tanks in Washington alone — have become money launderers for lobbyists and corporate consulting organizations. Most of the worst violations occur in the small boutique shops rather than the larger institutions, but the reality of lack of transparency is becoming a systemic rather than a micro problem.
I am going to be speaking on this subject of money, influence and think tanks in an event next week on Friday, January 13th from 12-2 p.m. The session is sponsored by the Nixon Center and will include Anatol Lieven who is Senior Research Fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, Blair Ruble of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center and myself.
It’s my understanding that I am going to be giving a general overview of the issues that matter — and don’t — in this debate. Anatol Lieven and Blair Ruble are going to discuss the Russian-American dimensions of this topic.
I believe that Doug Bandow’s article should help trigger a broader conversation about what is ethical and not in the think tank/punditry sector. James Fallows, John Judis, Steven Clemons (yes, this writer), and others have been savaged when they tried to push forward a constructive discussion about where “the lines should be drawn” and enforced — to paraphrase Bandow.
An acquaintance of mine who is an extremely successful corporate lobbyist used to (and may still) teach a course on lobbying at Georgetown University. The second item on his “Lobbyist’s Tool Kit” which he would distribute to students was “Think Tanks”. Another item on the list was “Op-Eds”.
If this sector of American civil society is going to remain in a protected part of the American tax code and continue to play a role akin to schools, AIDS hospices and other credible charity and public good organizations, then it must clean up its act.
To his credit, Doug Bandow suggests that we should get to work on that effort, debate where the ethical lines should be drawn, and do them in such a way that those committed to good public policy can still make a living and do what they are good at.
I think that the answer is in more routinized transparency, but there are many other tracks as well.
— Steve Clemons
Ed Note: Thanks to LF and many others for the notes about this op-ed.