Dark Money and Think Tanks

by James A. Bacon

When writing about the passing of Mike Thompson, founder of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy (TJI) (see previous post), I chanced to look at TJI’s 990 forms. It had been my impression that Mike ran the small-government think tank on a shoestring, and the IRS filing confirmed it. The vast majority of the money Mike raised went directly into programs.

Virginia has another think tank, the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis (CI), that occupies the same niche as TJI, publishing research reports on Virginia-specific issues. CI, a center-left group, does solid, credible work. But it also frames issues on education, immigration, health care and the budget the same way you would expect a center-left group to do.

Having written extensively about the role of dark money in Virginia — by “dark” money, I mean money that is not subject to public reporting requirements — I was curious to see how CI’s funding compared to TJI’s. No surprise: Year-in, year-out CI has generated significantly more revenue than TJI — by a margin of four- or five-to-one in recent years, as can be seen in the table above. That’s just one more example, as if another were needed, of how the political system is rigged in favor of the left.

I raise the point not to be critical of CI, which is playing by the rules of the game. My purpose is to demonstrate that left-leaning dark money exceeds right-leaning dark money in the ceaseless effort to shape the public-policy battlefield. While both think tanks report how much revenue they generate, they don’t say where the money comes from. In both cases, nearly all their revenue came from grants and donations. But the public doesn’t know who’s handing out the grants and giving the donations.

Liberals and progressives have focused on the corrupting influence of Big Money in Virginia political campaigns — especially that of big corporations like Dominion Energy and tobacco giant Altria. They focus on campaign contributions because that’s an area where conservative candidates for General Assembly and statewide office are competitive in raising money.

But dark money is a different matter entirely. In the modern political system, scores of nonprofit organizations work to influence public perceptions on important issues, thus influencing election outcomes indirectly. This is a realm, I contend, where liberals and progressives raise far more money than conservatives and libertarians. Naturally, it’s an area that liberals and progressives show zero interest in shedding light upon.

As defenders of constitutional rights, conservatives and libertarians are far more reluctant than liberals and progressives to call for more government restrictions on what people can do with their money. Personally, I think people — yes, even liberals and progressives — should be free to contribute however much money they wish to whichever political candidate, think tank, or nonprofit cause they wish to. But I fervently believe in transparency. If you want to influence elections and public policy either directly (lobbying, contributing to candidates) or indirectly (doing research, “educating” the public, etc.) you need to report where your money is coming from.

Also, I have big problems with providing tax exemption to donations to “nonpartisan” nonprofits that engage in indirectly influencing election outcomes. People who donate to political campaigns cannot write off their contributions. Why should people who cycle their money through the back door?

Conservatives and libertarians need to make transparency and tax fairness their causes. We have everything to gain by showing how the game is rigged today and who is rigging it. If liberals and progressives want to maintain secrecy, let them own the cause of dark money.

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23 responses to “Dark Money and Think Tanks”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    If you can look up the funding on the 990, how can you also say ” I mean money that is not subject to public reporting requirements — I was curious to see how CI’s funding compared to TJI’s. No surprise: Year-in, year-out CI has generated significantly more revenue than TJI — by a margin of four- or five-to-one in recent years, as can be seen in the table above. That’s just one more example, as if another were needed, of how the political system is rigged in favor of the left.”

    If you can “see” the funding then why is it “dark”?

    how about links to the two think tanks 990s

    source watch says this about TJI:

    The Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy is not required to disclose its funders. Its major foundation funders, however, can be found through a search of the IRS filings. Here are some of the known funders:[7]

    Charles G. Koch Foundation: $2,500
    Chase Foundation of Virginia: $48,770 (2001-2012)
    Donors Capital Fund: $214,450 (2007-2010)
    DonorsTrust: $5,000 (2009-2010)
    Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice: $31,100 (2005, 2010, 2012)
    Jaquelin Hume Foundation: $295,000 (2001-2012)
    JM Foundation: $110,000 (1998, 2001, 2004, 2008-2009, 2012)
    Neal and Jane Freeman Foundation: $20,000 (2002-2003)
    NFIB Research Foundation: $20,000 (2011-2012)[8][9]
    PhRMA: $7,500 (2010)
    The Roe Foundation: $183,000 (1998-2012)
    William E. Simon Foundation: $1,000 (2002)
    Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation: $150,000 (2013-2015)
    State Policy Network: $87,200 (2002, 2007, 2011, 2014)

    Here’s Donor’s Trust – $85 million dollars worth going to conservative and libertarian groups with no disclosure of the donors:


    I’m MORE than OK with an HONEST discussion of this issue but not one that is one-sided and partisan.

    Both sides do it – but when you ignore organizations like Donor’s Trust while claiming the left generates more money – I’m less than impressed.

    do it right. show both and do it accurately.

    1. “Known” funders, not all funders.

      Interestingly enough, SourceWatch doesn’t seem to have done any research on the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis. Funny how the group’s research focuses exclusively on conservative groups.

      Speaking of SourceWatch, I wonder where its organization, the Center for Media and Democracy, gets its money. I’ll give the group credit — at least it lists its major donors. It doesn’t say how much money it got from the two-dozen or so groups, but at least it lists them by name.

      You want an HONEST discussion? Why don’t you start by saying whether you are satisfied with the status quo or whether you think the system needs more transparency.

  2. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

    I’m sorry for yet another example of viewing everything as someone wins/ someone loses and liberal vs conservative. Do we know anything about how the money is used/ how much attention is paid to the messages of the groups? Are they equally respected? Might the state difference result from different activities/missions of the state groups and might they not be only political?

    These are just two groups and on the state level. What about the federal level groups? Is it possible that on the national level the outcome is different? Is there a similar “liberal” group to balance ALEC at the national level?

    We need to look at the whole picture, not declare it a stacked deck with only part of the information. We only see income here, not expenditures. These two groups comprise only a minute subset of the total nationwide.

    Virginia does need better transparency and we need to stop being the state everyone comes to with political money because we have such lax rules. We also need to find ways to get more people without deep pockets to influence our future. Today only those with many resources can feel their voices/concerns are heard and followed. Too many people think no one hears them and I think that’s part of the frustration we see displayed in the divisiveness. We need win/win not winner/loser.

    1. We totally agree — we need more transparency at both the state and federal level.

      Regarding TJI and CI, sure, the evidence I presented is anecdotal. That’s because the only information that’s available is anecdotal! Until we get more transparency, it’s impossible to present any other kind!

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    You are comparing apples and oranges here. The commonwealth institute has nine staffers including four directly involved in policy analysis. It has seven board members. A quick at TJI shows they have maybe two thirds less. A number of their people are connected directly to lobbying or are government relations types with or formerly with the National Manufacturers Association and big companies. I don’t know the insides of the group but one might assume they piggyback a lot of research from national trade/advocacy groups or large corporations. The TJ group is much more narrowly focused How many of their op-eds have I read about just how wonderful offshore drilling would be published by the usual suspects, namely the RTD Opinions department. CTI seems to have more real economic analysis by real economists. You are really making a stretch using them both as examples in your “Dark Money on the Left” quest.

    1. Right. Seems like you’re making my point for me. TJI matched its activities to the resources it had available. It had fewer resources, so it structured itself differently. But both are playing the same game.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Jim, kudos on your highly creative way of thinking. But don’t see CI recycling research from big corporations. They seem to do a lot if work on their own

    1. We agree on that point. We disagree about what it means.

    2. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      No, it’s recycled from Big Labor and other liberal groups. I’ve been listening to their broken record on corporate income tax policy since I was at the Chamber 15 years ago. Same stuff over and over…..killed a bunch of it. 🙂

  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    In both cases, the ideological bent of the organizations is known. My working relationship with TJI started about the time Mike was diagnosed, and he was ailing before they figured out why. I agree the issue is dark money period, left, right, center or wackadoodle, and the related issue of the weak IRS regulations about their activities. 501 (c) 3 tax status does not prohibit lobbying, for example. And Virginia’s definition of lobbying (state level) makes a swiss cheese look like a brick wall. There is a role for both the TJI (clearly in a rebuilding mode) and Commonwealth Institute, which produces a slick, readable product with good graphics.

    TJI vs Commonwealth Institute; the Blue VA and VA Mercury vs. the conservative counterparts…..no comparison, the GOP/Conservative side is getting its hind end kicked badly, and ideological purity and loyalty to The Chosen One is all that matters to the various GOP factions. Once Trump is done destroying the Republican party something may be rebuilt. The great circle always turns.

    When I was in The Game for pay, late 80s early 90s, the guru was Newt Gingrich, still a smart guy. He understood the intellectual infrastructure needed for political success, and the GOP was still somewhat dominant. But he could see the Democrats building on the capture of the MSM, and the network of interlocking relationships. I still have his videos – probably worth $3 at the GOP flea market they use to fund the remnants of the party….

    1. djrippert Avatar

      “Once Trump is done destroying the Republican party something may be rebuilt. The great circle always turns.”

      The RPV has been destroying itself for far longer than Trump has been president. The inane Tea Party faction all but guaranteed they would lose any all centrist and libertarian support. How many people have to be derisively labeled as RINOs because they don’t think abortion clinics should be firebombed?

      The Republicans in Virginia have no bench. None. They screwed over Bill Bolling so they could have far right Ken Cuccinelli. He lost and works for The Chosen One now. I don’t think you could get Bolling to waste his saliva spitting on an RPV sign today. The RPV and the Bush Administration stood slack jawed and glassy eyed while Democratic governors larded their pockets with special interest gifts. Then Obama and his pet snake Holder took out McDonnell for the same thing.

      The RPV is a clusterbomb of warring factions and ideologues. They’d rather kill each other than fight the Democrats. Go read Bearing Adrift. That blog used to be a very good source of conservative and centrist opinion. What are they now? They imploded with the Trump election. One column today is a cry for more unending war in Afghanistan. Why? Because Trump said he tried to meet with the Taliban and Trump must always be attacked by the Never Trumpers in the Republican Party. Heaven forbid that the president try to end the 18 year long fiasco that is the War on Terror.

      The best thing for the Republican Party would be for it to die, to cease to exist. Maybe a return to reasonable conservatism could rise from the ashes of the disaster that is the Republican Party today.

  6. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    Transparency is terrific … so does that mean you will join Citizen’s United and we can both advocate for legislation that will overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling that opened the door wide to all this dark money in the first place?

    Or have you read Rat F**ked … the story of the Right’s jump on the use of IT to define crazed and weird shaped legislative districts? The story is quite amazing and billed as the “True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy.” Just saying … gerrymandering is a big part of what has happened to steal our representative democracy from the people.

    AND regarding corporate lobby strength … wait til you hear what happens with the Exxon suit and their work with the American Petroleum Institute. That story is quite amazing and sure doesn’t have anything to do with what is good for the country, but only what would keep the industry going strong. Their success was spectacular and only now coming home to roost 30 years later. Exxon stock has dropped off the ‘top’ investment list.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      You can’t overturn the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United with legislation. You can get the court to reverse itself (unlikely) or you can amend the Constitution. As Jim Bacon is repeatedly and clearly demonstrating … the left has no incentive to do that since they are now the primary beneficiaries of dark money. Where is the Democratic Party’s proposal to amend the US Constitution to help get money out of politics. Cue the Songs of Silence.

      1. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
        Jane Twitmyer

        Not sure why you want to take a stab at the Big Bad Left on this issue … President Obama criticized the Citizens United verdict not long after it was delivered in his first State of the Union speech.

        There is a Democrat group … they claim to be “Democrats Fighting for Reform”… “Established March 1st, 2015, End Citizens United is a Political Action Committee funded by grassroots donors. We are dedicated to countering the disastrous effects of Citizens United and reforming our campaign finance system…. ECU spearheaded the movement among candidates to forgo corporate PAC money in their campaigns during the 2018 election cycle.”

        They tout “4,000,000+members, 400,000+donors, 3,400,000 contributions, and a $14 average contribution” and support a 28th Amendment. “The 28th Amendment, aka the Democracy for All Amendment, takes direct aim at the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, declaring once and for all that money is not speech and corporations are not people.”

        The House of Representatives approved the amendment with bipartisan support in January. That companion bill, H.J.Res.2, has over 130 co-sponsors.” Then on July 30th Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Jeanne Shaheen 9D-NH) announced that they are reintroducing the amendment to the Senate. The first time around the amendment did not receive a single Republican vote.

        You can adopt a legislative strategy. That is what RBG did for women’s rights before she went on the Court … It would mean taking another case to the Court. The thing that complicates this approach is that it would fixing the Citizens United issue would also require fixing Buckley v. Valeo, the decision that said money is speech. The strategy would mean passing a law somewhere that would be challenged … etc. until it makes its way to the Supremes. It could also be done by enforcing a law already on the books or passing a ballot initiative.

        Finally, there is another organization, IssueOne, national a by-partisan group full of heavy political hitters. “Issue One attempts to change the current U.S. campaign finance system on several fronts. Its activities are designed to generate awareness and a sense of urgency around the issue, to invest through grants in the most promising solutions, to reduce the role of money in politics and minimize the time public officials spend raising campaign money.” They list 3 members from VA; REP. TOM DAVIS Congressman (R-VA 1995-2008), REP. JIM MORAN Congressman (D-VA 1991-2015), REP. GLENN NYE, Congressman (D-VA 2009-2011).

        In 2015, Issue One launched its ReFormers Caucus, a “group of former members of Congress, Cabinet officials and governors from both parties committed to restoring trust in our democratic institutions”, and which, as of January 2019, had more than 200 members.

        They produced a report, “Dark Money Illuminated”, in 2018 and a database which “profiles the top 15 dark money groups and shines light on approximately 400 donors and donor organizations who have funded these groups, including companies, trade associations and labor unions. … Issue One created a searchable, first-of-its-kind database containing nearly 1,200 transactions linked to these donors, each supported by primary source documents.”

        The top 4 heading the list account for 2/3rd of all the dark monies. Finally, at number 5 there is Planned Parenthood the first of your wicked lefties on the list with monies less than 15% of the Chamber at number 1.

    2. djrippert Avatar

      “Just saying … gerrymandering is a big part of what has happened to steal our representative democracy from the people.”

      True dat.

      However, Elbridge Gerry, the inventor of gerrymandering, died in 1814 so … this is not exactly a new thing.

      1. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
        Jane Twitmyer

        Yeah … but it hadn’t done with the information and computer tech that can now design districts on behalf of one party with such accuracy until Chris Jankowski’s 2010 Republican national selected gerrymandering project, run out of a Richmond office, and the IT algorithms that now use our individual information from online combined with census date that now makes the US the “only major democracy that allows politicians to pick their own voters.”
        Check out that book … Interesting

        1. Jane, “wicked lefties” is your term, not mine. Lefties are playing by the rules. That doesn’t make them wicked. I’m using lefty groups as examples of why we need more transparency if we truly want to understand the political economy of Virginia, but the call for transparency applies to all groups, of whatever ideological flavor, who seek to influence public policy.

  7. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Jane – don’t tell anybody, it’s a secret – the Dem’s used early computer mapping in 1991 to screw my Republican caucus in that year’s district map. Big time. As the GOP’s strategy guy I was not allowed to work with the (state owned!) equipment at all. The other side hoarded it. As with the money, everybody does it…..I think the recent Supreme Court case was carefully balanced, using a Democrat gerrymander from one state and the Republican gerrymander from another (and then concluding partisan gerrymanders are legal.)

  8. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    Your quote … “Naturally, it’s an area that liberals and progressives show zero interest in shedding light upon.”

    I applaud your stand on sunlight. Most of us agree that transparency is the right way to go … Thing is I haven’t seen the Right show any interest … Please read my last post on this thread above …
    The Right is way out in front on the ‘dark money to pols’ front. I am gathering ‘stuff’ for another comment, more about the qualifications for the groups and their rules.

    1. Jane, I am happy to publish anything you find about dark money on the right — as long as it’s focused on what’s happening in Virginia.

      As a person of the right, I naturally get more agitated about what I see happening on the left. But I’m realistic enough to know that both sides pull the same stunts, and I agree that the principle of transparency should apply to all. So, go for it!

  9. Worse than dark money is intimidation. Every Trump supporter with whom I have spoken fears the violence that they might experience if they put a Trump sign on their lawn or a Trump bumper sticker on their car. Some have already experienced the violence.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I agree, Fred. Politics is the only substitution for Thuggery, Smear, Public Shaming, and Street Violence. The far left today is doing away with politics, replacing it with Thuggery, Smear, Public Shaming, Street Violence, and Criminalizing Political Activity with Show Trials. C’ville’s summer of 2017, for instance.

      Our friends here are chasing the wrong problem.

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