Tankers on the Take
Not long ago Peter Ferrara, a senior policy adviser at the Institute for Policy Innovation, seemed on the verge of becoming a conservative icon. Before the Bush administration's sales pitch for Social Security privatization fell flat, admiring articles about the Bush plan's genesis often gave Mr. Ferrara credit for starting the privatization movement back in 1979.
Now Mr. Ferrara has become a different sort of icon. BusinessWeek Online reports that both Mr. Ferrara and Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, were paid by the ubiquitous Jack Abramoff to write "op-ed articles favorable to the positions of some of Abramoff's clients."
Now, I never had any illusions about intellectual integrity in the world of right-wing think tanks. It has been clear for a long time that so-called analysts at many of these think tanks are, in effect, paid to support selected policies and politicians. But it never occurred to me that the pay-for-play schemes were so blatant.
In fact, most deals between lobbyists and conservative intellectuals probably aren't that blatant. For the most part, people employed by right-wing think tanks don't have to be specifically paid to support certain positions, because they understand that supporting those positions comes with the job. Senior fellows at Cato don't decide, after reconsidering the issue, that Social Security shouldn't be privatized. Policy analysts at the Heritage Foundation don't take another look at the data and realize that farmers and small-business owners have nothing to gain from estate tax repeal.
But it turns out that implicit deals between think tanks and the interests that finance them are sometimes, perhaps often, supplemented with explicit payments for punditry. In return for Abramoff checks, Mr. Bandow and Mr. Ferrara wrote op-ed articles about such unlikely subjects as the entrepreneurial spirit of the Mississippi Choctaws and the free-market glories of the Northern Mariana Islands.
BusinessWeek Online doesn't mention it, but earlier this year an article by Franklin Foer in The New Republic titled "Writers' Bloc," which tracked Mr. Abramoff's remarkable ability to get his clients favorable treatment on op-ed pages, pointed out that Mr. Ferrara endorsed another odd cause: U.S. friendship with Malaysia. (I've checked, and Mr. Bandow did the same.) I was particularly interested in that one, since a couple of years ago right-wingers accused me of having been a paid agent of the Malaysian regime. I wasn't, but Mr. Abramoff reportedly was.
Mr. Bandow has confessed to a "lapse of judgment" and resigned from Cato. But neither Mr. Ferrara nor his employer believe that he did anything wrong. The president of Mr. Ferrara's institute told BusinessWeek Online that "I have a sense that there are a lot of people at think tanks who have similar arrangements." Alas, he's probably right.
Let's hope that journalists set out to track down those people with "similar arrangements," and that as they do, they don't fall into two ever-present temptations.
First, if the latest pay-for-punditry story starts to get traction, the usual suspects will claim that liberal think tanks and opinion writers are also on the take. (I'm getting my raincoat ready for the slime attack on my own ethics I'm sure this column will provoke.) Reporters and editors will be tempted to give equal time to these accusations, however weak the evidence, in an effort to appear "balanced." They should resist the temptation. If this is overwhelmingly a story about Republican lobbyists and conservative think tanks, as I believe it is - there isn't any Democratic equivalent of Jack Abramoff - that's what the public deserves to be told.
Second, there will be the temptation to ignore the backstory - to treat Mr. Abramoff as a rogue, unrepresentative actor. In fact, before his indictment, Mr. Abramoff wasn't off on his own. He wasn't even a lobbyist in the traditional sense; he's better described as a bag man, running a slush fund for Tom DeLay and other Republican leaders. The point is that there really isn't much difference between Mr. Abramoff's paying Mr. Ferrara to praise the sweatshops of the Marianas and the Department of Education's paying Armstrong Williams to praise No Child Left Behind. In both cases, the ultimate paymaster was the Republican political machine.
And inquiring minds want to know: Who else is on the take? Or has the culture of corruption spread so far that the question is, Who isn't?