Nearly all of the thousands of policy research organizations -- also known as "think tanks" -- in the U.S. must raise their own funds either from donors, foundations, or grants. However, there are three well-connected organizations that are actually included in the federal budget and get direct funding from taxpayers. Despite trillion-dollar deficits, the Biden administration's new budget would funnel $79 million next year to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the East-West Center (EWC).
As NTUF detailed in an issue brief last year, these think tanks in the federal budget are duplicative of other federal agencies and programs. There is no reason why these organizations should not be able to compete for grants or contracts just like every other think tank.
At least the administration's funding request is not higher than what Congress provided last year, with $14 million to the Wilson Center, $45 million to the Institute of Peace, and $20 million to the EWC. These organizations are also eligible for other federal funding. A search of usaspending.gov finds that these three programs also received additional funding via federal grants and contracts over the past decade. Back in 2005, Congress spent $100 million to build a new headquarters for the Institute. Originally, the building was intended to be built with private funds.
Unfortunately, the new White House budget request represents a missed opportunity for reform. Budget requests from the previous presidents since George W. Bush included a separate book of reform proposals to consolidate, reduce, or eliminate programs, which have included reducing taxpayer funds to these think tanks. For example, Obama's first budget proposed to reduce funding to the EWC by nearly half. Trump’s budgets also called for savings across all three. NTUF and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund also agreed on saving money from the Wilson Center and the EWC in our joint report of recommendations to Congress to save more than $790 billion.
In typical fashion, Congress ignored these reform requests and continued to expand these programs. In an era of soaring federal debt, lawmakers should be hard at work analyzing budget material in order to root out unnecessary programs. This year, Congress should think outside the box, get smarter about budgeting, and eliminate think tank funding.