Presidential transitions and think tanks

Brookings played this role for a generation, with Democrats and Republicans alike, until conservatives grew tired of their left-leaning outlook, and empowered the newly-formed Heritage Foundation to plan for the Reagan transition. Heritage mounted a massive effort to prepare for the transition, organizing dozens of sympathetic scholars, interest group officials, and think tank researchers to author Mandate for Leadership, a best-selling articulation of how Reagan could transition to power. Heritage was clear: they aimed to provide the Reagan’s transition with advice based on conservative principles and beliefs, not simply the practical suggestions typically offered by Brookings.

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Heritage’s efforts during the 1980 transition had a lasting influence on Washington politics and subsequent transitions. The transition period has increasingly been seen as the first, and arguably most effective, point in the presidency to foment change. By starting early, long before Election Day, an eager think tank can shape the presidency through ideas, people, and policy.

This was never clearer than in 2008. The Center for American Progress (CAP), a 501c3 nonprofit and think tank, had worked as a Democratic government-in-exile for much of the Bush Administration. Headed by Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, CAP was peripherally involved in the campaign, but at the center of the transition. Podesta was chosen to lead the Obama transition planning during the summer of 2008 and CAP, as Heritage had in 1980s, began to author a comprehensive set of recommendations called Change for America. Dozens of those contributors to Change for America were chosen to serve on transition teams and several were then hired to staff the White House and other key federal positions. Most importantly, many of the very ideas CAP advocated for, such as the creation of an office to focus on social entrepreneurship, were soon established by the president and directed by those affiliated with CAP, such as senior advisor for the new Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, Michele Jolin.

The slow drift from the role played by Brookings to that of CAP has been met with little opposition. The federal regulations on think tank activities, either those administered by the Federal Election Commission for campaign activities or by the Internal Revenue Service for tax-status and lobbying, are largely silent on the pre-election and post-election transition period. While President-Elect Obama forbid lobbyists from donating to his transition planning efforts, think tank officials rarely register as lobbyists, and were thus immune from these restrictions.

The transition period is then ripe for influence from think tanks, emboldened by changing views of their fundamental mission and free from most regulatory impediments. While the country pays increasing attention to the presidential campaign, think tanks, particularly those whose views align with Governor Romney, operate in the shadows. Without public scrutiny, they are left to discretely establish what a Romney victory might mean in practice with little transparency or public oversight.

If Governor Romney wants to limit the uncertainty surrounding his transition planning, he could soon announce his pre-election transition team, those think tanks which are likely to help him plan his transition, and a vision for how he intends to solicit ideas from a wide array of stakeholders. Such a move would compel think tanks to reconcile the role they want to play in the policy process: either as the voice of reason and impartial advice or as just another well-positioned interest group. It would also clarify that the same principles of democracy, public input, and transparency that are at the heart of the election are also fundamental to transition planning.

Heath Brown is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Seton Hall University and the author of the book, Lobbying the New President: Interests in Transition, published by Routledge. He served as the policy and research director of the Council of Graduate Schools from 2004-2006. He can be followed on Twitter @heathbrown

Editors note: An earlier version of this opinion editorial stated that the Obama Administration had created a National Energy Council.  That was incorrect.  A proposal was made by CAP to the transition team but it was not adopted.