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The Most Interesting Think Tank In American Politics

19 minute read

Samuel Hammond sits at a cluttered desk in his Washington office, holding up the pamphlet that changed the world. “It’s a giant space fetus,” the think-tank staffer says with a grin. “You’re never going to get that from a liberal child-welfare organization.”

The pamphlet, titled “The Conservative Case for a Child Allowance,” does indeed show a big pink fetus, silhouetted against a globe and held by a pair of hands. Released in early 2021, the paper features an epigraph from the Book of Psalms: “Children are a gift from the Lord.” In it, Hammond and his co-author argue that giving cash to parents would strengthen families, bolster the institution of marriage, and reduce abortions, while at the same time boosting the economy and lessening dependence on the state. As the title suggests, it’s a right-wing argument for a proposal more often associated with the bleeding-heart left.

Hammond is a scholar of poverty and welfare policy at the Niskanen Center, a little-known think tank that may be the most interesting institution in D.C. At Niskanen’s headquarters near Capitol Hill, a small team of wonks is busy cooking up unconventional proposals to address intractable problems. Want to solve climate change? Forget the Green New Deal and focus on building more electric transmission lines. Want to reduce incarceration? Don’t defund the police—give them funding to solve crimes. Want to improve access to health care? Slash outdated regulations to increase the supply of doctors.

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It’s tempting to think there’s no place for serious policy discussion in today’s Washington. Politics is all about culture-war theatrics, Congress seems hopelessly stalemated, and the President can’t even give a State of the Union address without it devolving into a yelling match. With the 2022 midterm elections bringing back divided government, few in D.C. expect much to come out of a new Congress that will be lucky to raise the debt ceiling without creating an economic catastrophe along the way, much less forge new and innovative approaches.

But under the surface, something curious is happening in the world of American policy. In the wake of the Trump presidency, old ideological lines have melted away, and new space has opened for strange-bedfellows alliances. Conservatives, no longer wedded to abstract ideas of small government, have proposed protectionist boosts to manufacturing. Liberals, their eyes opened to the government’s capacity for overreach, have proposed regulatory rollbacks to boost the supply of housing and clean energy. In December, protections for same-sex marriage and an overhaul of the Electoral Count Act both became law with broad bipartisan support, capping a congressional term that also included successful bipartisan legislation on infrastructure, veterans, semiconductors, and gun control.

The Niskanen Center, a quirky eight-year-old policy shop with roots on the libertarian right, is both vanguard and driver of this underreported trend. Working outside, or between, the partisan silos in which most D.C. advocates are enmeshed, it’s gained a reputation on Capitol Hill for unorthodox policy ideas that can bridge left-right divides. Versions of Hammond’s child-allowance expansion, for example, were included in both Donald Trump’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and Joe Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan. The latter expansion has been credited with cutting child poverty nearly in half before it expired, and a further expansion has been proposed by Senator Mitt Romney and two fellow Republicans. Niskanen played a role in many of last year’s bipartisan successes and has gotten traction with proposals on climate, immigration, and criminal justice. The New York Times columnist David Brooks has hailed Niskanen as “one of the most creative think tanks in America today” and credited it with helping birth a “new center” in the fallow fields of American policy thought.

The aforementioned pamphlet, titled “The Conservative Case for a Child Allowance.”The Niskanen Center

At a time of polarization, Niskanen has become a home for heterodox thinkers from left and right alike. In its D.C. office suite, a former Bernie Sanders campaign staffer is working on proposals to increase access to health-care and disability benefits by simplifying regulations; at the same time, a former staffer at the libertarian Cato Institute is mapping out new ideas for copyright reform. Niskanen’s head of immigration policy is a Republican former national-security lawyer; its head of climate previously worked for an environmental group that was accused of racism for supporting a revenue-neutral Washington state climate initiative. The influential center-left writer Matt Yglesias is a Niskanen fellow; the Times columnist Ezra Klein’s embrace of “supply-side progressivism” echoes many Niskanen ideas. “Niskanen is one of the most provocative, original players in the think-tank world and the ideas space overall,” says Zach Graves, executive director of the Lincoln Network, another heterodox new institute that focuses on technology and innovation.

Niskanen’s emergence in Washington is more than a story about an obscure think tank’s fight to make a mark. It’s about whether policymakers can pick up the pieces of the old ideologies Trump smashed and reassemble them for a substantive new era. It’s about whether ideas have a place in our politics at all, or whether we’re doomed to division and stasis instead. “Liberal democracy is in the balance, right?” says Niskanen’s president, Ted Gayer, an economist who served in the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. “If our government institutions fail, people lose confidence in them. You’re left with populism or you’re left with authoritarianism, but you’re not left with a governing philosophy that is going to help promote public welfare and help government operate more effectively.”

Niskanen (pronounced Niss-CAN-enn) was founded in 2014 by Jerry Taylor, one of Washington’s great mad geniuses. A thinker of uncommon intellectual flexibility and charisma, Taylor blazed a 30-year trail through the world of policy thought before flaming out in scandal. But he started out as a conventional movement conservative—a “wild-eyed Reaganite,” as he describes it today.

As a college student at the University of Iowa in the 1980s, Taylor worked for the political campaigns of Sen. Chuck Grassley and former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. When his college loans ran out, he ditched school and moved to D.C. to work for the American Legislative Exchange Council, the influential pro-business state-level conservative lobbying group. After a few years, he was recruited by Cato to work on environmental issues. Climate change was just starting to come on the public radar as an issue, but it hadn’t yet acquired a polarizing left-right valence. (The conservative UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for example, was at that time an early evangelist for addressing “global warming.”) Taylor’s job was to change that, convincing right-wingers that the science was a sham and the “solutions” being proposed would constitute an unwarranted attack on Americans’ liberty and prosperity.

Taylor had no background in the subject, but he read voraciously and had a knack for marshaling evidence to make persuasive arguments. For more than 20 years, he was wildly successful in a role he describes as Cato’s “lead climate denier.” The doubts he helped to sow became conventional wisdom on the right, lending ammunition to Republicans who blocked climate action for decades. But over the years, Taylor grew uncertain about his own conclusions. The more he looked at the evidence, the harder he found it to deny that the scientists sounding the alarm about climate were correct. He naively assumed his objective-minded allies in the libertarian movement would, like him, want to follow the data where it led. Instead, he found his views distinctly unwelcome among his colleagues.

Taylor left Cato, proclaimed himself a climate hawk, and founded his own think tank. He named it after William Niskanen, a former Reagan economic adviser and Cato co-founder whose 2011 death led to a power struggle in which the Koch brothers sued to seize control of the institute. To inhabitants of the insular world of professional libertarians, the name was an obvious middle finger to Taylor’s former home. (To everyone else, “Niskanen” meant nothing; the name remains a puzzling albatross for the organization.) In his new incarnation as a climate denier who’d seen the light, Taylor was instantly embraced by the environmental movement. The center was soon flush with money from liberal foundations.

Jerry Taylor at the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C., in April 2017.Greg Kahn

Taylor oriented the nascent organization around his broadening doubts about libertarian ideology, which he increasingly saw as overly rigid and fixated on the wrong things. He made common cause with an emerging cohort of thinkers who questioned libertarianism’s traditional home on the right side of the political spectrum. Libertarian values could just as easily lead to an embrace of left-wing causes like same-sex marriage and drug decriminalization, but organizations like Cato tended to ignore those issues in favor of a relentless focus on shrinking government. “Liberaltarians,” led by Taylor’s former Cato colleague Brink Lindsey, argued that the Bush Administration had betrayed libertarians with its foreign adventurism and big-government excess, and called for a “new fusionism” of libertarians and the political left.

When I met him in 2015, shortly after Niskanen’s founding, Taylor was fixated on the idea that libertarianism’s anti-statism was counterproductive to its supposed project of maximizing individual liberty. The Nordic countries, he pointed out, combine a robust welfare state with a strongly capitalist ethos. (Hammond would later articulate this agenda as “the free-market welfare state.”) At the time, I found Taylor interesting but not particularly relevant: Niskanen seemed to be serving a niche within a niche.

Then Trump was elected, and suddenly Taylor had a lot of company among right-wing apostates. Scores of D.C. conservatives in good standing—Hill staffers and lobbyists, opinion journalists and advocates, lawyers and party veterans—found themselves politically homeless, appalled by the new President’s actions. Taylor invited them to Niskanen, where he began hosting a secret, off-the-record weekly gathering called the Meeting of the Concerned.

“It was sort of comically sad,” Bill Kristol, the former Republican commentator and operative, recalls of the meeting’s early days. “As each Republican politician, organization and institution capitulated to Trump, it was like, ‘There goes another one.’” It was at one of these meetings that Kristol met a young lobbyist named Sarah Longwell. The two would go on to found Defending Democracy Together and the Bulwark, cornerstones of a now-robust center-right anti-Trump infrastructure.

The initial panic of the Trump Administration subsided, and the tenor of the group’s conversations began to change. As Trump’s GOP steadily turned against Republicans like Senators Jeff Flake, Bob Corker and John McCain, Taylor and his allies began to wonder whether their old party could be saved. Democrats had their own extreme elements, they felt, but were also welcoming moderate candidates as the midterms approached. It began to dawn on the group that their allegiance might be misplaced. “As late as 2018, no one in that room wanted to come out and say, ‘The only way to save the country is for the Democrats to take power,’” Taylor tells me in an interview from his home in Utah. “Then the dam just broke.”

The ideological journey that began with the hard right had left Taylor in the center, or perhaps on the center-left. In October 2018, in an essay titled “The Alternative to Ideology,” he announced he was embracing a new label: moderate. “Moderation has a poor image in American politics,” he acknowledged, yet moderate politicians tend to be the most popular, and the plurality of voters describe themselves as moderates. “The low regard we have for moderation in public life consequently fuels the ideological and partisan zealotry that is tearing this country apart,” Taylor wrote, calling for a new politics of compromise marked by “humility, prudence, pragmatism, and a conservative temperament.”

One area where he saw the need for moderation was climate. In the early 2000s, members of both parties were open to market-based approaches to reducing carbon emissions, such as cap-and-trade. But those glimmers of bipartisanship faded over the next decade. Conservatives, bolstered by Taylor’s Cato-era talking points, became resolutely hostile to any sort of action on an issue they saw as phony. (Taylor’s brother, James Taylor, played a key role in that effort as president of the pro-industry Heartland Institute, which continues to downplay the threat of climate change.) Meanwhile, a new generation of radical climate activists on the left viewed capitalism itself as part of the problem.

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Taylor, who founded Niskanen in part to push for a carbon tax, believed his new friends on the left were getting dangerously off course. “When the Green New Deal was put forward, I was just appalled,” Taylor says. “If you’re going to tell me I can’t be for climate action unless I’m for universal education through grad school, free housing, every last paragraph of the [Democratic Socialists of America] platform, that’s nuts.” Taylor believed his view was widely shared in mainstream environmental circles, but no one wanted to say it for fear of criticizing an ally. In March 2019, he published a 30,000-word critique of the Green New Deal. The essay soured some liberal donors on Niskanen, Taylor says. But it epitomized the space the think tank hoped to occupy: practical approaches to real problems, unencumbered by the groupthink of left and right alike.

A hard-drinking chain-smoker with a volatile streak, Taylor, associates say, struggled to manage Niskanen as it grew. In June 2021, Taylor was arrested for misdemeanor assault and battery after allegedly attacking his wife in a drunken rage. He resigned from Niskanen after the incident came to light. Citing a confidentiality agreement, Taylor declined to discuss the incident further, chalking it up to a messy divorce and noting that the charges against him were eventually dismissed.

Gayer, who had been serving as interim president of the Brookings Institution, took the reins late last year, paving the way for the organization to move past its brilliant but erratic founder. Gayer’s task now is to professionalize Taylor’s ragtag band and give it coherence at a moment when its approach is suddenly in demand.

The Trump years were not exactly a golden age of policy intellectualism. D.C. careened from crisis to crisis; Congress struggled to keep the lights on. But Trump’s rise was also a wake-up call to the political world. He channeled a widespread sense of frustration with failing institutions and the status quo—a fed-upness that policymakers had preferred to ignore or downplay. And he trampled party dogmas, disdaining former GOP commitments such as free trade, deficit reduction, foreign alliances, and entitlement reform. As the dust settles from his presidency, it’s become clear that the ideological reordering Trump set in motion is permanent and ongoing—and that neither major party has successfully articulated a vision for America’s future that’s persuasive to a broad swath of the electorate.

“Trump exploded the old-style, Reaganite fusionist conservatism,” says Brink Lindsey, Niskanen’s Thailand-based vice president and Taylor’s former Cato colleague, who coined the “liberaltarian” idea back in 2006. Meanwhile, he says, “on the center-left, there should be a profound frustration with the inability to mount a 60-40 coalition against the madness that has erupted on the Republican side. What’s wrong with the sane people that they can’t all get together?”

This unsettled climate has created an opening in the middle that the old institutions on left and right are ill-suited to fill, and which Niskanen is trying to occupy. “Both sides have firmly entrenched coalitional imperatives, things they have to say to be good allies,” says Steven Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University and Niskanen adviser. “We’re not part of either coalition. The biggest problem we have is that we’re kind of out there on our own. But that’s also a strength.”

To critics, Niskanen’s neither-fish-nor-fowl posture can be bafflingly squishy. The iconoclasts it employs don’t always play well with others: one of Taylor’s early staffers, Will Wilkinson, was fired for an intemperate tweet in 2021, and Hammond is known in policy circles almost as much for his pugilistic demeanor as for his ideas. The center’s litigation arm recently boasted about suing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to stop a pipeline in New Jersey, even as its climate shop broadly advocates for making it easier to build electric transmission lines. (Gayer acknowledged the apparent tension but told me the case was “consistent with our commitment to opposing procedural requirements that inhibit the construction of productive and needed infrastructure.”)

Several contemporaries of the center’s namesake, Bill Niskanen, told me he was surely spinning in his grave: Niskanen was a libertarian so principled that he was fired from his job as chief economist for Ford when he refused to go along with the company’s opposition to Japanese imports. One of Niskanen’s seminal papers argued against government investment in research and development, whereas the Niskanen Center in 2019 cosponsored a study arguing for just that. “If I had a time machine and I could go back and ask him, I would bet 10-to-one he’d be opposed to a huge expansion of the welfare state for payments per child,” says David R. Henderson, a Hoover Institution economist who served with Bill Niskanen on the Council of Economic Advisers in the 1980s.

But on Capitol Hill, the Niskanen Center is widely seen as a breath of fresh air. The center’s lobbyists often cold-call congressional offices to explore potential collaboration. They seek to provide objective analysis and high-quality information, not spin. And their relationships on both sides of the aisle can be crucial in the polarized atmosphere of today’s Congress, where Democrats and Republicans rarely socialize and often harbor distorted ideas of each other’s priorities. “Instead of assuming people disagree with us, we meet them where they are and see if we can find areas of agreement,” says Kodiak Hill-Davis, a Republican lobbyist who broke with the GOP over Trump and now heads Niskanen’s government-affairs team.

“When you have an organization that’s able to do outreach and get support from the other party, that’s not tainted by politics, that’s very helpful,” says a Democratic policy staffer who worked with Niskanen on the VICTIM Act. Sponsored by then-Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat, after the failure of broader police-reform legislation, the bill would provide grants to law-enforcement agencies to hire more homicide detectives and improve evidence processing. Niskanen’s year-old criminal-justice team focuses on policies to prevent crime and improve policing. “I worked on sentencing reform and decarceration for more than a decade, but I was continually frustrated that there was never a plausible affirmative argument for how to control crime and protect public safety,” says Greg Newburn, Niskanen’s criminal-justice director. The VICTIM Act passed the House with unanimous Democratic support and 30 Republican votes, but hit a snag in the Senate, where it was killed late last year by a procedural objection from GOP Sen. Rand Paul.

“They spend a lot of time thinking through issues in a way that’s refreshing,” a Republican policy staffer who’s worked with Niskanen on immigration tells me. Niskanen was heavily involved in serious bipartisan talks to reform immigration policy late last year by protecting “Dreamers,” fortifying the asylum system and increasing border security, multiple sources involved in the discussions told me. “This is a policy area where the status quo is so terrible that even the tiniest incremental gain that might only help 100 people is still 100 more people than the status quo,” says Niskanen’s immigration policy director Kristie De Peña, who recently teamed up with a well-known Iowa Republican and Democrat to argue that red states could ease their labor shortages by resettling refugees.

Niskanen describes such initiatives as “transpartisan” rather than “bipartisan.” Its staffers see this as an important distinction: “bipartisan” implies a half-a-loaf compromise in which both sides give up much of what they want, whereas a “transpartisan” solution is a win-win that offers something to everyone—like a child allowance that Republicans see as pro-family and Democrats see as curbing poverty. The center recently published a major paper on housing policy, an area where “Yes In My Backyard” reformers are starting to make headway against opponents on both left and right.

To Gayer, all these small-bore initiatives add up to big-picture optimism that the wrecking ball of the Trump years will give way to a new era of substantive policymaking. “They say hope is not a strategy, but hopelessness is even worse,” Gayer says. “It’s a messy world, and we’re still adjusting to massive changes in society. But this is what democracy looks like, and we need to engage.”


Correction, March 7:

The original version of this story misstated the disposition of a domestic-violence complaint against Jerry Taylor. The charges were dismissed, not dropped.

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Write to Molly Ball at molly.ball@time.com