December is a low-key month in Washington. Congress is in recess and quiet planning goes on for the new session in January. Just down Massachusetts Avenue, though, think tanks remain as busy and influential as ever.
While hardly household names outside DC, entities such as The Heritage Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and the Brookings Institution provide a consistent stream of re- search, commentary, and ideas to Congress and the White House.
Some focus on tax policy, others foreign policy, but the US now has more than 1,800 think tanks, says James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Some are large, many are small, and nearly 400 are located in Washington.
As my colleague P.W. Singer pointed out recently in Washingtonian, think tanks are "the bicycle chain that links the policy world with the research world, applying academic rigor to contemporary policy problems." In a world in which "truthiness" is the lowest common denominator for political discourse, think tanks try to provide real facts, objective analysis, and occasionally a cogent history lesson for policymakers caught up in the heat of the moment.
The influence of think tanks has grown over the past 50 years as the pace of government has accelerated, leaving officials precious little time to actually, well, think. From Afghanistan policy to reinvigorating the global economy, the policy prescriptions of think tanks often show up in speeches, executive orders, and legislation.
The dizzying speed at which the political sphere operates has changed what think tanks work on and how they communicate findings. Today, policy experts simultaneously study the media's anointed crisis du jour, such as housing foreclosures, and more remote long-term challenges, such as how the US should plan for the possibility of Turkey joining the UN Security Council.
The 24/7 news cycle has also altered how think tanks disseminate their findings. Small group discussions of 100 people are still the norm, while TV appearances and Op-Eds still inform policymakers around the globe. But blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and mobile apps are increasingly complementing traditional white papers and hardcover policy tomes as technology evolves and members of Congress delegate more to their staffs of 20-somethings.
It may be quiet, but Washington's wonks are still hard at work. Come January, they'll fuel a new round of political activity - and perhaps even compromise.
Melissa Skolfield is VP of comms at the Brookings Institution.