The subtext of the Jack Abramoff-Tom DeLay scandals now roiling Washington is that there's a lot of corporate and lobbyist money sloshing through Congress, and it's having a pernicious effect on good, clean, democratic government. That's an important story, but it's even more important to note that the "money in politics" problem isn't just limited to politicians. As Frank Foer outlines in the New Republic this week, there's also a tremendous amount of corporate and lobbyist money sloshing through right-wing think tanks and media outlets, which means that more and more, it's not just conservative politicians but conservative ideas themselves that are being hijacked by what Jacob Weisberg calls "interest-group conservatism."
To some extent, this process isn't yet complete. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, came out strongly against both the corporate goodie bag known as the 2003 Medicare bill, and have condemned the yet-to-be-passed energy bill in Congress on similar grounds. Principled small-government conservatism still exists, at least in the think tanks. But it's not at all clear how long this purity will last. Foer notes that after a few Abramoff-financed junkets to the Marinaras, think tanks from CATO to AEI to Heritage were all more than willing to tout the virtues of the odd labor regulations there. And Abramoff's moneyed connections helped reverse the longstanding conservative think-tank hostility to the Malaysian government in the late '90s.
Is it so off to think that, with a bit more money and a few industry-funded "educational trips abroad," groups like Heritage could be convinced of the virtues of massive taxpayer subsidies to the pharmaceutical and coal industries? Hardly. Already, as Chris Mooney reported in the cover story of the latest Mother Jones, an entire ExxonMobil-funded "think-tank" network has sprung up to "debunk" the science of global warming. (Those scare quotes are there for a reason.) At the rate we're going, soon there will no longer be any principled conservative ideas or sound policies, only unprincipled shilling for the highest bidder.