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Lloyd Omdahl, Published January 06 2013

Omdahl: DeMint ‘tanks’ Senate

Jim DeMint of South Carolina resigned from the U.S. Senate in December to become the CEO of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington “think tank.”

Washington has scores of conservative and liberal “think tanks” cranking out research and information that presents their particular viewpoints in the most favorable light.

Because they have predetermined policy positions, however, their research is usually based on predetermined conclusions, thereby restricting creative thinking. That’s why “think tank” is a misnomer for such groups. They need to think more.

One observer noted that think tanks behind the scenes in Washington have more influence than the people who actually write the bills. There must be a certain amount of truth to that allegation, or DeMint would not think of The Heritage Foundation as a career promotion.

After all, he gave up a seat at the most powerful policy table in the world where several million Americans would trade their souls for the opportunity to pull up a chair.

His resignation sends a signal about the evolving policy process in America. Our information distribution system has made it possible for all organizations generating research and information to become more and more effective.

Cable television has given credibility to think tanks by using their spokespersons as commentators on current events. Just watch the pairing off of advocates on CNN and public television. Many of them come from think tanks.

North Dakota does not have much in the way of think tanks. We have a couple of small offices that spend more time throwing specious arguments together than doing original research.

It has long been my contention that we have the most under-researched state in the union. The private sector is doing very little and the Legislative Council focuses only on studies proposed by the Legislature.

Because research can generate new ideas and test old ones, North Dakota policy wonks ought to be particularly interested in the lesson involved in the DeMint resignation.

While most think tanks come up with a conservative or a liberal slant, not everything they produce is ideologically driven. In fact, the American Enterprise Institute, another conservative think tank, generated material I found useful when I taught a class on federalism.

There are plenty of unexplored issues in North Dakota to “think” about. Here are a couple of starters:

1. Identifying the winners and losers in blanket property tax reductions.

2. Excessive flaring of gas in the oil fields.

3. Inequities in the property tax assessment system.

4. Identifying and documenting the victims of oil development.

5. Who is not voting and why – is it disinterest or alienation? (Minnesota always does better than we do.)

6. New options for expanding and strengthening health care in rural North Dakota.

7. The consequences of mushrooming land prices.

8. Dissecting conflicts of interests in state, county and city elections.

These are not necessarily partisan issues, but research would yield more information and understanding upon which new policies could be based.

If the products of think tanks get a deaf ear at the Legislature, the issues can be taken to the people through the initiative and referendum.

With the Legislature now the primary source for policy options, we do not have competing alternatives in critical policy areas. Democracy is best served when the public square is vibrant with competing ideas. Right now, it appears that North Dakota’s public square is quiet.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com