AUSTIN, Texas -- Philanthropy may not be high on your list of Stuff to Think About -- except maybe to hope that some might be headed your way. But political philanthropy is in fact playing a large role in your life -- indeed, it is shaping the entire nation's life to an extent that deserves to be put on your list of Stuff to Think About.

            The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy is an outfit "committed to making philanthropy more responsive to people with the least wealth and opportunity." You probably thought that's what philanthropy was -- money to help people with the least wealth and opportunity. But to an amazing extent, you would be wrong. A report by the Responsive Philanthropy folks points out that more and more foundations and corporations are instead giving their money to conservative think tanks, which in turn use the money to push the right-wing political agenda.

            What's amazing is not just how much money is involved but how pervasive and prevalent is the influence of these think tanks. If they were not called conservative think tanks, they might easily be mistaken by the average citizen for lobbying organizations.

            The 20 wealthiest conservative think tanks together spent $158 million in 1996, which happens to be more than the Republican Party spent in soft money that year. And their budgets have more than doubled since 1992.

            "Conservative think tanks have increasingly become a magnet for private-sector money," writes David Callahan, author of the report, in The Nation magazine. "Corporations see them as effective tools for pushing their own interests within the political process. ... These groups put a highbrow spin on the self-interested arguments of corporate America. In effect, gifts to right-wing think tanks have become another form of political campaign donation by those anxious to roll back government regulations, cut corporate taxes and loosen labor laws."

            For example, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and companies that produce medical devices gave more than $400,000 to the Progress and Freedom Foundation (now there's a name) for a major project on restructuring the Food and Drug Administration.

            Wall Street firms have given several million dollars in the '90s to the Cato Institute and other supporters of Social Security privatization; there were large donations from telecommunications companies to Citizens for a Sound Economy and other anti-regulatory groups that worked hard for the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act; and there were the millions that Koch Industries, an energy conglomerate, has given to think tanks working to water down federal environmental laws.

            More than half a dozen new conservative think tanks have become major players, including the Center for Policy Analysis, the Reason Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The major issues for these groups are deregulation, school vouchers and Social Security privatization.

            The Heritage Foundation, the granddaddy of right-wing think tanks, works closely with Republican congressional leaders. It has such high-powered computers that it competes with the Congressional Budget Office in analyzing the fiscal impact of bills. (Garbage in, garbage out.)

            Callahan observes that Cato, Citizens for a Sound Economy, etc., "have imitated Heritage's success in walking the fine line between illegal lobbying and policy analysis." What's so fine about it?

            In addition to their longstanding attacks on environmental and worker-safety laws, the right-wing tanks are now concentrating on laws safeguarding the nation's food and drug supply. After their victory in eliminating the federal welfare entitlement, Callahan observes, they have now begun a vigorous attack on the other main components of the New Deal/Great Society legacy: Medicare and Social Security. They will have spent a total of $1 billion pushing their ideas in this decade.

            Liberal think tanks, by contrast, have far fewer resources and tend to focus on single issues without weaving them into an overarching philosophical framework, the report says. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, there is more liberal money in philanthropy, but it goes into grass-roots anti-poverty programs and other concrete efforts to help people with the least wealth and opportunity.

            To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

Editor's Note: Molly Ivins is on vacation. The following column was originally published in May 1999.