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 Slash outdated regulations to increase the supply of doctors.
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.
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.