The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) was formed in 1943 ‘as an adjunct to the US Chamber of Commerce’ by a group of businessmen who were ‘horrified’ at ‘talk of making wartime price and production controls permanent to prevent another Depression’. In 2006 AEI was described, according to AEI's webpages, by The Economist as the "most influential think tank" in Washington.
AEI was ‘a major source of policy advice’ to Reagan. It was said to operate ‘as the most sophisticated public-relations system in the nation for dissemination of political ideas’. One White House official told The Atlantic that the AEI played a large part in getting Ronald Reagan elected by making ‘conservatism intellectually respectable.’ Its promotion of deregulated markets found expression in Reagan policies.
Ronald Reagan, himself, said: "The most important American scholarship comes out of our think tanks, and no think tank has been more influential than the American Enterprise Institute."
However it was during the George W. Bush administration that the AEI really came to the fore, its "longstanding agenda of unfettered free-market capitalism, including deregulation, international free trade, anti-unionism, privatization, and opposition to environmentalism, became the Administration's agenda".
For ideas to have impact they have to be marketed, which is what the free-enterprise think tanks understood: ‘I make no bones about marketing’, said William Baroody Jr, head of the AEI, ‘We pay as much attention to dissemination of product as to the content.’
AEI used ghost writers to produce op-ed articles on behalf of scholars, and sent them to over a hundred ‘cooperating’ newspapers at the rate of three articles every two weeks. It was also one of the first think tanks to utilize television and radio broadcasts, producing a monthly show screened on over 400 television stations and a weekly talk show program for over 180 radio stations. It also produced books; legislative analyses; conferences for policy makers; four magazines, including Regulation and Public Opinion; and seminars for corporate managers.
AEI played host to several members of the Ford administration when Ford left office, including Gerald Ford himself, who also became a resident fellow there. Describing this process as a ‘carousel of power’ the Economist said:
Now that Mr Reagan has left power, many of his appointees, such as Jeane Kirkpatrick and Richard Perle, are working at AEI. Every American think-tank director has a dream and a nightmare. The dream is to house the next administration; the nightmare is to house the last one. AEI seems to have managed both in the course of a decade.
Similarly the AEI had close ties with the administration of George W. Bush, particularly during his second term with over 20 former and current AEI fellows and scholars were appointed to policy positions, government panels or commissions. For example Dick Cheney (pictured) had been on AEI's board of trustees before becoming vice-president and was once again on the board afterwards. His wife, Lynne has been a 'longtime scholar' there.
By 1985 AEI employed 176 people, boasted 90 adjunct scholars and a budget of $12.6 million, 45% from some 600 major corporations. Today the AEI has a staff of 185 and in 2007 AEI Revenue was $31.3 million, 45% from coporations and foundations and 26% from its activities such as sales of books and conference fees.
According to Foreign Policy magazine, the AEI is one of the top ten think tanks in the US in terms of influence.
Its board of trustees is largely made up of the CEOs of large corporations that have included American Express, the Carlyle Group, Dow Chemical and ExxonMobil. Its major donors have included various foundations such as the Olin Foundation, the Scaife Foundation, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and many corporations including General Electric, Ford, General Motors, Eastman Kodak, Proctor & Gamble Fund, and Shell. In recent years ExxonMobil has been a major donor.
According to its 2008 annual report: