The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative think tank and advocacy group, emerged as a political force in the Lone Star State more than a decade ago. While its influence was largely contained to Texas for many years, TPPF has found an eager audience in the White House and is now flexing its muscle on the national stage.
Founded almost 30 years ago, TPPF is a Koch-funded research and advocacy group that touts itself as a defender of liberty and free enterprise. By no means a strictly libertarian group, the group also attracts widespread support from social conservatives, counting former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) as two of its most prominent allies.
From the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to the Department of Energy (DOE), former TPPF officials are now filling top roles in the Trump administration and are working to promote pro-fossil fuel and anti-environment policies at the national level.
The Trump administration, in fact, has already turned into a revolving door for TPPF officials. At least eight TPPF senior staff members have joined or were recruited by the administration. One former TPPF employee has already served two stints in the Department of Energy under Perry’s leadership and another foundation employee returned to TPPF after a brief stint in President Donald Trump’s State Department.
Based in Austin, Texas, TPPF has been one of the most active think tanks in a national network of Koch-funded groups. By the late 2000s, it had become the favored policy group for members of the Tea Party in Texas, many of whom are Trump’s strongest supporters.
Since Obamacare became law in 2010, TPPF made repealing the Obama administration’s landmark health care legislation one of its top priorities. It’s also a staunch supporter of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ efforts to privatize the nation’s education system. Through its advocacy of far-right policy positions and its fundraising prowess, TPPF has joined the Heritage Foundation and other well-established national think tanks as the go-to policy shops for the president and his band of ultra-conservatives.
“TPPF’s deregulatory agenda aligns with that of the administration,” Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, told ThinkProgress.
After Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016, officials on the transition team scrambled to staff up. As one of the largest state-based right-wing think tanks in the nation, TPPF became a logical recruiting ground for the Trump administration.
“Because Texas is the king of the red states, it was an obvious place for the Trump people to look when they’re looking for people who have a particular ideology and worldview, especially when it comes to environmental deregulation,” Forrest Wilder, editor of The Texas Observer who has written extensively on TPPF and its ties to corporations, told ThinkProgress.
A laboratory for fringe policies
The Texas Public Policy Foundation was founded in 1989 by James Leininger, a Christian conservative who became extremely wealthy by selling hospital beds. By the early 1990s, he emerged as one of Texas’ top political donors, spending millions on conservative candidates.
“James Leininger has been the sugar daddy of the far right in Texas,” Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit supporting religious freedom and individual liberties in Texas, told HuffPost. “He is probably one of the biggest donors to the Republican Party of Texas’ move to far-right extremism.”
After a modest beginning, the organization started to grow in stature in the early 2000s, serving as an incubator for right-wing ideas and programs. As more far-right candidates won state elections, Texas became an ideal laboratory to test the application of TPPF’s ultra-conservative policies.
Leininger was a major contributor to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s political campaigns. By the time he was preparing to run for president in 2012, Perry came up with the idea to donate all of the proceeds from his campaign book, Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America, to Leininger’s TPPF.
The book sales would go to support TPPF’s Center for Tenth Amendment Studies, a program that seeks to build a movement based on the ideology that the federal government’s powers must be curbed to a point that excludes much of what it already does.
Perry’s book emphasized belief in free markets and the need to scale back government regulation. He argues that the financial crisis of 2008 was a result of government involving itself too much in the free market, as opposed to the consensus view that blamed lax oversight of financial institutions.
Perry, now Trump’s Energy secretary, reversed his policy positions upon joining the administration, with certain policy moves shifting away from free markets. Over the past year, Perry has been pushing for the federal government to insert itself in the nation’s power markets, with the goal of providing government-mandated subsidies to bail out the coal and nuclear industries.
“Government subsidies for any form of power are counterproductive and wasteful,” says TPPF’s @BillPeacock3. “Instead, energy companies should be allowed to stand on their own, to innovate, and either to succeed on their own or fail on their own.” #txlege https://t.co/oh3uMAEnGe
— Texas Public Policy Foundation (@TPPF) June 27, 2018
Despite its past adherence to “free market” ideals and opposition to government interference in energy markets, TPPF has been silent in the wake of Trump ordering the Department of Energy to look into ways to help save ailing coal and nuclear plants.
“The free market thing is a little bit of a cover for an agenda that is basically pro-corporate,” Wilder said. “I have not heard a peep from the Texas Public Policy Foundation about the bailout.”
TPPF has “long been just a shop for corporations and special interests” that “generates white papers and talking points that favor their interests,” according to Wilder.
Perry isn’t the only powerful Texas politician with ties to TPPF; Sen. Ted Cruz joined the organization as a senior fellow in March 2010 where he helped launch the Center for Tenth Amendment Studies. In 2012, Cruz won election to the U.S. Senate.
The connections to Perry and Cruz have helped TPPF grow into a political force under the leadership of Brooke Rollins. The organization expanded from a handful of employees when Rollins took over 15 years ago as president to more than 75 staffers today.
In recent years, TPPF started co-branding reports and conferences with the Heritage Foundation and other high-profile groups associated with the State Policy Network (SPN) that added to its clout. The Koch-funded SPN is a network of state-based right-wing think tanks, advocacy groups, media institutions, and funding institutions.
After years of successful fundraising, TPPF had enough cash in 2015 to afford a new $20 million headquarters building — a facility Wilder describes as “a very gaudy and pretentious Ayn Randian building on Congress Avenue in Austin.” Today, the group has tremendous influence in Texas state politics, mostly due to its fundraising prowess in recent years.
TPPF had not responded to multiple requests for comment from ThinkProgress at the time this article was published.
Banking on a hard right turn
According to its website, TPPF is funded by “thousands of individuals, foundations, and corporations.” The bulk of the funding, however, comes from right-wing foundations and large corporations seeking an influential think tank that will push their agendas.
Starting in the late 2000s, TPPF found success in fundraising from Koch-backed groups such as Donors Trust, an investment vehicle used by the Koch network of funders.
One influential donor is Doug Deason, a wealthy Trump donor and Koch operative. Deason is president of his family’s business, Deason Capital Services, which has a substantial holding in oil and gas operating company Foreland Resources LLC. Along with serving on TPPF’s board of directors, Deason is president of the Deason Foundation, established by his billionaire father Darwin Deason.
Last November, Deason enlisted former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt to serve as the keynote speaker at a TPPF event in Washington D.C. He also helped Pruitt choose the head of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.
“Given that TPPF’s deregulatory agenda aligns with that of the administration and given that one of their board members runs an oil company, is a major donor to the GOP, and is a personal friend of Pruitt, it’s easy to see why they have such influence over the EPA and the Trump administration,” Metzger told ThinkProgress.
Last year, Deason submitted a list of candidates for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. Michael Honeycutt, a toxicologist at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) who was on the list, was named as the top candidate for the board.
Deason, a longtime critic of the EPA, liked Honeycutt because he was well-known for questioning the agency’s assessments of the dangers of mercury, arsenic, and ozone pollution. These anti-science credentials proved appealing to Pruitt, who tapped Honeycutt to lead the board.
Honeycutt’s views “are so far outside the mainstream. ‘Smog is not that bad for you. We’re over-regulating mercury,'” Wilder said. “It wasn’t just about carbon. They are trying to undermine the basic, fundamental science around traditional pollutants.”
A tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, TPPF’s revenue totaled about $18 million in 2016, up dramatically from $10.6 million in 2015. Though such nonprofits are not required to disclose their donors, public tax records can show how much money they receive from individual foundations.
In 2012, The Texas Observer obtained a list of corporate donors to TPPF that showed the organization is funded largely by right-wing foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals, including the Koch brothers, tobacco firm Altria, oil giants ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, and top shale gas producer Devon Energy.
In 2016, TPPF received $612,250 from the Charles Koch Foundation, according to IRS tax forms. The Charles Koch Foundation previously donated $175,375 to TPPF in 2015 and $200,000 in 2014. Charles Koch and his brother David accumulated their wealth from petrochemical giant Koch Industries, a company that got its start from a company founded by their father.
TPPF gets substantial donations from other right-wing foundations and fossil fuel interests. The Armstrong Foundation, a tax-exempt organization that describes itself as an advocate for free enterprise, pursuit of liberty, and a strong national defense, contributed a total of $30,000 to TPPF in 2015 and 2016, according to tax forms.
TPPF has also received funding from mainstream foundations, including Pew Charitable Trusts, primarily to support the group’s criminal justice reform efforts.
But some experts view the efforts by TPPF and other conservative groups to tackle criminal justice reform as a way to cast themselves as more compassionate and less ideological. At a 2014 Koch brothers panel, right-wing criminal justice reform was touted as an effort that is uniting the left and right, Nancy A. Heitzeg and Kay Whitlock wrote in an article for Truthout.
“Some people now explicitly argue that criminal justice reform is the ‘GOP’s best hope to reach minority voters,'” they wrote.
The Austin-to-Washington pipeline
TPPF has had a lot of powerful former Texas government leaders on its payroll, from Kathleen Hartnett White, who served as chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, to Susan Combs, who served as Texas agriculture commissioner and state comptroller.
White has arguably been the most high-profile TPPF official in recent months — but not for the most flattering reasons. She is one of the few Trump appointees to fail to win Senate confirmation. Tapped to serve as head of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the White House in February withdrew her nomination from consideration.
White has long cast doubt on widely accepted climate science. She also stated on multiple occasions that increased carbon emissions in the atmosphere do not pose a threat to human health and can be beneficial to humans. Her views on carbon emissions are in stark contrast to the scientific consensus.
White’s failure to win confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate illustrated TPPF’s fringe positions, particularly on the environment. “It was amazing to see that the Trump administration didn’t get her confirmed,” Wilder said. “She was too extreme even for the Senate.”
Combs, who worked as a visiting senior fellow at TPPF, had better luck getting inside the Trump administration. She serves as acting secretary of fish, wildlife, and parks at the Department of the Interior, where she oversees the nation’s wildlife policy.
A consistent critic of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), Combs, as Texas State Comptroller in 2013, compared proposed ESA listings to “incoming Scud missiles” headed for her state’s oil and gas-rich economy.
Even the leader of TPPF was enticed to abandon her cushy position at the organization to go work for the Trump administration in Washington. In February, Brooke Rollins left her job as president and CEO of TPPF for a position in the White House Office of American Innovation, which is led by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
Rollins’ decision to join the White House followed the announcement that TPPF was opening a new office in Washington, D.C. The office started with five employees and is expected to grow to as many as 15 employees by the end of 2018. TPPF’s goals for its Washington office include rolling back regulations created by the Obama administration and targeting the EPA’s endangerment rule, which mandates that greenhouse gasses be regulated under the Clean Air Act, Rollins said in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Doug Domenech served as leader of Trump’s Interior Department transition team. He now works as assistant secretary for insular affairs, a position in which he coordinates federal policy for the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Prior to joining the administration, Domenech directed TPPF’s Fueling Freedom Project, whose stated mission is to explain the “forgotten moral case for fossil fuels.”
While serving as an aide to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in 2017, Domenech took meetings with his previous employer, TPPF, while it was engaged in a legal dispute with the department. The meetings possibly violated ethics rules. An Interior Department spokesperson told The Guardian the meetings were “primarily social in nature,” even though Domenech’s calendar shows that the meetings concerned specific policy matters.
Meanwhile, Caroline Espinosa served as director of communications for TPPF before joining the policy planning staff at the State Department in May 2017. This past January, Espinosa returned to TPPF to serve as deputy director of its Right on Crime project.
The revolving door also made a few turns in the case of Bernard McNamee, who in February left his job as deputy general counsel for energy policy at DOE to head TPPF’s Center for Tenth Amendment Action and its Life:Powered project, a pro-fossil fuel program. The Life:Powered project released a video in May attacking proponents of renewable energy.
“While the word renewables makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside, it shouldn’t be mistaken for cheap and reliable. It isn’t,” the group says in the video.
After only four months at TPPF, McNamee was back at DOE, serving as executive director of the department’s Office of Policy. McNamee now works under Mark Menezes, the undersecretary of energy who serves as a point person for Trump’s push to bail out coal and nuclear power plants.
Before returning to DOE in June, however, McNamee wrote an op-ed, published in The Hill on the eve of Earth Day, touting the wonders of fossil fuels. “When we celebrate Earth Day, we should consider the facts, not the political narrative, and reflect about how the responsible use of America’s abundant resources of natural gas, oil and coal have dramatically improved the human condition,” he wrote.
Mario Loyola, founding director of TPPF’s Center for Tenth Amendment Action, was also hired by the Trump administration to fill a new position at CEQ. As associate director of regulatory reform at CEQ, Loyola is exploring how to expedite environmental reviews of infrastructure projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Critics of weakening NEPA warn that Loyola and other proponents of a “better, faster, cheaper” environmental policy could lead the nation back to the time before Congress enacted NEPA in 1969 when infrastructure projects were developed behind closed doors, causing detrimental effects on the environment and ecosystems.
The mainstreaming of fringe positions
Back in Texas, TPPF has played a role in the state’s political shift to the right through its close ties to Perry, Cruz, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R).
“Buoyed by the election of President Trump and the mainstreaming of what were once fringe positions, the group now seems poised to wield greater influence nationally,” Naveena Sadasivam wrote last December in The Texas Observer.
But not every Texas Republican is a fan of TPPF’s policy prescriptions. Some Republicans often question the data in TPPF studies. In 2013, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “Texas Goes Sacramento” — citing TPPF data — that claimed Texas would increase spending by 26 percent in its new budget.
Texas Republicans complained about the numbers cited in the editorial. After the editorial ran, even Perry took aim at TPPF, telling reporters that TPPF’s research needed some “remedial work.”
In an op-ed published by the New York Times in April 2017, Ann Beeson, executive director of another Austin-based think tank, the moderate Center for Public Policy Priorities, noted that many policies being championed by Trump and congressional leaders — defunding public education and shredding the safety net — “seem old hat to Texans.”
“But rather than resting their boots on the table, political leaders in Texas have moved farther to the right,” Beeson wrote.
In Texas and in other states across the country, the Republican Party has shifted far to the right, forcing out many of the moderates in their ranks. “It’s not that the state has changed that much,” Wilder said, referring to the political opinions of average Texas voters. “It’s just that the Republican Party and its base has gone in that direction.”