Mercatus Center Quietly Wields Influence

Posted: August 11, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Rey Banks

Tucked away on George Mason’s Arlington Campus, the Mercatus Center is a little-known group that recently enjoyed national attention from a Wall Street Journal feature titled “Rule Breaker: In Washington, Tiny Think Tank Wields Big Stick on Regulation.” Described in the article as “the most important think tank you’ve never heard of,” Mercatus is a research, education, and outreach organization that works with scholars, policy experts, and government officials to connect academic learning and real-world practice.

People outside of Washington, D.C., may not have heard of Mercatus, but the group inspires awe in policy and lobbying groups in the capital. For example, after failing to persuade the administration on a regulatory matter, the vice president for regulation of the National Association of Manufacturers asked, “Why were they [Mercatus] more successful than we were?”

Tyler Cowen
Tyler Cowen

More than 30 researchers and scholars work for and with Mercatus. The general director is Tyler Cowen, a Harvard-trained economics professor who also teaches at the Center for the Study of Public Choice and directs the James M. Buchanan Center for Political Economy at Mason. Susan Dudley directs the center’s Regulatory Studies Program and teaches a class on regulation at George Mason’s School of Law. Using her previous work for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Management and Budget, Dudley brings academic research to bear on current regulatory issues, supervising the staff responsible for reviewing energy and environmental regulations.

The Mercatus Center attributes its regulatory success to its attention to detail and sound economic research. The scholars and staff scrutinize every detail of a new rule, analyzing cost-benefits, impact on consumers and small businesses, and alternatives. Proposed regulations are then given a grade, often below average or failing, which causes federal agencies to take heed when aware that Mercatus is reviewing their rules. At the same time, Mercatus staff manages to inject humor while evaluating weighty issues such as protection of the environment by referring to tips about rumored regulations as “UFOs.”

But the work at Mercatus is no laughing matter. Respected by scholars and others in the regulatory field, Peter Van Doren, editor of Regulation magazine, says, “Mercatus is the only academically respectable place I know that does what K Street lobbyists do”—high praise from a journal published by the libertarian Cato Institute.

Mercatus boasts many research and outreach programs that support its mission, including the Capitol Hill Campus, Government Accountability Project, Global Prosperity Initiative, and Regulatory Studies Program. The Capitol Hill Campus, a team dedicated to exploring how economic insights can point to solutions in public policy problems, recently held a panel discussion with C. Boyden Gray, former White House counsel; Kenneth Starr, former special prosecutor; Mercatus Fellow Jerry Ellig; and George Mason School of Law’s Ernest Gellhorn examining the effect of Internet wine sales and bans on direct shipment to consumers. This summer, the Social Change Project sent a team of researchers to Botswana, Romania, the Philippines, and Great Britain to study the causes of underdevelopment. Each year, Mercatus’ Government Accountability Project produces a scorecard ranking the transparency of government reporting. This year, the report was touted by Comptroller General of the United States David Walker in a briefing of agency representatives on Capitol Hill.

Mercatus is chartered under George Mason University and affiliated with the Institute for Humane Studies, the Buchanan Center, and the School of Law. For more information, see the web site.

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