They do it with the gloss of research, and play a critical and often underappreciated role in multilevel lobbying campaigns, backed by corporate lobbyists and labor unions, with a potential payoff that can be in the millions of dollars for the interests they represent.
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"It is the way of Washington now — and that is unfortunate," said John Weaver, a Republican political consultant who has helped run several presidential campaigns. "Because if it's not dishonest, it's at least disingenuous."
In this case, the policy dispute is over whether increasing the minimum wage by nearly 40 percent to $10.10 an hour by next year would reduce poverty or further it.
Even if the legislation never passes — and it is unlikely to, given the political divide in Congress — millions of dollars will be spent this year on lobbying firms, nonprofit research organizations and advertising campaigns, as industry groups like the National Restaurant Association and the National Retail Federation try to bury it. Liberal groups, in turn, will be spending lots of money as they try to make the debate a political issue for the midterm elections.
The left has its own prominent groups, like the Center for American Progress and the Economic Policy Institute, whose donors include nearly 20 labor unions, and whose reports, with their own aura of objectivity, consistently conclude that raising the minimum wage makes good economic sense. But none has played such a prominent and multifaceted role in recent months as the conservative Employment Policies Institute.
The Employment Policies Institute, founded two decades ago, is led by the advertising and public relations executive Richard B. Berman, who has made millions of dollars in Washington by taking up the causes of corporate America. He has repeatedly created official-sounding nonprofit groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom that have challenged limits like the ban on indoor smoking and the push to restrict calorie counts in fast foods.
(Read more: Minimum wage: There's no shame in starting at the bottom)
In recent months, Mr. Berman's firm has taken out full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and plastered a Metro station near the Capitol with advertisements, including one featuring a giant photograph of Representative Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who is a proponent of the minimum wage increase, that read, "Teens Who Can't Find a Job Should Blame Her."
These messages, also promoted on websites operated by Mr. Berman's firm, including minimumwage.com, instruct anyone skeptical about the arguments to consult the reports prepared by the Employment Policies Institute, most often described only as a "nonprofit research organization."
But the dividing line between the institute and Mr. Berman's firm was difficult to discern during two visits last week to the eighth-floor office at 1090 Vermont Avenue, a building near the White House that is the headquarters for both.
The sign at the entrance is for Berman and Company, as the Employment Policies Institute has no employees of its own. Mr. Berman's for-profit advertising firm, instead, "bills" the nonprofit institute for the services his employees provide to the institute. This arrangement effectively means that the nonprofit is a moneymaking venture for Mr. Berman, whose advertising firm was paid $1.1 million by the institute in 2012, according to its tax returns, or 44 percent of its total budget, with most of the rest of the money used to buy advertisements.
Disclosure reports filed by individual foundations show that its donors in recent years have included the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a longtime supporter of conservative causes. Mr. Berman and Mr. Saltsman would not identify other donors, but did say they included the restaurant industry. But its tax return shows that the $2.4 million in listed donations received in 2012 came from only 11 contributors, who wrote checks for as much as $500,000 apiece.
Mr. Saltsman, 30, who has an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Michigan and previously worked for the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, drafts dozens of letters to the editor and opinion articles for newspapers, arguing that increasing the minimum wage would hurt more than help. Other special institute projects included a recent survey of lawmakers who support the minimum wage increase asking if they pay their interns — a report The Daily Caller, a conservative online publication, then released, calling out the lawmakers with unpaid interns as hypocrites.