The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) is a Florida-based right-wing think tank founded in 2011. FGA founder and president Tarren Bragdon is a former state legislator from Maine. Bragdon ran the Maine Heritage Policy Center from 2008 until 2011 when he relocated to Naples, Florida. Both the Maine Heritage Policy Center (now known as the Maine Policy Institute) and the Foundation for Government Accountability are members of the State Policy Network, an alliance of state-level conservative think tanks, whom Bragdon said he is tied to “every step of the way.”
In its decade-plus of existence, the FGA has gained considerable influence among right-wing governors and state legislators by providing research and polling that advances the interests of the Republican Party. In particular, the foundation has opposed electoral reforms ensuring access to the ballot box and promoted stricter requirements for welfare programs.
The Foundation for Government Accountability receives significant funding from the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation as well as Leonard Leo’s dark money group, The 85 Fund.
The founder, president, and chief executive officer of the Foundation for Government Accountability is Tarren Bragdon. A state legislator turned right-wing activist, Bragdon served in the Maine legislature from 1996 to 2000. In 2008, Bragdon became the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center (now the Maine Policy Institute), a right-wing think tank and member of the State Policy Network. He held this position until early 2011. During his tenure as the center’s CEO, Bragdon helped pen and push through LD 1333, a controversial healthcare law that critics said would make insurance rates unaffordable for many Mainers, particularly in rural parts of the state. A review of the law’s impact by a consumer advocacy group published in 2012 found that Anthem, Maine’s largest individual health insurance company, increased premium rates for most older Mainers and small businesses, as the legislation’s critics had feared providers would do.
In 2010, the State Policy Network awarded its Thomas Roe Award to Bragdon. The award is given annually to individuals “in the state public policy movement whose achievements have greatly advanced free-market philosophy and policy solutions.” Past Thomas Roe winners include Searle Freedom Trust president Kimberly O. Dennis and the late Whitney Ball, who founded the influential right-wing donor-advised fund DonorsTrust.
In 2011, Tarren Bragdon moved from Maine to Naples, Florida, an affluent and politically conservative community on the Gulf Coast, where he set up the Foundation for Government Accountability. Upon moving to Florida, Bragdon told a local newspaper that he decided to leave his home state to “have a policy impact on a bigger stage.” He also credited the ample donor base in Naples for informing his decision to relocate there.
In 2011, the year it was founded, the Foundation for Government Accountability had an annual revenue of $212,000. Today, the foundation takes in millions of dollars in contributions every year. In 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, the group’s take of donations amounted to more than $13 million. Most of this haul came from the same right-wing charities, donor-advised funds, and dark money groups that have underwritten the conservative movement over the past several decades. This includes the 85 Fund, a nonprofit linked to the conservative activist Leonard Leo, which in 2020, gave $2 million to the foundation.
The Ed Uihlein Family Foundation is the charitable foundation of billionaire couple Dick and Liz Uihlein. They founded the shipping supply company Uline – one America’s largest private companies, with an estimated value of $4 billion. The Uihleins have been characterized as “lesser known” political megadonors by outlets such as Forbes. According to the New York Times, the Uihleins have a reputation for backing political candidates and causes that align with their “anti-union, free-market and small-government views.” Early in their rise to prominence, a watchdog described Dick Uihlein by stating: “Some (donors) want the party to do well, and some want to push the party in one direction or another. Uihlein is clearly in that smaller camp.”
Between 2020 and 2021, the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation granted $6.6 million to the Foundation for Government Accountability, accounting for more than 28% of the group’s total take of contributions during that period.
Donors Trust and its affiliate organization, Donors Capital Fund, are two of the most influential conservative organizations in contemporary American politics. In 2013, Mother Jones dubbed Donors Trust the “dark-money ATM of the right.” Donors Trust was founded by a pair of libertarian activists who wanted to give wealthy donors the ability to anonymously donate to conservative causes without any of the potential inter-generational conflicts of family foundations. By giving their money to Donors Trust, donors could influence American politics long after their death and without the possibility that their heirs might decide to support other causes instead. In 2020 alone, Donors Trust distributed over $182 million in grants.
Between 2020 and 2021, the donor-advised fund Donors Trust granted the Foundation for Government Accountability nearly $3.3 million, representing nearly 14% of the organization’s haul of contributions during that period.
The 85 Fund (formerly known as the Judicial Education Project) is a 501(c)(3) organization that operates within Leonard Leo’s network of conservative nonprofits aiming to influence the federal judiciary and the American political system more broadly. In 2020, the 85 Fund granted $2 million to the Foundation for Government Accountability, representing more than 19% of the group’s intake of contributions that year.
The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Bradley Impact Fund are two major right-wing donor groups funded by a 19th-century industrial fortune. Since its inception, the Bradley Foundation has given away more than $1 billion, much of it to conservative causes related to civil rights, voting rights, welfare, education, climate change, and labor, among other issue areas. Between 2020 and 2021, the group granted $1,000,000 to the Foundation for Government Accountability.
The Foundation for Government Accountability has been a member of the State Policy Network since its founding in 2011. The State Policy Network is an alliance of over one hundred right-wing advocacy organizations, think tanks, and funding groups seeking to influence policy at the state level. SPN has significant financial ties to the donor-advised funds DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, as well as the Searle Freedom Trust, among other prominent right-wing charities and family foundations.
Since 2021, the Foundation for Government Accountability has filed amicus curiae briefs in a handful of consequential Supreme Court cases. In Biden v. Nebraska, the legal challenge to President Biden’s student debt relief program, FGA argued, in part, that debt forgiveness was “inherently unfair” to Americans who didn’t attend college. The conservative justices on the court struck down the program in June 2023.
FGA has filed two amicus briefs during the 2023-2024 term. In Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) v. Community Financial Services Association of America, Limited, a trade association tied to the payday lending industry, is attempting to upend the CFPB, a federal consumer protection agency, by removing its existing funding stream. FGA argued in its amicus that Congress violated the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause in the way it chose to fund the CFPB—an argument that even the conservative justices seemed to find dubious.
FGA has also submitted an amicus brief in Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo. This case could result in the overruling of the Chevron doctrine, a longstanding principle in administration law that grants federal agencies leeway in promulgating regulations based on federal statutes. FGA argued in favor of overturning Chevron, a move that could strip numerous environmental protections, among a host of other federal rules.
In June 2023, the investigative journalistic project Documented revealed that the Foundation for Government Accountability and its lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project, were behind efforts to make it more difficult to pass citizen ballot initiatives in several states. In Ohio, the Opportunity Solutions Project testified on multiple occasions before the state legislature in favor of a law raising the threshold for passing a ballot initiative to a 60% supermajority. The new threshold was widely seen as part of a strategy to hobble the abortion rights movement, which could seek to expand access to abortion care through a citizen-led constitutional amendment. Ohio voters rejected the proposal by a split of thirteen percentage points in August 2023.
The foundation’s lobbying arm supported similar legislation in Arkansas and South Dakota that would impose a supermajority requirement on ballot initiatives. Voters in both states rejected the requirements by double digits.
The Opportunity Solutions Project also threw its support behind multiple proposals erecting barriers to the ballot initiative process in Missouri in 2022 and 2023. One measure would raise the threshold for approving constitutional amendments by ballot initiative to 57%. The Missouri House passed the bill in May 2023. The Missouri Senate has yet to take up the resolution as of September 2023.
The Foundation for Government Accountability opposes ranked-choice voting, an electoral system that allows voters to rank candidates by preference on their ballots. Although relatively uncommon in American elections, Maine and Alaska have adopted the system in recent years.
The Foundation for Government Accountability voiced its opposition to ranked-choice voting for the first time in September 2022—a day after the Republican Party lost Alaska’s at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to Democrat Mary Peltola under the system. Since then, FGA has prioritized banning ranked-choice voting in other Republican-majority states. The investigative nonprofit Documented reported in May 2023 that FGA testified in favor of ranked-choice voting bans in South Dakota, Texas, Idaho, and Montana. The group has also reportedly undermined bipartisan efforts for ranked choice voting reforms in Georgia and Virginia, according to Documented.
FGA president Tarren Bragdon has long opposed Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. Through the Foundation for Government Accountability, he has parlayed his opposition into a series of victories against the federal welfare program. In 2020, Jonathan Bechtle, the chief operating officer and general counsel at FGA, told the ALEC annual convention that his organization had prevented Medicaid expansion in thirteen states, including Kansas and Wyoming.
The foundation’s support of higher thresholds for ballot initiatives is tied, in part, to its opposition to Medicaid expansion. In 2018, Idaho expanded Medicaid by a ballot initiative that passed with 60.6% of voters approving the measure. Voters in Florida, Wyoming, and Mississippi have also organized themselves to put the question to the electorate in recent years.
The Foundation for Government Accountability states on its website that it supports universal work requirements for recipients of food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid, housing assistance, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). In 2018, Opportunity Solutions Project, the lobbying arm of the FGA, lobbied congressional Republicans to include work requirements for SNAP recipients in the farm bill. The legislation passed the House of Representatives but died in the Senate. The following year, the Trump administration finalized a rule imposing the work requirement.
According to the online news publication Sludge and NBC News, several states, including Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Utah, and West Virginia have imposed work requirements on SNAP recipients. Some of these states used the foundation’s model legislation. In 2022, FGA successfully lobbied the Kansas Legislature to override Democratic governor Laura Kelly’s veto of a bill increasing work requirements for food assistance recipients between the ages of 18 and 49. The following year, Opportunity Solutions Project provided the only supporting testimony for a bill that would have increased work requirements for older food stamp recipients in Kansas as well. Democratic governor Laura Kelly vetoed the legislation.
In 2023, House Republicans used the threat of the United States’ first-ever debt default to exact work requirements for older SNAP recipients. The Foundation for Government Accountability praised the changes.
In April 2023, The Washington Post reported that the Foundation for Government Accountability and its lobbying arm the Opportunity Solutions Project had helped draft and revise legislation eliminating work permit requirements for certain working minors. In Arkansas, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders credited the foundation for writing a law that eliminated the requirement for children under 16 to prove their age before gaining employment. Critics of the law said the changes would make it easier for employers to flout child labor laws and exploit children.
The Post reported that the foundation had been behind similar efforts in Missouri and Iowa.
Between 2020 and 2021, the Foundation for Government Accountability reported paying $400,000 to CRC Advisors, a public relations firm launched by Leonard Leo and his longtime associate, Greg Mueller. CRC Advisors evolved out of Mueller’s existing communications firm, Creative Response Concepts, which formerly assumed names such as CRC Public Relations and CRC Strategies. Mueller remains CEO of CRC Advisors. The company’s president is Jonathan Bunch, a former vice president at the Federalist Society who was described as Leo’s “right-hand man” at the organization.