Heritage Foundation Becomes a Handful for the GOP


Think Tank Makes Waves by Challenging Establishment Republicans

Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint.

For four decades, the Heritage Foundation was a stately think tank that sought to define conservative thinking for Republicans.

Now, in one of the more significant transformations in the capital’s intellectual firmament, it has become an activist political operation trying to alter the course of conservative thinking. It now challenges establishment Republican leaders as much as it informs them, making waves in the process.

The think tank has long laid the framework for Republican efforts to cut spending and taxes, deregulate sectors of the economy and overhaul large parts of the federal government, including education programs, welfare, Medicare and Social Security. The group also has been vocal on social issues, such as speaking out against same-sex marriage.

But since the foundation in 2010 created Heritage Action for America, a lobbying arm designed to pressure Congress, it has clashed with Republican congressional leaders over bills to fund the government and extend Bush-era tax rates. On immigration, the foundation has steered away from its past approach of emphasizing the economic advantages of allowing more potential workers into the U.S.

The latest dust-up arose earlier this month when Heritage Action opposed a revised version of the farm bill. Some Republicans were incensed because GOP leaders had bowed to the group’s demand to strip out money for food stamps and other nutritional programs.

“We went into battle thinking they were on our side, and we find out they’re shooting at us,” said Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.), a conservative who also lobbied to split food stamps into a separate measure in hopes of enacting changes to the programs. He said Heritage Action’s refusal to back the farm bill even after food-stamp funding was removed “undermines the credibility of the organization.”

Behind much of the lobbying group’s heft are two tectonic shifts in American politics: conservative activists’ growing distrust of GOP leaders and the technological innovations that allow well-organized groups and individual politicians to connect directly with pockets of supporters and donors.

“Influence is being dispersed,” said Heritage Action Chief Executive Mike Needham. “The reason we’re controversial is that people don’t like change.”

Heritage Action says it has 61,000 donors but doesn’t disclose sources of its funding. It raised $5.9 million in 2012, according to figures provided by the group, a significant uptick from 2011 but still a sliver of the $82 million its parent organization raised. A number of prominent conservatives sit on the Heritage Foundation board, including billionaires Steve Forbes and Richard Mellon Scaife.

This isn’t the first time the foundation has sparred with GOP leaders. It was born in 1973 in part to counter what its founders viewed as then-President Richard Nixon’s drift to the political center, and it notably clashed with Republicans during last decade’s enactment of the Medicare prescription-drug benefit.

The establishment of Heritage Action coincided with a generational shift at the foundation after former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who had long waged policy and election battles intended to push the Republican Party to the political right, took the foundation’s reins earlier this year from one of its founders.

Unlike Club for Growth, a small-government advocacy group that built its reputation by wading into GOP primaries to knock off incumbent Republicans it sees as insufficiently conservative, Heritage Action seeks primarily to influence legislation. The group has recruited 5,000 local activists, known as “sentinels,” in 160 key congressional districts and claims an email list of 400,000 supporters. Hundreds of those activists dial in to weekly Monday night conference calls run from the fourth floor of the foundation’s headquarters, where they are often warned about coming legislation frequently authored by House Republicans.

Aides rank each member of Congress based on his or her votes on key measures, alerting supporters about each important roll-call vote.

“I don’t even look at those scores from Heritage and Club for Growth,” said Rep. Ted Yoho (R., Fla.), a conservative who regularly votes against party leaders. He said the combined farm bill that Heritage Action helped kill included a large set of conservative provisions, ending the direct-payment program to farmers and cutting $20 billion over 10 years from food stamps.

“They’re overlooking what we’re here for,” he said, of these outside conservative groups. “We’re here to legislate.”

Mr. Needham, however, sees his group as an extension of the Heritage Foundation’s legacy of challenging orthodoxy.

“There’s a huge swath of the American people who feel totally unrepresented in Washington, and you have two political parties that are equally part of the problem,” Mr. Needham said. “We need to have a political party that steps up and says, ‘Look, it’s true, the fix is in in Washington and it might be difficult, but we’re going to be the party for you.’ ”

House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R., Okla.), an author of the farm bill, accused Heritage Action of criticizing Republicans just to raise money—a complaint echoed by other GOP lawmakers. Critics contend that Heritage Action and other groups pick policy fights in order to tap a conservative donor base that remains skeptical of party leaders, and that it relishes these internecine battles.

Mr. Needham takes umbrage at that complaint. “It’s offensive, the notion that in Washington, D.C., a politician is allowed to go to Charlie Palmer’s steakhouse and collect $10,000 [political action committee] checks, but if 50,000 Americans around the country want to write $25 checks, something untoward has happened,” he said.

Up next is the battle over immigration. Heritage Action has taken a hard line against any bill that legalizes people already in the country illegally. It also has been a leading promoter of the idea that legalizing illegal immigrants carries long-term costs to taxpayers—a position at odds with that of the Congressional Budget Office, which said the bill overall would spark economic growth and trim the deficit.

Parting Ways

The Heritage Foundation or its lobbying arm have pressed congressional Republicans on several major measures:

Immigration The foundation opposed the immigration overhaul that passed the Senate, with the backing of many Republicans, because it grants legal status to people in the country illegally.

Farm bill Heritage Action helped force GOP leaders to split food stamps and other nutritional programs from a broader measure to reauthorize agricultural programs, only to oppose the resulting measure.

Boehner tax plan The group helped scuttle an 11th-hour tax proposal offered late last year by Speaker John Boehner that would have rolled back Bush-era tax rates for all Americans who make more than $1 million.

A version of this article appeared July 23, 2013, on  The Wall Street Journal.

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