How Conservatives Lost 2015

Conservatives on the Hill talked a big game last year but ended up losing almost every big legislative battle.

01.02.16 6:00 AM ET

Establishment Republicans had a miserable year on the campaign trail. But on Capitol Hill—far from Make America Great Again hats—they cleaned up.

Conservatives on the Hill, emboldened by Republican gains in the midterm elections, followed the battle cry of the Heritage Foundation’s powerful lobbying arm against their Establishment overlords. But over the past year, they’ve faced defeat after biting defeat.

Most of these wins were on wonky, unsexy issues—like funding for infrastructure construction and rules about how the president can negotiate trade agreements. Not exactly the most scintillating stuff.

But while these individual debates may not have galvanized national attention, they were hugely important to Tea Party-friendly conservative groups. And the cumulative losses these groups face suggest that their clout may have flatlined or they overplayed their hands.

Heritage Action, the lobbying wing of the powerful Heritage Foundation think tank, got a major shellacking in March during the fight over “Doc Fix” legislation, which overhauled how doctors who treat Medicare patients get reimbursed. Heritage Action key-voted against the bill, citing concerns that it would grow the national debt by half a trillion dollars over 20 years. Despite the group’s protestations, though, the Doc Fix passed the House with just 37 no votes (only four of whom were Democrats). In the Senate, just eight members voted against it.

It was a tough loss for Heritage Action. And many more followed. Trade legislation drew significant opposition from the group in June, as members fought over whether Congress would give the president extra authority to negotiate trade deals, allocate funds to support Americans who lose jobs due to said deals. While issues like Trade Adjustment Assistance and Trade Promotion Authority may not roll off the tongue of your average Tea Partier (or, well, your average human being), Heritage Action’s key-voting against trade provisions helped energize grassroots conservative opposition. That, combined with Breitbart News and the Drudge Report’s liberal (and frantic) use of the “Obamatrade” moniker stoked opposition on the right.

And all those guys lost.

Congress gave the president additional authority to negotiate trade deals and allocated more funds to help Americans who lose jobs to overseas competition, and the president announced he plans to have the U.S. sign on to the new Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal.

“Is Anyone Still Scared of Heritage Action?” wondered National Journal. It was a good question.

And it was a question that arose again in July, when legislation came up to change funding for the National Institutes of Health and the FDA. The bill was called the 21st Century Cures Act, and, well, was complicated. Heritage Action opposed it adamantly, for comparably complicated reasons. If NIH funding mechanisms get your juices flowing, check out Heritage Action’s release explaining its stance. If not, just rest assured that it was a big deal for the group, and the group lost. Seventy-seven House members voted against the bill, 70 of whom were Republicans.

And, of course, there’s perhaps the unsexiest issue of all: the highway bill! Next time you’re trying to get out of an unpleasant conversation, just bring up infrastructure funding and see what happens. The highway bill allowed more than $300 billion for transportation spending, and it reauthorized the Export-Import Bank—a program that gives loans to U.S. businesses that have overseas commerce, and that conservatives have long criticized as corporate welfare. Heritage Action’s denunciation of the bill said the highway projects were funded with “almost exclusively with embarrassing budget gimmicks.”

The Ex-Im bank’s funding expired this summer, and Congress couldn’t get it reauthorized—due in large part to conservative opposition—until the Highway Bill came up.

“Ending this bank was a major blow to the culture of crony capitalism festering in Washington,” said Heritage Action’s statement, “and reviving it now damages the conservative movement and the credibility of efforts to rid the federal government of favoritism for special interests.”

The president signed the bill early in December. 

But there was one last loss to be felt: the year-end omnibus spending bill—a legislative package full of the kind of spending projects that make conservatives want to scratch their eyeballs out, including funding for Planned Parenthood. Heritage Action, naturally, key-voted against it. And the House, as was natural in 2015, passed it anyway.

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It wasn’t always this way. During the 2013 government shutdown, Heritage Action exerted enormous influence to pressure members of Congress against supporting any funding for the Affordable Care Act. And members shivered at the prospect of facing primary challengers who would attack them over low marks on the group’s vote scorecard. But now, much of that fear seems to have abated.

“When Heritage key-votes against a bill now, it is almost guaranteed to get less conservative, and guaranteed to pass both chambers and become law,” said one former Republican House leadership staffer. “They have reverse Midas touch.”

Heritage Action didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story.