When John Boehner announced he was resigning as Speaker of the House, nobody was more delighted than an arm of D.C.’s most powerful conservative think tank.
Heritage Action, a branch of the Heritage Foundation, immediately chalked it up as a cause for celebration.
“Americans deserve a Congress that fights for opportunity for all and favoritism to none,” said the group’s head, Michael Needham. “Too often, Speaker Boehner has stood in the way. Today’s announcement is a sign that the voice of the American people is breaking through in Washington.”
But even without Boehner, the reshuffled leadership will still have to grapple with Heritage Action. And if conversations with longtime members are any indicator, they may deal with it by shunning both that group and its parent organization, the Heritage Foundation.
“When I arrived on Capitol Hill, The Heritage Foundation was an invaluable partner and a trusted source for conservative policy for my boss,” emailed a former senior Republican leadership staffer. “When I left Capitol Hill the relationship was toxic and even hostile, and members were searching for anyone to fill that vacuum. There is no longer any difference between The Heritage Foundation and the Action political shop. They are one.”
The Heritage Foundation—founded in 1973—has grown in tandem with the conservative movement. Over its forty-odd years of existence, it’s held the ear of every Republican president and had an outsize presence on Capitol Hill, doing much of the intellectual heavy-lifting behind conservative policymaking. The group is a nonprofit 501(c)3, which means it can’t lobby for specific pieces of legislation or endorse individual politicians. It isn’t the only prominent policy shop in D.C., obviously. But its longevity, history, and Capitol Hill clout have long distinguished it from the rest of the policymaking pack.
But the foundation’s heads weren’t satisfied with advising in the abstract about policy ideas and research. They wanted more: They wanted to land punches. So in 2010, they created a sister organization, Heritage Action, to be its lobbying arm.
Heritage Action started needling Congressional Republican leadership almost immediately, but as the Tea Party infiltrated the Republican ranks, it grew more powerful. Its animus for RINOs channeled Tea Partiers’ ire, and it built a powerful grassroots support network. Unlike many other lobbying groups, Heritage Action paired said network with policy wonkiness, and aimed it squarely at Establishment Republicans.
Like many other outside groups, they developed a score card to grade members of Congress. In many Tea Party circles, that score card is the gold standard for conservatism. The influential conservative site Red State embeds Heritage Action scores whenever it mentions members of Congress. Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee both have perfect 100 percent marks, while Rep. Kevin McCarthy has a measly 61 percent, and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise clocks in at just 60 percent.
When Heritage Action announces a key vote, it often encourages its backers to call or email their representatives and register their support for the group’s stance. In some cases, the organization runs ads criticizing members who break with it.
Critics charge the organization has baited-and-switched Congressional Republicans—pushing them to craft the Farm Bill differently and, when they complied, still key-voting against it, for instance—as well as protracting the politically damaging shutdown and lobbing a surprise “no” key-vote against a free-trade provision many expected them to support given the foundation’s historic pro-free trade stance.
Detractors use the word “coercive” to describe this approach. Which—given its willingness to lob critical ads at Republican members who don’t toe its line—seems reasonable. It was especially critical of Hill Republicans who didn’t favor the tactics that led to the partial government shutdown in 2013.
They spent more than half a million dollars running ads that pushed Republicans to get on board with the shutdown effort. Conservative Rep. Matt Salmon told Time that Tea Party members “probably wouldn’t have gotten it done” without their help. That, naturally, won them a host of enemies among Capitol Hill Republicans.
Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler shrugged off the complaints.
“Members don’t complain about uninfluential organizations,” he said.
But some members say the growing tension between Heritage’s lobbying arm and House Republicans has damaged the Heritage Foundation as a whole—with concrete consequences. They say Heritage’s scholars—the analysts who spend more time writing white papers than crafting activist-friendly email blasts—are invited to testify on Capitol Hill in fewer numbers because of the animosity. Instead, they say members increasingly turn to scholars from other groups, especially the American Enterprise Institute.
“If you’ve got a low Heritage Action score, then why are you going to call in Heritage Action people to help you write policy?” said Rep. Tom Cole, who scores a whopping 42 percent on their score card. (In contrast, another prominent conservative group, the American Conservative Union, gives Cole an 84.6 percent lifetime score on their card).
By our count, Heritage Foundation scholars have testified at congressional hearings 18 times this year, so far. A spokesperson for AEI said that group’s scholars have testified before congressional hearings 34 times in the same window.
Wesley Denton, a spokesman for Heritage, said that its sister organization had nothing to do with the clout of their experts.
“Heritage Action is a separate sister organization created in 2010 to lobby for conservative policy solutions,” said Denton. “Their policy conversations with members of Congress often generate interest in the work of Heritage Foundation policy experts, and we have other avenues such as our Policy Promotion department which conducts educational programs for staff and members. Also, congressional offices often contact our scholars directly.”
Members say the fact that AEI scholars got nearly twice as many invites this year to testify as Heritage scholars is no a fluke.
“A lot of committees that used to rely heavily on the intellectual output of the Heritage Foundation are much more reluctant to do it now,” Cole said. “It quite often divides their committees—they’ve got members who feel like they’ve been targeted by Heritage Action.”
Rep. John Kline, who chairs the House Education Committee and has a 57 percent score on their score card (ACU gives him a 91 percent) said Heritage Action has had a substantial and negative impact on the foundation as a whole.
“I think Heritage Action has taken away from the Heritage Foundation’s position, not just as the premier conservative think tank, but the premier think tank,” he said.
Kline concurred that that animosity means committee chairs may be less likely to bring in Heritage people.
“They get involved in actions that hurt members, colleagues, and so there is not that collegial nature,” he said.
Rep. Mike Simpson, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee who scores 45 percent, (ACU score of 81 percent) said some members who used to revere the think tank now blow off Heritage entirely.
“I frankly don’t want to talk to them,” he said.
And Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican from a purple district who party leaders tried to coax into running for Senate, was more blunt.
“I was very active in Heritage until they formed Heritage Action,” he said. “I just feel that that organization has completely undermined the credibility of the foundation.”
“I think that they’ve lost their credibility as an organization,” he continued. “As far as I’m concerned, Heritage Action is just a fundraising arm for itself and so I completely boycott Heritage as a result of it.”
But the closer you get to the tea party, the fewer objections you hear.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a conservative South Carolinian, said he hadn’t observed any change in the foundation’s Capitol Hill presence since the rise of Heritage Action (in fairness, he’s only in his third term). And Rep. Mark Sanford, another conservative from the Palmetto State, said that he didn’t take issue with the group’s strategy shift.
“Heritage today evokes a stronger emotional response than was the case before,” he said. “Now, not so much so. The gloves have come off, and depending on one’s voting record and perspective, you either love ’em or hate ’em.”
I asked if he would say he loves ’em.
“Depends on the vote!” he replied, chuckling.