Think of Heritage Action as the Clark Kent of the conservative think tank world — as buttoned-down and statistics-laden as can be, but when the nemesis (Democrats! Liberals! Wishy-washy Republicans!) come into sight, the glasses come off and the lobbying muscles flex.
“Fiscal cliff” — ZAP!
Higher taxes — WHAM!
Deficit spending — KA-POW!
The thrills — and opportunities for heroics — seem greatest when disaster is at hand. Or at least that’s how Mike Needham likes to look at it.
The 31-year-old chief executive of Heritage Action — the lobbying arm of the storied Heritage Foundation — senses victory where others see defeat.
Sure, you could interpret the passage of the Jan 1. fiscal cliff deal as a crushing loss for conservatives, who were pained to see Republicans vote for their first tax increase in more than two decades. But flip the script, Needham urges, and you’ll see that only 85 House Republicans supported the deal; 151 of them voted against it.
“That’s a whole lot of Republicans who kept their purity on the tax issue,” Needham explains. He’s as confident as ever that his group will compel conservatives to hold firm in the next stage of the fiscal fight. Needham will have a partner in former senator Jim DeMint, the conservative firebrand from South Carolina who’s set to become president of the Heritage Foundation in April.
As with DeMint, there’s little that animates Heritage Action more than being in the opposition, where an honorable defeat will always trump a watered-down compromise. Needham’s group has a distinct way to convince itself and others of its rectitude: reams of data and research from the most visible and well-funded think tank on the right. A willingness to go to the brink doesn’t hurt, either.
While some of its compatriots have reconsidered their hardline stances since President Obama’s reelection — even Grover Norquist gave the GOP a hall pass on the fiscal cliff’s tax hike — Heritage Action has retrenched. On Wednesday, House Republicans backed down from the debt-ceiling standoff and voted to suspend it for three months without offsetting spending cuts. But Heritage Action has already settled on the next crisis point to use as leverage: rallying, cajoling, and shaming lawmakers to commit to a budget that balances within 10 years. And here, in part, is why Heritage Action calls itself the “new fangs” on the Heritage “beast”: It has no qualms about holding conservative members accountable to their promises — even if it risks a government shutdown.
Heritage Action is reaching out to its allies on Capitol Hill — some of the most conservative members of Congress, who fear becoming increasingly isolated if more Republicans choose to ally themselves with Democrats. “Heritage is really the only group that’s gotten down into the trenches,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.).
“They’re very knowledgeable about identifying pieces of legislation or bills that Republicans might support but conservatives would not,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), who spearheaded a failed revolt this month against reelecting John Boehner (R-Ohio) as speaker.
“I’ve met with [Needham] more times than we could count,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a tea party favorite. And Heritage Action is starting to build a broader following among grass-roots leaders as well.
“As far as organizations go in Washington, they have a lot of street cred,” says Erick Erickson, editor of the influential conservative Web site RedState.com. “They have the ability moving forward to probably be the most significant voice on the right as far as politically active groups go.”
Reaction to ‘Obamacare’
Every monolith has a creation story, and the Heritage Foundation’s has become part of Washington lore: In 1971, Ed Feulner and Paul Weyrich, then congressional staffers, discovered that the American Enterprise Institute had delayed a report defending supersonic transport aircraft — precisely because the Senate was debating it, and AEI didn’t want to get its hands dirty in the politics.
Funding for the aircraft ultimately failed in the Senate, and Feulner and Weyrich became convinced that right-thinking conservatives on Capitol Hill needed better backup. When the Heritage Foundation launched in 1973, it aimed to insert itself directly into the day-to-day political fights on Capitol Hill. Heritage pioneered the use of bullet-pointed memos that passed the “briefcase test” — concise enough that lawmakers could read them from the walk from their offices to the Capitol building.
The approach would soon pay big dividends: President Ronald Reagan handed out the Heritage Foundation’s government-wide recommendations to his Cabinet, calling them a “blueprint to run the administration,” Weyrich is quoted as saying in “Think Tanks in America,” a 2012 book by sociologist Thomas Medvetz. The foundation also helped craft welfare reform under President Bill Clinton.
But by the time Needham arrived in 2004, fresh out of Williams College, some outside conservatives were beginning to wonder whether the group was losing touch. “During the Bush administration, some would even say the Heritage Foundation itself really became no different from the Republican Party,” says Erickson.
Meanwhile, the Beltway debate was only growing louder, more frenetic and more crowded. In the summer of 2003, the Heritage Foundation gained its first true rival on the left as John Podesta, Clinton’s former chief of staff, launched his Center for American Progress — a big, bold progressive think tank with deep pockets and close ties to Democratic Party bigwigs. But there was a key difference: Podesta attached a political advocacy group to the traditional 501(c)3 501(3)c think tank.
The legal distinction was critical: A tax-exempt 501(c)3 can educate legislators about broad-based issues, but it can’t devote more than a fraction of its time to lobbying policymakers on specific legislation; it’s also prohibited from participating in political campaigns. Such rules wouldn’t apply to Podesta’s new 501(c)4, the CAP Action Fund.
Over the next decade, Feulner saw CAP become a powerhouse on the left, boosted by a 501(c)4 microphone that was unapologetically brash and quick to react. Projects like their politics blog ThinkProgress pumped out quality opposition research against all things Republican at a prodigious rate.
While leaders at the Heritage Foundation grudgingly admired CAP’s tactics from afar, it wasn’t until 2010 with the advent of the tea party that Heritage decided to set up its own 501(c)4. The think tank always prided itself on its grass-roots following. But the Obama administration also put Heritage in an awkward spot with its own, conservative base: The president’s health-care reform bill included an individual mandate to buy insurance — a policy that Heritage scholar Stuart Butler first helped popularize in the 1990s. Butler disavowed “Obamacare’s” individual mandate, arguing that it went further than his original proposal and explained that new research had brought about a change of heart. Heritage stood firmly opposed to Obamacare.
“We took a moment at Heritage to realize that we had to do more,” says Tim Chapman, a former DeMint speechwriter who’s now the No. #2 at Heritage Action. “We had to find a way to get involved in power politics.”
Within weeks of the March 2010 passage of Obamacare, that transformation was well underway: Heritage Action launched that April, led by Needham and Chapman. That August, Butler — one of Heritage’s most respected scholars, with a strong reputation for collaborating across the ideological spectrum — was replaced as domestic policy director by David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s combative former chief of staff. Heritage says Butler, who now heads a new policy research center at Heritage, had planned the move for years; the foundation says there hasn’t been any policy shift under Addington.
When the Heritage Foundation announced in December that DeMint would become its next president, it wasn’t so much a sea change as the continuation of the think tank’s evolution.
Sharpening the elbows
There’s been no shortage of skeptics who wonder whether the Heritage Foundation has gone too far. “I think it’s pretty awful, because you’ve got this huge electoral magnet pulling members off to the right,” says Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the AEI. “It’s a challenge for the pragmatic community.”
The Heritage Foundation denies that its new lobbying arm has had any effect on the direction of its research, and DeMint vows to keep it that way. “The key for me is to make sure that the Heritage Foundation is not politicized in any way,” he says. “There is never going to be any policy issued by the Heritage Foundation directed for the benefit of some political goal.”
In fact, Heritage Action wears much of the outside criticism as a badge of pride. When the group first launched its scorecard giving every legislator a conservative rating, some Republicans were livid about getting low marks. One member — the group declines to specify whom — even summoned Needham, Chapman and Feulner to his office to explain his 77 percent rating. “Well, Mr. Congressman, the reason you have 77 percent is because you got 23 percent of the votes wrong,” Needham told him, as Chapman recalls. (DeMint got a 99 percent rating.)
Such friction with the Republican establishment has helped Heritage Action gain a bigger following among conservative activists just as internal turmoil has torn apart the tea party’s most prominent institutions. FreedomWorks — formerly run by Dick Armey — is in disarray. Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, left his own group. Meanwhile, many Beltway institutions have dismissed the tea party movement as too far out of the mainstream.
Heritage Action, by contrast, has given such activists a new sense of legitimacy and an institutional base. “If you try to debate an issue and you cite as your source Heritage Action, it gives you instant credibility,” says Ginny Quaglia, a 58-year-old retiree from Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., who works with one of Heritage Action’s many state-based affiliates and is also involved with local tea party groups.
Heritage Action’s allies in Congress similarly believe say the group adds institutional heft and sharp elbows to their own causes.
“The distinction with Heritage is that it’s Heritage,” says Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), former chair of the Republican Study Committee. When the group started bombarding Congress with phone calls, e-mails and text messages to defeat Boehner’s plan on the fiscal cliff, former representative Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio) recalls telling his colleagues, “Uh-oh, this doesn’t look so good for the home team.” Boehner’s proposal failed thanks to defections from conservative Republicans, a rare and embarrassing defeat for the speaker.
Heritage Action is still a relatively small operation, raising $4.6 million in contributions and grants in 2011 compared with the Heritage Foundation’s $66 million, and it dipped only a toe into a handful of 2012 races. (Neither makes their donors public, but both groups say they are supported by thousands of small donors. Medvetz’s analysis shows the Heritage Foundation has also historically received major contributions from a handful of individuals.)
Both groups are expected to profit from Heritage’s political turn. “As a consumer, I’m going to be much more likely to financially support Heritage because it’s Heritage Action. I can see a return on my investment — it’s real,” says South Carolina’s Mulvaney.
But Heritage is digging its heels in at the very moment that some Republicans are rethinking their hard-line stance. While Heritage Action was urging Republicans to embrace the debt-ceiling fight head on — citing the foundation’s analysis that breaching it doesn’t mean default — even the Americans for Prosperity, which was co-founded by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, cautioned against fixating on the issue.
Liberals, for their part, believe that Heritage’s hard-right positions will only alienate more moderate Republicans and push them toward compromise with Democrats. “I hope they stay on that path,” CAP’s Podesta says. “Progressive electoral and policy success will be aided by keeping the tea party flame going.”
The bespectacled Needham seems unfazed. “We see ourselves as being involved in a long game. And the long game is to make sure politicians feel pain for voting for special interests,” he says. “Not just on the big votes, but on the small ones, too.”