‘I’d say it’s been quite considerable,” says Ed Feulner, “judging from both the friendly and critical calls that I hear on a routine basis from Capitol Hill.” Feulner, the longtime president of the Heritage Foundation, is talking about the impact of Heritage Action for America, the sister organization launched in 2010.
At the moment, there is no conservative group more disliked by House Republicans than Heritage Action. That enmity does not seem to worry Heritage Action, which is positioning itself as the bad cop among conservative activists. There is a detailed list of charges and counter-charges between Heritage Action and its Republican critics. Behind the back-and-forth is a question facing conservative activism: Is criticism of the current Republican leadership an effective method of advancing conservatism?
Feulner says that it was necessary to start Heritage Action because of the legal limits on what the Heritage Foundation — one of the oldest and largest of conservative public-policy research institutes — could do. “The basic problem was that the arguments for a free society that the think tank made could [only] get you to the ten-yard line.” The division of labor between the two groups is simple: “The Heritage Foundation makes [politicians] see the light; Heritage Action makes them feel the heat.” The activist group seeks to convert the think tank’s more than 700,000 members into a potent political force.
Few people inside or outside Heritage Action make a sharp distinction between it and the Foundation. “We see ourselves as the lobbyists for the Heritage Foundation’s policy ideas,” says Tim Chapman, the chief operating officer for Heritage Action. Like the group’s CEO, Michael Needham, Chapman did a stint as Feulner’s top aide and held other jobs at the think tank. Needham and Chapman also both have political experience. Chapman worked for Jim DeMint, the leader of the conservative anti-establishment faction in the Senate; Needham worked in Rudolph Giuliani’s presidential campaign.
In addition to the think tank and DeMint’s office, Heritage Action has tight links to the staff of the Republican Study Committee, a large group of conservatives in the House, and to the editors of RedState, a conservative activist website. (The best example: Russ Vought, Heritage Action’s political director, used to be the executive director of the RSC and writes for RedState.) The RSC’s current top staffer, Paul Teller, says of Heritage Action, “They’ve had a tremendous impact. . . . Let’s face it: the Heritage brand, folks are just going to pay attention to it more than other groups.”
Soon after Heritage Action debuted, it started a campaign to get members of the then-Democratic House to sign a discharge petition to force a vote on a bill to repeal Obamacare. It has remained active in that debate and others since the Republicans took Congress. But much of its time has been spent in the political battles over the budget. Over the summer, it advocated the view that the debt ceiling should not be raised until Congress sent the states a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, a supermajority for tax increases, and a limit on federal spending. This fall, it has opposed a stopgap bill to keep the government funded on the grounds that spending needs to drop.
But it is not these positions, which several other conservative groups also took, that have rendered Heritage Action controversial among Republicans on the Hill. What has many of them fuming is the group’s legislative scorecard, which reports how often members of Congress support its positions. They are unapologetically tough graders. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, for example, is generally considered a strong conservative, but gets only a 74 percent rating from Heritage Action. Which is two points better than Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina, who used to run the RSC. She is tied with tea-party favorite Rep. Allen West of Florida.
Needham says that he didn’t want to be like other conservative groups that “give everyone 100 percent” — an implicit shot at the American Conservative Union, which has its own scorecard. It would be “totally dishonest,” he says, to pretend that conservatives are getting everything they want out of this Congress. If the country goes down the drain, he says, he does not want people 100 years from now to look back at their ratings and think that Heritage Action blessed all the actions of Congress. A low rating “doesn’t mean you’re a bad person,” he adds, just that there’s room for improvement.