Scoring a new activist group
‘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.
Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, who defeated a Democratic incumbent in 2010, got a 59 percent from the group. She was docked points for failing to co-sponsor four pieces of legislation Heritage Action especially favors, and for not signing a letter to the House Republican leadership urging them to rule out a debt-ceiling plan that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had floated.
She also cast twelve votes with which the organization disagreed. One concerned patent law. Six were discrete spending cuts she voted against. The other five votes were part of the year’s overall budget debates. Once in the spring and once in the fall, she voted to continue funding the government when Heritage Action believed Republicans should hold out for more cuts. (The spring vote concerned a temporary measure to buy time for more negotiations.) Twice, she declined to vote for conservative budgets that stood no chance of becoming law (one of the budgets she voted against won the support of only a minority of Republicans).
As Representative Roby’s example illustrates, a congressman can get low marks not only for disagreeing with Heritage Action’s policy preferences — a feature of every group’s scorecard — but also for disagreeing with its tactical preferences. In a brochure it prints listing every congressman’s score, Heritage Action lists seven issues it included in its ratings, from Obamacare to Paul Ryan’s budget to global warming. Roby has not cast a liberal vote on any of them.
Roby favors spending cuts and a balanced-budget amendment. But like most Republicans, she was unwilling to let the government hit the debt ceiling in an attempt to get two-thirds of Congress to support the amendment. Whether she was right turns on the likelihood that 50 House Democrats and 20 Senate Democrats would support a conservative version of the amendment and on the severity of the consequences of hitting the debt limit — judgments on which people equally committed to conservative views about the proper size of government can and do disagree.
It’s not an especially friendly disagreement. Erick Erickson, the managing editor of RedState, wrote that Roby’s score was “definitionally pathetic. . . . She has carried water for the leadership, betrayed her conservative constituents, and failed to fight against the tide of creeping socialism in the country. But she’s got a pretty smile.” He added, “If the tea party wants a do-over, [her district] would be a good place to start.” Whatever Heritage Action’s intent, in other words, its close allies are treating its low grades as proof that a member of Congress is not a real conservative and ought to be challenged in a primary.
Heritage Action is based a block away from the Foundation, in a townhouse with no sign on the front. A few minutes into an interview there, Chapman brings up the House Republican leadership’s hostility to his organization. “They’ll say we’re unreasonable and never want to compromise,” he warns me. “They do not like us, and I think what we’re trying to do is message to them that we are dying, literally dying, to fight with them” (that is, alongside them). Both Needham and Chapman argue, however, that they cannot side with the party leadership unless it fights the Democrats the way Heritage Action wants it to fight — and they fear that Republican leaders are too fearful to start that fight. And they worry that if Republicans do not “paint in bold colors,” as Needham puts it, they could win the 2012 elections but have no mandate to do anything with their newfound power.
Actually, discontent with Heritage Action goes beyond the leadership. Some congressional conservatives were upset about the talk of primary challenges that has swirled around Heritage Action (as in that RedState post). Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, a member of the RSC, is not a fan of the group: “Certainly they don’t seem to have any interest in going after Democrats. The target seems more and more to be conservative members that aren’t necessarily 100 percent pure as they define it. This is something that has really miffed a lot of rank-and-file conservatives. So I think that there’s just a sense of frustration from rank-and-file conservatives that we are not focused on the Democrats.” A few members of Congress say, off the record, that they no longer cite the Heritage Foundation’s work: Why lend credibility to a group that says you’re a sellout?
Needham says that even after only a year, Heritage Action has racked up some accomplishments. He credits the group with unifying Republicans behind the goal of repealing Obamacare. He calls the fact that the debt-ceiling deal included no tax increases “a pretty remarkable achievement” for Heritage Action. (Again, the organization opposed that deal and its scorecard counts votes in its favor against congressmen.)
Teasing out political causes and effects is not an exact science, of course: Many other groups would say that they played the key role in getting Republicans to oppose Obamacare, and no Republican congressman has voted for a broad-based tax increase in 20 years. Most accounts suggest that it was the opposition of House majority leader Eric Cantor that scuttled any talk of a debt-ceiling deal involving tax increases, and none of those accounts suggest that Heritage Action played any role in his decision. Cantor has a 59 percent score from Heritage Action.
From the Republican leaders’ perspective, Heritage Action’s behavior is perverse. Cantor, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and Jon Kyl are the most conservative Republican leadership team the Hill has seen in the history of the Heritage Foundation. They don’t believe they deserve to be treated as though they were Bob Dole.
A low-key debate about the group’s effectiveness broke out in September. Heritage Action came out against a short-term transportation-funding bill and said it would include the vote in its scorecard. House Republicans passed it by voice vote rather than holding a roll call. Defenders of the organization said that House leaders had prevented a roll-call vote in order to shield the chamber’s members from accountability in the scorecard, and that their action testified to their fear of it. The fact that nobody on the House floor asked for a recorded vote, on the other hand, may mean that the group does not pack as much punch as it believes.
“Bills based on Heritage ideas are not advancing,” Chapman complains.
Those ideas are shared by most Republicans, including those at odds with Heritage Action. The main obstacle to their advancement, almost all Republicans understand, is Democratic control of the White House and Senate. What divides Heritage Action from its targets is how to overcome that obstacle. And that division is now defining a relationship of deepening mutual frustration.