Since Republicans regained control of the House in 2011, conservative outside groups have executed a relentless pressure campaign aimed at pushing the House majority further toward the base, and impressing upon lawmakers the risks of voting against the recommendation of these right-wing rainmakers.
But after a summertime spat over agriculture policy, GOP lawmakers decided to push back.
According to several sources with direct knowledge of the situation, the Republican Study Committee—a group of 172 conservative House members—has barred Heritage Foundation employees from attending its weekly meeting in the Capitol. The conservative think tank has been a presence at RSC meetings for decades and enjoys a close working relationship with the committee and its members. But that relationship is now stretched thin, sources say, due to a series of policy disputes that culminated with a blowup over last month's vote on the the farm bill.
RSC Chairman Steve Scalise, R-La., told Heritage officials of his decision last month.
"The Heritage Foundation and the RSC have a longstanding relationship in developing and promoting conservative solutions to the problems facing our nation, and we are proud to continue that tradition to this day through regular joint events and briefings," said Stephen Bell, spokesman for Scalise and the RSC.
Still, the move to effectively kick Heritage out of the weekly RSC meeting represents "a seismic shift" in the relationship between the two institutions, according to one high-ranking Capitol Hill aide.
The acrimony can be traced to a pair of summer showdowns over agriculture policy.
In June, as the House prepared to vote on an extension of the farm bill—an enormous legislative package that governs everything from crop subsidies to food-stamp policy—conservative lawmakers and outside groups rallied in opposition. Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the right-wing think tank, called for the bill to be split into two pieces—one dealing specifically with agriculture policy (called a "farm-only bill") and another legislating the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the food-stamp program known as SNAP.
Members of the RSC agreed. In fact, Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana sponsored an amendment that would accomplish exactly what Heritage Action and other outside groups were advocating: splitting the farm bill. Stutzman's amendment failed, however, and Heritage Action issued a key vote alert warning lawmakers to vote "no" on the farm bill. (If they voted "yes," members faced consequences, anything from a demerit on their Heritage Action "scorecard" to a 30-second radio ad launched back in their districts.)
The vast majority of GOP lawmakers, including many conservatives from rural districts, ignored the outcry from the right and voted for the bill. But in the end, 62 House Republicans sided with Heritage Action, enough to help Democrats defeat a bill that they denounced for its steep cuts to safety-net programs.
For Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who had publicly endorsed the farm bill, the defeat was a black eye. Within hours, members of his leadership team were conferring with leading RSC members who had opposed the legislation, and soliciting suggestions on how to pass a revised farm bill. Their response: Split the agriculture policy into a separate bill—just as the outside groups have been advocating—and we'll vote yes.
Boehner and his team eventually agreed, and three weeks later a farm-only bill came to the House floor. Of the 62 Republicans who voted against the first farm bill, 48 supported this second iteration, which passed by a narrow margin. Leadership had its farm bill victory, and RSC members congratulated each other on achieving an ideological goal that had been discussed for decades: separating agriculture policy from food stamps.
But not all conservatives were celebrating. The new farm bill had passed over the objections of Heritage Action, which, to the astonishment of some RSC members, had issued another alert, telling conservatives to vote against the split bill—despite having spent years agitating for exactly that. In its warning, Heritage Action said the revised legislation "would make permanent farm policies—like the sugar program—that harm consumers and taxpayers alike."
To some conservative members, this was Heritage Action moving the goalposts, plain and simple. And they were furious about it. Members mumbled to each other about how it had become impossible to please these powerful outside groups, which are known to raise more money off Democratic victories than Republican ones. There was, as one Hill aide put it, "enormous discontent" among conservative members who were tired of feeling threatened by an outside group that existed as a parasite living off the Republican members of Congress.
That's when Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., decided to do something about it. An ambitious conservative elected in the tea-party wave of 2010, Mulvaney was perfectly positioned to spearhead an offensive aimed at undermining the influence of these outside groups. At the beginning of the 113th Congress, Heritage Action named Mulvaney one of its "sentinels" for his ultraconservative voting record, which had earned him a 95 percent rating on the organization's scorecard for the 112th Congress.
Now, some six months later, Mulvaney was determined to send a message to Heritage Action. "I wanted to take them to task for their inconsistency," Mulvaney recalls. "I wanted to draw attention to the fact that Heritage was now scoring against Republicans for doing exactly what Heritage had been espousing only a month before."
(Heritage Action communications director Dan Holler said Mulvaney was well aware that they would reject any farm bill that did not make substantial reforms to crop subsidies and other programs, and therefore should not have been surprised by their opposition.)
To do this, Mulvaney needed strength in numbers. A single conservative lawmaker rebuking a like-minded outside group wouldn't mean much, he decided, but a posse of tea-party types criticizing the very organization that has been lauding their defense of liberty—now that would grab Washington's attention.
Mulvaney's idea was to pen a joint op-ed from conservative lawmakers, published in The Wall Street Journal, slapping the wrist of Heritage Action. Mulvaney began drafting a list of recruits that met specific criteria: They had voted against the first farm bill; they had voted for the second farm bill; and they had a strong scorecard rating with Heritage Action.
Mulvaney reached out to roughly two dozen colleagues who fit the bill. His star recruit, sources say, was Rep. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, a freshman tea-party favorite who enjoys a 95 percent rating from Heritage Action—among the highest marks in the House. Bridenstine acknowledged that he agreed to join Mulvaney, but downplayed his displeasure with any outside group. "The only reason I was interested in the op-ed was to explain my votes—why I voted against the first farm bill and for the second farm bill," Bridenstine said. "It was not about going on the offensive against Heritage Action, because I think that would be very counterproductive."
According to Mulvaney, "between six and 10" of the lawmakers he contacted agreed to join him. They began preparing their WSJ piece, and, according to sources, had reached an agreement with the newspaper on when to run it. As they were putting on the finishing touches, however, Mulvaney said he received an e-mail from one Heritage official. They knew what the members were up to, the official said, and asked them not to follow through. "We get the point," the e-mail read.
After several days of deliberation, Mulvaney and his crew decided to stand down. "There was frustration there," Bridenstine recalls, speaking of other members involved. "But ultimately we made a decision that creating any kind of daylight between them and us was not really in our best interest. So we decided not to do the op-ed."
Days later, The Wall Street Journal published a story in its print edition—"Think Tank Becomes a Handful for GOP"—detailing the displeasure GOP lawmakers felt with Heritage Action. The first quote of the story belongs to Mulvaney. "We went into battle thinking they were on our side, and we find out they're shooting at us," he said of Heritage Action's opposition to the revised farm bill, which he said "undermines the credibility of the organization."
The story spawned a new wave of murmurings within the conservative community on Capitol Hill, where RSC members and their staffers had already begun hearing rumors of a coordinated reprimand of Heritage Action.
That's when Scalise stepped in. The RSC chairman was among the members Mulvaney had recruited for the op-ed, but had not committed to joining. Now, with the WSJ story circulating and members growing more vocal in their displeasure with Heritage Action—one staffer described it as "an insurrection" brewing within the RSC—Scalise knew something had to be done.
After consulting with senior members of the RSC, Scalise reached a decision: Heritage employees would no longer be welcome to attend RSC meetings.
"Scalise was working on a way to quell the rebellion, to let members know he was handling it," said one source, who is not affiliated with Scalise or the RSC. After the farm-bill incident, the source said, "There was a lot of mistrust in that RSC meeting room."
One GOP lawmaker familiar with Scalise's decision, who spoke on condition of anonymity, insisted that the RSC chairman had long been considering the Heritage ouster, and insisted that the timing of Scalise's decision was "entirely coincidental." Other sources disputed that assertion, arguing that the farm bill episode was certainly the galvanizing incident that caused Heritage to be removed—regardless of how long Scalise had been entertaining the idea.
Whatever the cause, many conservative Hill aides say the move was long overdue, arguing that if the RSC really is a "member-driven organization" it should not allow outside forces to influence its internal deliberations. "These are closed meetings for a reason," one aide said. "It's one member, and one staffer allowed per member. No press. No guests. So why are they (Heritage) different?"
Heritage officials would not comment on their removal from RSC meetings. "Since its founding, the Heritage Foundation has maintained a strong relationship with the Republican Study Committee, one that continues to this day," said Mike Gonzalez, vice president of communications for the Heritage Foundation.
As for the Action side, Holler said simply, "Heritage Action does not comment on member meetings."
Heritage was allowed unique access because of its historical bond with the RSC.
The two groups were formed in the same year by some of the same people, and worked side-by-side for decades focusing on policy research rather than political strategy. That changed in 2010, when Republicans won back the House and the Heritage Foundation spawned Heritage Action.
There were promises of legal separation between the two entities, of course, but Republicans had little doubt that the line would eventually blur between policy shop and political outfit. And in the 113th Congress, according to Hill aides, the "wall" that Heritage employees refer to—separating the Action side from the Foundation side—has come crashing down.
This time frame coincides with the arrival of former Sen. Jim DeMint, who in January resigned his seat to take over as president of the Heritage Foundation.
DeMint and his Senate Conservatives Fund had previously raised huge sums of money by picking on establishment Republicans, many of whom had conservative voting records. This relentless pursuit of ideological purity, financed by fat checks from conservative donors, alienated lawmakers from DeMint and his organization.
With DeMint now at the reins of Heritage, Republicans on Capitol Hill see that pattern repeating itself.
(Ironically, it was DeMint's predecessor, Ed Feulner, who in 1973 was instrumental in establishing both the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee. A former House aide, Feulner was a founding father to both organizations. That shared ancestry was critical to maintaining the powerful coalition between Heritage and the RSC for the past 40 years. Now, mere months after Feulner relinquished power at Heritage, the organization has been dismissed from the RSC meetings it has attended for decades.)
If nothing else, the schism is symbolic, representing an emerging divide between some conservatives in Congress who argue for amassing small policy victories, and the conservative outside groups that will settle for nothing less than outright ideological purity.
As one conservative House aide put it, "We can't score touchdowns on every play; our job is to put points on the board. But all they want us to do is throw Hail Marys."
That sentiment echoes the frustration of some members, but not all of them. There were 12 Republicans who voted against both farm bills, and additionally, some members, such as Bridenstine, who say they still trust the Heritage brand—despite being on the opposing side of the farm-bill fight.
"I think they're a great group; I think they help us as legislators make good decisions," Bridenstine said. "I don't have any problem with what Heritage Action is doing."
It's unclear whether this breach in relations will extend beyond Heritage's removal from the RSC meetings. The two entities have long worked closely together on legislative research and event planning, and Heritage pays for a variety of junkets enjoyed by RSC members. (For example, the three-day RSC retreat back in February was financed entirely by Heritage.) Should a more lasting schism emerge between the two, the RSC could be forced to look elsewhere for financial support for some of its traditional endeavors.
So far there is no sign of escalation to that effect. In fact, according to paperwork filed with the House Ethics Committee, Heritage recently paid for RSC Executive Director Paul Teller to attend a one-day trip—along with dozens of other conservative House aides—to the historic battlefields of Gettysburg.
This article appears in the August 29, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.