Republican Lawmakers Retaliate Against Heritage Foundation

Conservatives kick the right-wing think tank’s employees out of planning meetings after a blowup over the farm bill.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., speaks at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Saturday, April 10, 2010. 
National Journal
Tim Alberta
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Tim Alberta
Aug. 28, 2013, 11:17 a.m.

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.

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