The Heritage Foundation has decided it is better to be feared than loved.
The conservative think tank conducted private market research on Capitol Hill between 2008 and 2009, asking respondents whether they were ever worried about being on the wrong side of Heritage’s position.
“Overwhelmingly, nobody cared,” said Tim Chapman, now the chief operating officer of Heritage Action, the organization’s three-year-old advocacy arm.
To combat this, the think tank created Heritage Action to knock some skulls around. But by doing so, Heritage upset the traditionally cozy relationship the Heritage Foundation had with congressional Republicans.
It was along this strategic arc – a conscious decision to be more combative – that the think tank chose Sen. Jim DeMint, 62, a polarizing, conservative firebrand, to lead it.
But DeMint wasn’t the board’s original choice for the post of president.
Heritage’s Board of Trustees initially had doubts about whether choosing a politician would be the right move for a think tank that had for decades been led by a former Hill staffer with a Ph.D., outgoing president Ed Feulner.
“There was a great debate over whether Jim DeMint was the right guy, because he was political. The Heritage Foundation is not political,” one board member told the Washington Examiner.
In the first half of 2012, Heritage offered the presidency to Larry Arnn, the president of conservative Hillsdale College and a member of the board. After considering it, Arnn declined the job, deciding instead to remain in academia.
Arnn did not respond to requests for comment.
The search to replace Feulner took the better part of three years, during which 18 candidates were interviewed. Academics, “two or three” politicians, staff from other think tanks, and even media figures were considered for the position, Heritage Executive Vice President Philip Truluck said.
Former Sen. Jim Talent, an adviser to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and rumored to be a favorite for secretary of defense had Romney won the election, was seriously considered, according to multiple board members. Others considered for the post included Heritage insiders David Addington and Matt Spalding.
“Some people didn’t accept the offer. They weren’t able to accept the challenge,” one board member said, declining to give further specifics.
After President Obama was elected to a second term, there was a sense among the board that Heritage needed to become more aggressive. And American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, who consulted with the Heritage board during its search, said he recommended they “not try to clone Ed Feulner.”
So, in late 2012, Heritage approached DeMint for the job. In December, the senator appeared before the board for a formal interview, and was approved as president-elect. He officially took office in April 2013.
“There was some question as to whether a politician would be a proper heir, but [DeMint] entered the process late, and then there was no reluctance,” said Midge Decter, a board member since 1981.
Many staffers at the organization, despite the drift towards more advocacy over the past few years, were shocked when the South Carolina Republican was announced as the pick. Since the creation of Heritage Action, the board had debated the direction of the organization and the balance it sought between scholarship and advocacy.
“When the board chose DeMint, that was an affirmation of whether the advocacy or policy side was to be favored,” a former top Heritage staffer said.
DeMint built his reputation through a take-no-prisoners posture in the Senate. Most importantly, the senator embodied a certain attitude: "My way or the highway."
The Heritage Foundation, formed in 1973, is among a quartet of large, established think tanks that have long dominated the ideas industry in Washington, along with the left-leaning Brookings Institution, the libertarian Cato Institute and the right-leaning but less combative American Enterprise Institute.
Heritage Action was created in 2010 “to make politicians feel the heat of accountability on conservative issues,” DeMint said in a statement to the Washington Examiner. “Politicians don’t like being held accountable. … Since Heritage was founded our researchers have been committed to not writing papers that sit on a shelf, but to change the country for the better.”
DeMint declined to be interviewed for this story, taking only written questions by email.
Heritage Action was created to put muscle behind the think tank’s policy work: Follow our proposals or face the consequences. This stance has ruffled Republican feathers since the group’s inception, but the feeling of irritation in Congress has only intensified since DeMint’s arrival as president of the think tank.
“They’ve really turned into bullies,” said Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., a Tea Party Republican first elected in 2010.
Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham, 31, describes his operation as a necessary addition to the think tank’s policy work. Unlike the Heritage Foundation, the advocacy arm can directly participate in political campaigns because it is organized under a different section of the tax code. (AEI, Cato and Brookings do not have advocacy arms.)
Over the last few decades, influence in Washington has increasingly gravitated to lobbying interests and large political fundraisers, Needham said, and Heritage needed to adapt.
To press Republicans more forcefully, the group created a legislative scorecard that tracks how conservative they believe each lawmaker to be. Heritage Action takes it one step further than other similar scorecards by factoring in whether members co-sponsor certain bills, regardless of whether a vote is taken on it.
When it comes time to determine which key votes and co-sponsorships should be included on Heritage Action’s scorecard, Chapman, Needham, Political Director Russ Vought, Communications Director Dan Holler and their relevant registered lobbyists – Heritage Action employs six – huddle to decide.
During the August recess, Heritage Action announced a $550,000 advertising campaign targeting 100 Republicans who have not yet declared support for a strategy to defund Obamacare by defeating a budget bill needed to keep the government open beyond Sept. 30. This week, Heritage unveiled a massive billboard in Times Square reading, “Warning: Obamacare may be hazardous to your health.”
“We’re going to advocate for this in your district, we’re going to envelop you with this message,” Needham told the Examiner, describing his group’s approach. “It’s not just a stack of papers that you can pick up. We’re going to send lobbyists to talk to you and educate you.”
The question of whether adding a political arm jeopardizes the quality of a think tank’s policy work is inevitable. In recent years, scholars who disagreed with the organization’s published work were expected to keep quiet.
“Heritage has a long tradition of not requiring individuals to agree publicly with positions established by the institution. One may not publicly disagree, but where disagreement exists the analyst simply remains publicly silent,” one former staffer explained. “As you can imagine, such a policy is absolutely essential to a public policy research organization.”
There are a number of former Heritage staffers and Capitol Hill opponents who charge that Heritage Action is now driving decisions on the policy side, or that scholarship has taken a backseat to advocacy. But the claim is difficult to substantiate or quantify.
Heritage Action and Heritage Foundation staffers communicate regularly and share a building, but staffers in both groups insist that Heritage Action only suggests topics for scholars to write about, and never influences the work itself.
“Heritage sets the policy, the true north, and then we devise the legislative strategy to accomplish it,” Chapman said.
But the line between the two arms of Heritage is blurry. DeMint and Needham recently conducted a nine-city tour aimed at defunding the Affordable Care Act, and penned a joint op-ed in the Wall Street Journal to encourage lawmakers to make a stand on the law.
Three years in, Heritage Action has proven to be an experiment whose success remains uncertain.
“We don’t know whether it will work or not,” Truluck said. “For the first time, you’re going to have a well-respected, old-line, well-managed research institution that’s decided it wants to push more on the activist side.”
Heritage Action’s targeting of Republicans has upset the think tank's relations with Capitol Hill. In fact, it’s difficult to overstate the anger of top congressional aides and many Republican members of Congress.
“Nobody is working harder to give President Obama two more years of unchecked liberal power with Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid than the Heritage Foundation,” a senior Republican aide said. “And if it happens, they'll say it's because the GOP wasn't pure enough and wash their hands of it.”
Members of Congress, cheered on by Heritage Action, frustrated the Republican leadership this week by forcing the postponement of a vote on a spending bill because it did not feature the defunding of Obamacare as a critical element.
And the Republican Study Committee, a group of House conservatives, recently barred Heritage staffers from their weekly meetings. Heritage’s attendance had deep significance: Feulner was the executive director of the RSC before he joined the Heritage Foundation.
But not all offices are opposed to Heritage Action’s rising aggressiveness.
“If members are worried about Heritage Action exposing them for voting like squishes, there is an alternative: Stop voting like a bunch of squishes,” one Republican Senate aide said.
Truluck, who has been at the Heritage Foundation for 36 years, said that in the think tank’s history, the ongoing tension with the Hill is nothing to get alarmed about.
During the legislative battle over whether to adopt Medicare Part D, then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, banned the Heritage Foundation from holding meetings in the Capitol, Truluck said.
“The last time I looked, I saw Tom DeLay ‘Dancing with the Stars’ in a pair of red pants," Truluck said. "I’ve not heard from him since. We’re still here.”
Correction: The billboard in Times Square was placed there by Heritage, not Heritage Action, as this story originally said. The Washington Examiner regrets the error.