Over the course of 40 years, the Heritage Foundation earned its Capitol Hill currency by diving deep into complex research to advance conservative policies. It lost a good deal of that banked goodwill in just the last four years, after its Heritage Action political arm dove headfirst into the political crossfire instead. On Monday, Heritage Action used its first policy summit to embark on an uphill climb to restore both prestige and power—but it could be a long journey back to the top.
The summit Monday came just a couple months after House Speaker John Boehner said groups like Heritage Action had "lost all credibility" in their continued opposition to GOP leadership and the budget deals it cut. Now, in establishing what it is for instead of just what it is against, Heritage, like the Republican Party, seems to be in the throes of a major rebranding effort.
“Heritage Action is proud of the headlines that we’ve gotten for fighting the status quo,” said Mike Needham, the group’s CEO. “But we’re also working hard to introduce bold ideas that unite America and make life better to everybody in this country.”
The summit at Heritage Action's office just a few blocks from the Capitol touched on a number of conservative legislative proposals the group wants to highlight this year, from privacy issues to welfare and health care reform. It allowed some lawmakers who enjoy cachet within the House Republican conference, including Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Tom Price (R-Ga.), to step outside the "Party of No" brand that stymied Republicans last year after they produced few legislative achievements. It could prove an important move for Heritage Action, after it stole the limelight from the more policy-focused Heritage Foundation and was widely criticized by Republican leaders as a divisive force in the party.
Former Heritage Foundation staffers, Republican congressmen and aides say that Heritage Action rose during the tea party wave of 2010 and crashed in 2013, the year former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) replaced Edwin J. Feulner, the previous president of 36 years. It still remains a powerful force among the most conservative lawmakers—this year its scorecard has pushed members to vote no on the appropriations and farm bills this year, even though both pieces of legislation easily passed the House. But a senior GOP aide told TIME on Monday that Heritage Action hasn’t been a factor in whip counts for months. Before the creation of Heritage Action, the think tank held sway over 180 House Republicans and Democrats, according to two former Heritage Foundation officials. That number has dipped to less than 50, they say, and much fewer if you only count hardcore supporters.
Several months ago during the negotiations over the farm bill, Heritage employees were blocked from attending the weekly meetings for the Republican Study Committee, a coalition of conservative House members, because of concerns Heritage was changing tactics in the middle of the game and opposing legislation it had previously supported. Last week’s Heritage retreat had about 40 RSC members on hand, significantly fewer than last year, according to a senior GOP aide, mostly because of lingering resentment over the issue. Needham told TIME the drop was due to a usual lack of energy at this point in the election cycle. “I think that if you look at every single year of the retreat after an election, you get 60 to 80 people," Needham said. “There’s more energy at the start of a Congress than in the middle of a Congress.”
More than anything else, the decline of Heritage Action can be seen by its strategy to defund President Barack Obama's health care reform law at all costs, which resulted in a government shutdown and historic disapproval ratings for the Republican Party last year. The big bet failed to yield any significant concessions, and in mid-December, Boehner said outside conservative groups like Heritage Action had “lost all credibility.”
It remains to be seen how far Heritage Action is willing to go to return to the foundation's roots in policy. It's unlikely that Heritage Action gives up its scorecard, for example, even if it has less sway than during the government shutdown talks.
“Heritage Action has been working on these pieces of legislation for years,” said Heritage spokesman Dan Holler. “And the policy conference is a logical extension of that work.”