"I really think there’s two sides to politics,” said Mike Needham, the 29-year-old CEO of Heritage Action for America, at a Capitol Hill restaurant in April. “There’s getting the right people elected, and there’s holding them accountable.” Needham invoked Trent Lott—veteran of 16 years in the House, 18 years in the Senate, and numerous roles in Republican leadership—who warned in July 2010, shortly before several “Jim DeMint disciples” (aka hardcore conservatives) were expected to win seats and descend on Washington: “As soon as they get here,” said Lott, “we need to co-opt them.”
Needham and his colleagues see themselves as being “in the anti-co-opting business,” he said. And business is booming. As the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, Heritage Action has been lobbying members of Congress to push for the most conservative outcomes to the most critical legislative debates, including the recent debt ceiling standoff. That hardline stance has frustrated House speaker John Boehner and the rest of the GOP leadership.
Heritage Action’s work alongside the Republican Study Committee (RSC, the caucus of House conservatives) and the Tea Party helped move the House debate further to the right. But the Heritage Foundation’s newfound influence in politics—not just policy—has rankled a few Republicans otherwise in good conservative standing, especially since Heritage Action announced it would be scoring certain votes. As any incumbent candidate knows, a “bad” score from an influential interest group is perfect campaign ad fodder for primary opponents.
“There was a time when I first got here [when] I would actually use Heritage for my position papers,” says Rep. Tom Rooney, a second-term Republican from Florida. “I think that I probably have a failing grade with them now. Where did I go wrong?” Rooney, who has an American Conservative Union rating of 100, and most other Republicans supported the House leadership’s efforts to reach a debt ceiling deal after their Cut, Cap, and Balance proposal failed in the Senate.
Heritage Action, like the RSC, supported Cut, Cap, and Balance but opposed both the House-passed “Boehner plan,” which the Senate rejected, and the final debt ceiling deal signed into law on August 2. “The only way we were going to get to a ‘yes’ was with a bill with long-term structural changes to our spending,” Needham later said. The Boehner plan and the final debt deal, though supported by the leaders of the Republican caucus, didn’t go far enough for Needham.
As Roll Call reported on July 27, Heritage Action and the RSC coordinated their efforts to pressure GOP House members to oppose the Boehner proposal by circulating a list of members for the two groups to lobby. When members found out they were on the list, they were furious. But pressuring Republicans to vote more conservatively is just Heritage Action’s M.O.
“I don’t know of one conservative victory that’s happened in this town in decades that hasn’t happened without principled conservative pressure coming from the right,” Needham said back in April. He and chief operating officer Tim Chapman, 33, are firm in their opposition to business as usual in Washington, which they say is based on favors and patronage, not conservative solutions.
“I worked for three different senators,” Chapman said. “Never once did someone come to them and offer them [an incentive] to vote for a good piece of conservative policy.”
As if by design, Heritage Action has clashed with House leaders over issues ranging from continuing resolutions to patent reform. That has infuriated not only GOP leadership but the rank and file as well, many of whom see the Republican conference as a unified—and conservative—team. “If we want to advance conservative values, there’s no one more conservative in the caucus than John Boehner,” Rooney says.
Needham is undeterred. “They have a job, which is to get to 218 votes in the House,” he says of leadership. “We have a job, and that’s to try to build an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish.”
That’s quite a mission, and it’s distinctly similar to the mission of his parent organization. The Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action are separate entities, Needham insists. The former, a policy-focused think tank, is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) and as such is limited in its political activity. The latter, a 501(c)(4), has the ability to lobby for legislation and participate in political activities.
In addition, there are close personal ties between the two. Heritage Action is housed in a small Capitol Hill townhouse down the street from the foundation’s Massachusetts Avenue edifice, and Needham hatched the idea for his group in the office of foundation president Ed Feulner, for whom Needham was once chief of staff. Both organizations have their own officers and boards, and Needham and Chapman work independently of the think tank and serve at the discretion of their own board. But that three-member board’s chairman, businessman Nersi Nazari, also serves on the foundation’s board of trustees. Its two other members are Needham and Michael Franc, vice president for government studies at the Heritage Foundation.
During the debt ceiling debate, former Oklahoma Republican congressman Ernest Istook took to the House floor lobbying current members to vote against Speaker Boehner’s proposal. Istook is a distinguished fellow at the foundation.
“When Heritage wins, we win, and when we win, Heritage wins,” Chapman says. “It’s good for Heritage for us to be lobbying hard on the Hill for their policies and achieving victories. And when they win intellectually, it makes it easier for us to lobby on the Hill. So we work together in that way.”
But by Heritage Action’s own standards, major wins have been scarce. Only 22 House Republicans voted against the Boehner plan, though Needham calls that “impressive opposition.” Last spring, Heritage Action opposed all three continuing resolutions proposed by the leadership and pushed for larger cuts during the debate over the continuing resolution to fund the federal government. The final deal cut significantly less. If their goal is to achieve the most conservative policy outcome and nothing else, they have failed.
Needham says their goal is similar to that of the GOP leadership: “pulling the country to the right.” “There are a lot of times when our interests are aligned,” he says. “We have an obligation, where our interests aren’t aligned, to push them to be bolder.”
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.