Special interests—mostly advocacy firms and former-Congressmen turned lobbyists—drive Congress’s agenda and play an oversized role in the formation of policy. But the face of lobbying is changing, thanks partly to approaches pioneered in the last three years by Heritage Action for America, the lobbying and policy organization affiliated with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Heritage—the foundation, that is—has been working to shape legislation since it opened its doors in 1972. Its particular nonprofit status, however, limits its activities on Capitol Hill. It may inform lawmakers, staffers, and donors on policy issues, but it is barred from affiliating with political campaigns and may devote only a small portion of its budget to lobbying. In 2010, with these restrictions in mind, and spurred by the seemingly unstoppable Democratic majority that had just passed Obamacare, Heritage launched Heritage Action (HA), a legally separate organization designed to lobby for the think tank’s policy prescriptions.
The HA team believed that to succeed, they needed to move beyond the methods of the established lobbying firms. “Washington has changed, especially over the last decade,” said Dan Holler, communications director. “Unless you have the ability to organize outside of Washington, organize in the grassroots, and really lobby, as opposed to just educate, you [can’t] necessarily win the political battles in Washington anymore.” Instead of courting insiders, HA decided to go for voters.
To do this, HA revitalized a tool long-used by policy advocates: the congressional “scorecard.” In the past, such scorecards typically provided ratings based on how a member votes. HA also factors in sponsorship and co-sponsorship of bills and amendments. For a higher score from Heritage Action, a member can sponsor a bill the group endorses. The more sponsors, HA reasons, the more likely the legislation will get a hearing or a vote (though not all Congress-watchers agree).
HA’s use of its scorecards is also unconventional. Instead of providing its scores as mere campaign talking points, the group disseminates them to constituents, so voters can challenge their representative or senator. HA does this primarily by reaching out to conservative activists—“sentinels” in HA lingo—who employ their local connections to circulate the scorecards via email lists, town hall meetings, phone calls, social engagements, letters to the editor, and even door-to-door visits.
HA also takes advantage of Heritage Foundation’s 700,000-strong membership. As Betsy Woodruff writes in National Review of the members:
They’re often well organized and highly motivated. An oft-repeated criticism in the wake of November 2012 was that the Right doesn’t know how to organize; the Heritage Foundation does. That makes for a stronger lobbying operation, since it’s easier to organize targeted phone calls.
Thanks to HA’s shrewd use of the scorecard, and despite its short tenure in Washington, it has had numerous successes, often at the expense of the Republican leadership.
In April, House Republican leaders tried to pass a bill aimed at redistributing funds within Obamacare. The bill would have reopened enrollment in high-risk insurance pools that Heritage research concluded were poorly designed and should be discontinued. HA, along with the Club for Growth, rallied enough Republican backbenchers against the bill to defeat it.
This summer Republicans brought the Farm Bill to a vote. Like most recent Farm Bills, it conjoined food stamp spending with agriculture subsidies. But Heritage Foundation research suggested that the two programs could be reformed more easily if Congress split them into two bills. Suddenly, there are two bills instead of one. Unfortunately for HA, the new agriculture-only bill would make sugar subsidies permanent and provide more funding for crop insurance than even the Obama administration proposed, so HA opposed it. The House passed it by just eight votes.
One thing HA loves to target is budget line items that increase government’s reach. This irritates many Republicans who love spending when it’s for their districts. For instance, the following pieces of legislation each passed the House with broad Republican support: the LaTourette Amendment, which increased federal funding for local fire departments, though such funding does not improve success at fighting fires according to Heritage research; the reauthorization of the $30 billion Export-Import Bank, which backs loans for companies who import and export; and the expansion of health care grants and subsidies for veterinarians, whose average income in 2010 was over $82,000.
Currently, Heritage Action is putting its weight behind Jeb Hensarling’s (R-TX) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bill. If it passes, the two mortgage-backers will be set on a five-year path to privatization and forced to pay back the hundreds of billions of bailout dollars they received during the recession. Hensarling’s bill, partly because HA designated it as a “key vote,” has garnered 82 cosponsors. It was passed out of committee on July 24.
Despite its successes (or perhaps because of them), the group has infuriated many Republicans. A number of members unhappy with HA have had experiences similar to Frank Lucas’s. After hearing scores of HA radio attack ads against Lucas, scorecard-toting constituents showed up to a town hall meeting in his Oklahoma district and rebuked him for not being conservative enough. Such encounters, many moderate Republicans opine, jeopardize their chances at reelection and are, to boot, unwarranted.
Former House member Geoff Davis of Kentucky called HA “a worthless organization to the conservative movement.” Representative Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia said that the group is jeopardizing the foundations of conservatism and undermining the credibility of the Heritage Foundation with legislators. They accuse HA (and thereby their constituent-interlocutors) of legislative myopia: Members of Congress have got to look at the big picture, and sometimes that means compromising on conservative principles like cutting spending. As they see it, HA is turning their constituents sour, even though the representatives individually are doing a bang-up job.
HA sees the feud differently. As far as it’s concerned, many congressional Republicans campaign on conservative principles but vote the other way. HA cites countless examples of legislators who vote for spending in their districts and want their constituents to know about it. Asked about one such instance—federal funds for local disaster relief—Holler said, “You can maintain your conservative principles while still figuring out a way to [help disaster victims]. And Heritage has laid out a lot of good policy on stuff like that, too. There’s a way to do it—the question is, will lawmakers do it?”
Benjamin Silver is an intern at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.