Hidden Hand: How Heritage Action Drove DC To Shut Down

Harnessing the power of the Tea Party, the political action arm of the once-esteemed Heritage Foundation has perfected the art of disrupting DC, whatever the cost.

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J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Republican leaders emerge from a closed-door strategy session at the Capitol, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress are trading blame ahead of Tuesday’s government shutdown, but there’s another culprit in DC’s latest dysfunction whose offices are not to be found in the gilded suites of the Capitol, but in a drab, fluorescent-lit office five blocks away. There, a team of organizers, lobbyists and 20-something social media specialists are harnessing the power of the Tea Party to drive a wrench into Congress’ gears. Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the once esteemed Heritage Foundation, has been working day and night for years to bring about just the crisis now gripping DC.

Since its founding in 2010, Heritage Action has worked aggressively to influence lawmakers on issues from immigration to agriculture to the budget. It uses a three-pronged strategy to twist arms on Capitol Hill: lobbying members on hot-button issues, ranking them publicly on how they vote, and getting word out far and wide when lawmakers buck the conservative line. That combination—unparalleled in either party—has given Heritage the ammo to take on the leadership of its own party, widening the gap between the conservative grassroots and their leaders in Congress. As Heritage’s clout accumulates, the group’s divisive style offers a window into the new way of doing business in Washington, where, thanks to redistricting, lawmakers are more worried about primary challengers than the opposition.

(MORE: 11th-Hour Brinkmanship Before Government Shutdown)

Take the fight over President Obama’s signature first term legislation, the Affordable Care Act. Republican leaders who survived the politically disastrous budget battles of 2011 hoped to avoid a similar fight as deadlines for funding the government and raising the debt limit approached this fall. Then Heritage Action threw their weight behind a long-shot effort to defund Obamacare, on the simple math that to its Republican supporters, the healthcare law is viewed as more toxic than a government shutdown.

Led by Mike Needham, the group’s CEO, Heritage launched a nine-city bus tour and recruited Tea Party icon Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and his father Rafael Cruz, a celebrity in conservative circles, to back the cause. “Politicians don’t lead, politicians follow,” Needham told a crowd of more than 700 in Tampa. “They need to be forced by you all to do the right thing. They won’t do the right thing by themselves.” Forcing the GOP to act became the group’s solitary mission for the ensuing weeks. Heritage Action poured $550,000 into a digital advertising campaign targeted at Republican congressional districts and worked its social media base to muscle GOP lawmakers into supporting the measure. “It’s tremendous pressure,” says Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp, of Heritage’s influence on lawmakers.

By the time Congress returned in September, scores of House Republicans were on board, despite pleas from party leadership, which regarded it as a kamikaze effort. Needham further bolstered his ranks when he announced three weeks ago that Heritage would rank lawmakers on their votes on a procedural motion allowing for the continued funding of Obamacare. Wavering GOPers quickly joined the opposition and House Speaker John Boehner abandoned his plan to push for a temporary, rather than permanent, defunding of the health care law. “Without their help we probably wouldn’t have gotten it done,” says Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon.

Heritage’s willingness to take aim at its own party has irked more mainstream Republicans. “When you’re spending all of your money attacking Republicans and not the Democrats who voted for Obamacare, it’s entirely fair to question what your motives are,” says Brian Walsh, a Republican consultant and the former communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. ‘They’ve been effective at advancing their own power in Washington and at the cost of giving Democrats a free pass.”

But Heritage sees themselves as having a higher calling than party politics. “We’re not ‘good Republicans,’” says Heritage Foundation Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Phillip Truluck. “We’re conservatives.”

House Republican leadership aides have been quick to offer criticisms of the group on the condition of anonymity, while some representatives have publicly taken on Heritage. “Why is @Heritage_Action spending $550K to attack conservatives but not @KayHagan who was a deciding vote on #Obamacare,” tweeted Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) last month. “Should we stop #Obamacare? YES! But @Heritage_Action’s strategy w/ Continuing Resolution is WRONG.” “I just want to go back to fighting Democrats,” said one Republican leadership aide.

(MORE: Everything You Need To Know About A Government Shutdown)

As Washington stumbled toward a shutdown this weekend, Heritage Action has pledged to include votes on a “clean” continuing resolution in its running scorecard, even if the government shuts down. The group wouldn’t fully support the House Republican measure to delay Obamacare by a year as part of a measure to keep the government open, but in a small concession to Republican leadership, it also didn’t oppose Saturday’s House vote.

“Although it falls short of full defunding, Heritage Action will not key vote against the Blackburn Amendment because a delay is a step towards preventing the law’s entitlements from taking root,” the organization said in a statement, referring to tallying the votes of lawmakers on important bills for the purposes of their conservative ranking.

In the Senate too, Heritage Action, along with other conservative groups like the Club for Growth, has managed to make its mark. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip John Cornyn are both up for reelection in 2014 and are increasingly wary of conservative primary challengers.

There is dissent about combative strategy inside Heritage Foundation as well. In the initial years of the group, management grew concerned by Heritage Action’s free-wheeling style, moving them from a town house nearby into the fourth-floor of its headquarters building. As Heritage Action flourishes, Heritage Foundation has become less of a force on Capitol Hill, its role for three decades as an omnipresent voice in hearing rooms and Senate hideaways crafting legislation for Republicans now firmly in the rearview mirror.

A number of the think tank’s top researchers have decided to leave the group in recent months over the controversy caused by Heritage Action, according to people familiar with the situation. “That place is hemorrhaging,” said one former employee. The selection of former Sen. Jim DeMint to run the think tank last year has confirmed the organization’s commitment to political activism. DeMint, who made a name for himself in the Senate by supporting conservatives in primary contests—even primarying his GOP colleagues—leading to victories by Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but also nominations for two of 2012’s biggest losers, Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin. The group fiercely denies that its research arm has been harmed by the political side.

Such criticism means little to Heritage Action. Despite Needham’s best efforts and Cruz’s 21-hour speech against it, the online insurance marketplaces that are a centerpiece of Obamacare will debut as planned Oct. 1. Republican leadership fears it will bear the blame for government shutdown, endangering vulnerable Republicans in 2014. But for Heritage and its allies, the resonance of their message is more than a moral victory. “I think that this campaign has already been very successful in the sense that we’ve driven the narrative in the last two months about how Obamacare is literally falling apart,” Needham says. “There’s been huge national attention in the media and the grassroots. That’s a great thing for the country and a great thing for us.”

With reporting by Alex Altman / Washington.
VIDEO: Explaining the Shutdown to Your Kids

173 comments
gornisht
gornisht

Was it not John McCain who introduced Sarah Pallin as his running mate? The Tea Party did not exist before this foolish choice. Now look what has happened!

krause
krause

Well, the precedent is set.  If a political party controls the presidency and both houses of government, they can pass any program, make any and all claims, true or not, in order to do so, and it's OK.   This will make for interesting politics down the road. 

SergioBalcazar
SergioBalcazar

I am not a Tea Party at all. But it upsets me when you blame them for a potential "Government Shutdown" and don't say a thing about the hypocrite Democrats who want to push their Obamacare through down the masses throat keeping a privileged health care insurance plan for them. I thought that this could happen only in a Banana Republic. I will agree with Obamacare only when the Law is applied for everybody, no exceptions.

valentine.godoflove
valentine.godoflove

TO MANTIS DRAGON......WHERE WERE YOU BORN......WHO ARE YOUR PARENTS......WHAT ARE YOUR BLOODLINES.....YOUR ANCESTRY......YOUR EDUCATION.......ARE YOU TALL, FAT, SHORT, THIN, UGLY, HANDSOME, ARTICULATE, EDUCATED,......WHO ARE YOU ASSOCIATED WITH,,,,,YOUR JOB?......

YOU PROJECT YOURSELF TO BE A RADICAL LEFTWING, NEO COMMUNIST , ENVIRONMENTAL WACKO DEMOCRAT.........

YOU ARE WHAT YOU ARE......THERE IS NO ESCAPE......

VALENTINE, THE GOD OF LOVE....COMEDY.....LOL....


valentine.godoflove
valentine.godoflove

IN CAPS SO SENIORS MAY READ BETTER, I DEFEND THE WEAK , THE OPPRESSED AND THE DOWNTRODDEN.....

TIME MAGAZINE.......NOW A NEO-COMMUNIST PAPER IS ALWAYS BLAMING THE TEA PARTY FOR SHUTTING DOWN THE GOVERNMENT.......THE LEFTWING RADICAL EXTREMIST DEMOCRATS ALWAYS .....SUCCESFULLY....IN PROPAGANDA.....LAY THE SUTDOWN BLAME ON THE REPUBLICANS......WHEN IN REALITY......IT S THEY WHO ARE RESPONSIBLE.....

EVIL LEFTWING RADICAL EXTREMIST DEMOCRATS ARE GOOD PRO[AGANDISTS......THEY WOULD HAVE PUT GOEBBELS, THE NAZI TO SHAME.

OBAMA CARE......AFFORDABLE?????? EXPENSIVE HEALTH CARE........CONGRESS DOES NOT WANT IT AND GOT AN EXCEPTION......THE UNIONS DON'T WANT IT ALSO....AND MOST PEOPLE HATE IT.....WAIT UNTIL THE DEATH PANELS SENTENCE YOUR  BELOVED DADDY OR MAMMY OR GRANDMA OR GRANDPA OR YOUR CHILDREN TO DEATH IF THEY ARE USELESS.....

OBAMA IS LIKE SENATOR PALPATINE IN STARWARS......HE IS THE EVIL EMPEROR TO BE.....THE DARK SIDE......AGAINST THE CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES........DESTROYING THE COUNTRY WITH DEBT.......DESTROYING THE ARMED FORCES.......VIOLATING THE CONSITUTION.......HE WILL LEAD THE CITIZENS TO REVOLT AGAINST HIS TYRANNY......IMAGINE AUTHORIZING THE UJNITED NATIONS TO DIS-ARM THE CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES SO WE CAN BE CONTROLLED LIKE SLAVES......

WHO WILL SAVE US FROM THE EVEIL OBAMA AND LEFTWING EXTREMIST RADICALS??

WHERE ARE THE HEROES ???

VALENTINE, WORLD HISTORIAN, MILITARY HISTORIAN, POLITICAL HISTORIAN, COMEDIAN.....LOL


1913Intel
1913Intel

Good for Heritage Action. If the American people can't afford it, then they don't get it. It's time for the adults to put a stop to this insane spending. Live within your means, and stop trying to destroy your children and grandchildren.


chacalcdn
chacalcdn

Thanks to Heritage the GOP transformed itself from leaders to looser

AnthonyMcMillan
AnthonyMcMillan

I would of loved to hear the republican solution for fixing are disastrous healthcare system. Half of our country is uninsured or under insured, so what is their solution? Have they "ever" had one? Its easy to pick apart others ideas but to come up with your own, something that will actually work, well that takes effort and the right wing has made none sense the day a black man became president.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

"...the healthcare law is viewed as more toxic than a government shutdown."

I would love to see a post on how much the Republican CR Kabuki, as well as their pipe dream of defunding Obamacare, will add to the deficit. That's what the Teatards are so upset about, right?

anon76
anon76

@zekejmiller

How can you write an entire article about Heritage's murder/suicide of the US gov't over Obamacare, without mentioning that Heritage Foundation (granted, a more sane crowd than Heritage Action) championed both the insurance exchanges and individual mandate ideas that are central to how Obamacare works?  This has nothing to do with being "conservative", these guys are opposed to Democrats with such forceful vitriol that they don't mind if the party they ostensibly support takes collateral (or even primary) damage.

kathy already mentioned Heritage's genesis of some of the ideas in Obamacare upthread.  Here's some more info from during the debate over passage of the law.  Reporters should be putting this front and center over any and all discussions about Republican opposition.  It would certainly put the lie to all the "shoving down our throats" bs.

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2010/apr/01/barack-obama/obama-says-heritage-foundation-source-health-excha/

BrahmandamLakshmiNarasimhaMurthy
BrahmandamLakshmiNarasimhaMurthy

It is good that Americans are pulling each other down and fighting among themselves to make their country weak. It would have been impossible for Russia or China to do the same damage which is being done by republicans.Now Russia and China should consider giving grants to tea party , heritage action etc. This will work out a cheaper way to weaken USA.

survivor1962
survivor1962

The political activists from Heritage Action are no different than a suicide bomber who walks into a marketplace and blows himself up along with a large number of innocent people.  But what we're talking about here is much larger than a marketplace full of people; it's our nation, our economic stability and the jobs of millions of people.  Their crazed ideaology of "at all costs" is just like the fanatical Islamist terrorists.  They offer NOTHING constructive,  Theirs is a policy of destruction only.  I fail to understand why any true American would support these people...

Fastgirl
Fastgirl

Interesting how the Dem controlled Senate and the minority leader in the House, Nancy Pelsoi, didn't work this weekend so that a shut down could be prevented.  Last time I checked Sept. 30 came around at the same time every year. How many times since Obama took office have we been through this? Obama and his friends whip everybody into a frenzy. Then at 11:57 before the midnight deadline a "deal" is made and we all move on to something else. The majority of Americans have wised up to this game and are tired of the theatrics. This has become nothing but a lot of noise about nothing. Oabma and the media that are participating in this should be ashamed.

timburns116
timburns116

@krause Welcome to American governance as it's been since 1789.  Next, we'll explain hos the Electoral College works

MicheleBachmann69
MicheleBachmann69

@SergioBalcazar When Obamacare was known as Romneycare none of them had a problem with it.  The ACA is a law that went through all of the proper channels prior to implementation.  It was even challenged in court, and the SCOTUS deemed that it was constitutional and lawful.  The government shutdown is nothing more than a petulant GOP temper tantrum, trying to undo something that is already law, and has been law for a couple of years.  I'd agree that Obamacare isn't the best version of health care the administration could have come up with, but Obama spent so much time trying to make it palatable to the Republicans that all of the good stuff was taken away.  A public option would have been great!

OzarkGranny
OzarkGranny

@SergioBalcazar Democrats aren't shoving it down anybody's throat.  It was approved through the legislative process, it has been years in the development and implementation process, the 2012 election was a referendum on Obamacare and Obama was reelected by a strong majority.  Some people, who think they can predict the future, are predicting disaster.  I look at Romneycare in Mass and see success not failure. 

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@SergioBalcazar The law has been passed and approved. It has nothing to do with holding our debt and credit rating hostage. Or do you really want to send a trend of having the government shut down, every time a minority party finds a law they don't agree with?

LoneStunMan
LoneStunMan

@valentine.godoflove 

The 'god of love',eh?

More like the god of 'old white men whose fathers used to own and beat men like President Barack Obama.'

Go out and burn some more crosses in someone's backyard, then run like a ten year boy.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@valentine.godoflove Nice typing clown. You know as little about history as you do about reality. And if you think the Tea Party are heroes you are an even bigger clown than your post suggest.

timburns116
timburns116

@1913Intel Does that you think kids with genetic illnesses should get no medical care?

LoneStunMan
LoneStunMan

@1913Intel 

Yeah, good for those obstructionist white criminals pretending to care about ALL Americans.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@1913Intel You do realize that the budget the GOP proposed this year, includes savings from implementing ObamaCare. Funny how they fail to mention that little fact.

anon76
anon76

@1913Intel 

Government ledgers are not run the same as household ledgers for a reason.

Speaking of things that can not be afforded, you do know what the #1 driver of household bankruptcy is in the US, right?

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@AnthonyMcMillan  

The Republican solution is if you get sick and can't afford healthcare, go die quietly somewhere out of sight.

timburns116
timburns116

@shepherdwong The Tea baggers are more angry at the 20th century and desire a return to the Gilded Age

MrObvious
MrObvious

@anon76 @zekejmiller 

That was before all the dark money poured in from the sanity challenged billionaire libertarians that fund them now.

1derwoman
1derwoman

@survivor1962 Yeah, defunding Obamacare is -exactly- the same thing as being a suicide bomber.

timburns116
timburns116

@Fastgirl Who should be ashamed?  The girl who parrots Boehner's talking points?  Or, the media reporting how silly you are

trojaniam
trojaniam

@Fastgirl Distorted view of reality.  Better double down on news gathering instead of exchanging ignorance and betraying ideological nonsense.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

@Fastgirl Neither of them are the ones polluting the Continuing Resolutions with unrelated horsecrap. The Tea party absolutely owns the disaster.



mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@Fastgirl What is there for them to work on. The GOP demanded something that is non negotiable.

anon76
anon76

@MrObvious

Sadly, I don't even think that's the full explanation.  It's pretty clear from that link that the guy who said "exchanges + mandates = good" when Romney was contemplating them in Mass. is the same guy who reversed course as soon as Obama brought them up.  Even the other conservative think tank people cited in the article say that if a Republican president had proposed such legislation, Heritage would be happily taking credit for it.

It's nothing but pure hypocrisy and hatred of Democrats, though the Tea Party element adds a convenient veneer of crazy.

small_axe
small_axe

@trojaniam @Fastgirl Is this, or is this not, the first time in the history of this republic that a political party has refused to fund a law of the land?

Remember we are not talking about voting against a bill. we are talking about a LAW.

Do you understand what that means? It means it started as a bill in congress. It passed both houses. It was signed by the president. For added measure it was reviewed by a 5-4 conservative supreme court and judged to be constitutional. Then we had an election on this very issue and the Obamacare guy won.

It is a LAW. You want to repeal it? I've got an idea, let's have an election in 2014. 

Never before has a political party refused to fund a LAW of the land. We are entering uncharted territory here folks.

Fastgirl
Fastgirl

@mantisdragon91 @Fastgirl You always have excuses for the members of your party that make up Congress. Last time I checked the Dems controlled the Senate and just under half of the seats in the House. Why do we need CRs anyway? Because Congress isn't doing their job and that includes the Dems too. Maybe the Dems in the Senate and House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, should have wroked this weekend to resolve this issue. Better yet maybe all members of Congress shouldn't have left for five weeks this summer until they had all of the work done. Employees in the private sector can't leave their jobs until all of their work is completed the same should apply to not only Congress but our president.

small_axe
small_axe

@timburns116 That is correct. I knew that when I said never, I was waiting for someone to mention it. The last time a faction decided to act in such an outright traitorous fashion was when, well, they were traitors, and it precipitated a civil war.

timburns116
timburns116

@1derwoman @small_axe It won't, 'cause you're wrong


Small axe, the nearest corollary to this bs is the Whig and Republican attempts to not fund the Fugitive Slave Act in the 1850's. 

1derwoman
1derwoman

@small_axe To answer your question: No, this is not the first time in the history of the republic that the House of Representatives (not the category error, "a political party")  has refused to fund a "law of the land". It's not even the thousandth time. It is in fact absolutely routine.

E.g., there's a law requiring that illegal aliens be deported. Holder says it's not funded, so he won't do it. There's a law requiring a border fence be built. Not  funded, it's not happening. There's a law requiring that employers be fined if they don't provide health insurance... but Obama says he won't require it. Well, that last isn't exactly a funding issue, more a matter of incompetence...

 The House has a Constitutional right to decide each year what programs it wants to fund.  Only payment of debt (the Full Faith and Credit clause) is mandatory. If the Senate Dems throw a tantrum and refuse to pass a Continuing Resolution that doesn't include some funding they want... well, let it be on them.

Fastgirl
Fastgirl

@small_axe @trojaniam @Fastgirl If you do your research I am sure there are many other things that are the law of the land that don't get all the many they say they need. Medicare is the law of the land yet Obama is taking money from that to fund OBAMACARE. You don't seem to have a problem with that Do you? Of course not.

ARTRaveler
ARTRaveler

Hey small_axe, the ACA is funded and isn't impacted by the terrorist show.  That's the real stupidity of their position.  The only parts of the government working will be Defense and the ACA!  Great planning, House members.  I hope they close your cafeteria, gym, and elevator and train.  Get some exercise and walk among the impacted people who may have a thing to say to you.

Fastgirl
Fastgirl

@mantisdragon91 @Fastgirl Obama and his friends are always the ones fear mongering and creating crisis.Never let a crisis go to waste and if you don't have one invent one is their philosophy. No wonder only 33% of Americans trust Obama more than they trust Congress and only 26% percent trust Obama's government.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@Fastgirl @mantisdragon91 Or maybe the GOP should not have created this fake crisis to begin with. They already cost us our credit rating once. Looks like they are prepared to do it again.