There was a time in Washington when members of Congress regarded the Heritage Foundation as the powerhouse of conservative ideas. Now, many say the group's political arm has become a nuisance.
Heritage had become so synonymous with the Republican Party's identity several years ago that when Jim DeMint resigned from the Senate in 2012 to run the foundation, he claimed he could "do a lot more on the outside" then he could in Congress with all the privileges that come with being a senator.
But members, congressional aides, and GOP strategists say the intellectual power that made the group a cornerstone of the conservative movement and garnered them access to offices across Capitol Hill for decades has been tainted by their political group's pursuit for absolute purity. Heritage Action for America, the organization's 501(c)(4), keeps score of votes, judging members based on how they line up with the group's conservative priorities. And many members say they are tired of Heritage Action's lack of discretion or rationale.
"Perhaps it is just that I am not smart enough to know ... but there doesn't always appear to be a lot of rhyme or reason," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina, even as he emphasized his strong and consistent relationship with the Heritage Foundation's leader. It was DeMint, he said, who empowered him to run for office in the first place. But Heritage Action is beginning to be a problem for conservatives.
"I separate out Heritage and Heritage Action. DeMint is Heritage to me, [Heritage Action CEO Michael] Needham is Heritage Action. I couldn't pick Needham out of a photo lineup, and Jim DeMint is the gold standard for conservatism in my state," Gowdy said.
Since the beginning of the year, Heritage Action has issued vote alerts against a trade bill, a Native American housing bill, a transportation appropriations bill, and a medical research bill, among others. But members point out that while many members used to fear Heritage Action's scorecard, many no longer see the point in toeing the line.
"When they became so political, we don't even read their materials anymore," a Republican senator said on background so he could feel comfortable sharing his thoughts on the group. "They have gone from a place that people really viewed to be thoughtful to almost totally insignificant."
But even the number of senators and members of Congress who declared "on background" that they were fed up with the group reveals that Heritage Action still has sway in Washington.
While the House this year has voted to pass a majority of bills that Heritage Action issued key "no" votes against, the group still had clear victories, and they may gain momentum with a potential vote on a patent bill. Heritage Action alerted members Monday that they were urging a "no" vote on the bill, which already was bemoaned by some conservatives.
Yet members say that Heritage Action has begun to engage in too many areas.
"When you have a position on everything, it is almost like having a position on nothing, and I think Heritage Action over the last couple of years was opposed to too many things that conservatives were already committed to be for," one Republican senator said on background so that he could speak freely.
In the past month, Heritage Action lost on two notable key votes.
The most recent was the group's bid to stop the 21st Century Cures Act, which they opposed because the legislation allowed for "a new mandatory funding stream." Heritage Action argued that the bill took the Republican conference in the wrong budgetary direction. The Congressional Budget Office and House Speaker John Boehner said the legislation would still reduce the deficit by more than $500 million over the next decade.
The bill passed 344-77.
"With all due respect to Heritage Action, there are a whole lot more people who are Alzheimer's activists than there are reading Heritage anymore," Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said. "You have to know when to play this card and when not to, and in my personal view, they play it an awful lot."
Another loss came in June, when Heritage Action scored against the bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority, which limited Congress to an up-or-down vote on any trade deal negotiated by the president. House Republicans, who largely backed the measure, were incensed. The Heritage Foundation long promoted trade, they argued. House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan urged them to sit the vote out. But Heritage Action moved forward, arguing that their "no" vote score was based on their desire to get assurances from Republican leaders that there would not be a vote to renew the Export-Import Bank, an unrelated issue. Some saw that as a "false premise," others viewed it as far-fetched. Many were even more infuriated that a similar bill in the Senate was not scored initially.
"It is the most absurd thing that I have ever heard that Heritage is scoring a 'no' vote after the Senate has already gotten to vote so they could preserve [Sen. Ted] Cruz's 100 percent record," Rep. Tom Rooney, a deputy whip, said at the time. "They are actually hurting their own cause because you cannot pass the smell test on that."
Heritage did score the Senate's last vote and Cruz pulled his support.
Tepid rationales and moving goalposts are nothing new with Heritage Action, members complain.
In 2013, Republican House leaders were in the midst of trying to settle an internal conference dispute on the farm bill. Despite calls from conservatives, leadership remained committed to keeping agricultural commodities and food stamps wrapped together in the same bill, just as they had been for decades. But when the bill failed and leadership was stunned, they went back to the drawing board. They gave conservatives in the Republican Study Committee exactly what they and groups such as Heritage Action wanted for years: They split the farm bill in two.
The legislation passed, but Heritage Action still scored against it on the basis that the legislation provided farmers with bloated subsidy programs.
"We thought we were achieving something that not only was a conservative goal for a long time—which was splitting ag out from nutrition—but something that Heritage had spoken on very highly in the past," recalled Rep. Mick Mulvaney from South Carolina. "To have them turn around and score against it didn't burn a bridge, but it forced us to think for ourselves sometimes."
After the incident, Heritage stopped being invited to attend the Republican Study Committee's weekly lunch.
In the years since, outside observers note that Heritage's stake in the Republican conference has shrunk considerably. Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado said he's "disappointed" with the role the group is playing in the conservative movement.
"I think they are more about fundraising for themselves than they are about moving public policy forward," Coffman said. "I think they could be a really positive force, but they have to realize at some point that you have to compromise to govern."
Heritage's influence has not been completely erased. They still wield enough power that many members asked to comment for this story refused to talk about the group on the record. Others were blunt about dismissing the premise altogether.
"I don't rate rating agencies because that's a bad thing for a politician to do," Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia told National Journal.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said the group might be "aggressive," but he defends it as always coming from the right place.
Even Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, who was at the center of the farm-bill meltdown with Heritage Action two years ago, is not about to deem Heritage Action irrelevant for House conservatives.
"Of course they matter," Stutzman said. "We all have to vote according to our conscience and our districts, so sometimes that doesn't always line up with them."
Heritage Action defends its record. Spokesman Dan Holler said the organization has no problem with members voting against them, but that the intention is to make members and leaders stop and think.
Even with some of their visible losses over the past year, the group had a victory last week. Heritage Action was one of several groups that alerted House members to vote against a commemorative-coin bill that would have directed more than $4 million to the Susan G. Komen foundation. Heritage and other antiabortion groups objected to it on the basis that Komen gives money to Planned Parenthood. Members were forced to change the language in the bill. Several members, though, said it was the antiabortion advocates, and not Heritage Action, that really changed their minds on the legislation.
And after a long fight for the "A-plus" amendment, legislation that allows states to not follow No Child Left Behind, Heritage Action pointed out that the amendment received support from 195 members in the House—falling short of what was needed, but marking a growth of support in the conference.
Holler said that the group is intended to be a guide of what conservatism looks like, but that the group does not primary members or get involved at that stage in the game. And Holler rejects the notion that his group scores "everything."
"Thus far we have scored 20 votes in the House; they have taken 447 votes," Holler said.
Heritage Action might be aggravating members on Capitol Hill, but Holler said that's only if members are frustrated that they cannot defend their records back home. That's not Heritage's job, Holler said. That sits on the shoulders of each member.