Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ed Feulner

Jim DeMint and the Heritage Identity

John reflected earlier on the possibility that as the next president of the Heritage Foundation, Jim DeMint might “stress the institution’s role in opposition, which is his stock in trade as a senator, and to downgrade its policy role.” Heritage’s decision to tap DeMint is less a sign that the pathbreaking think tank is setting off in a new direction than a sign it is pleased with the direction it has been taking the last couple of years.

In recent years, and especially over the last several months, Heritage has supplemented its traditional role as a major research institution by getting more involved in day-to-day political battles on Capitol Hill. Heritage Action for America was founded in 2010 by the Heritage Foundation’s board, and serves as a vehicle for Heritage to advance its policy message in a more directly political manner. Heritage, as a 501(c)(3), is unable to participate in direct lobbying; Heritage Action, a 501(c)(4), has fewer legal limitations.

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John reflected earlier on the possibility that as the next president of the Heritage Foundation, Jim DeMint might “stress the institution’s role in opposition, which is his stock in trade as a senator, and to downgrade its policy role.” Heritage’s decision to tap DeMint is less a sign that the pathbreaking think tank is setting off in a new direction than a sign it is pleased with the direction it has been taking the last couple of years.

In recent years, and especially over the last several months, Heritage has supplemented its traditional role as a major research institution by getting more involved in day-to-day political battles on Capitol Hill. Heritage Action for America was founded in 2010 by the Heritage Foundation’s board, and serves as a vehicle for Heritage to advance its policy message in a more directly political manner. Heritage, as a 501(c)(3), is unable to participate in direct lobbying; Heritage Action, a 501(c)(4), has fewer legal limitations.

There is a great deal of overlap between Heritage and Heritage Action, both in terms of staff (eight of its 14 D.C. staffers are Heritage alumni, including its CEO and COO) and messaging. Heritage Action’s offices are actually within Heritage’s main office on Massachusetts Avenue and there is frequent staff interaction between the two (full disclosure: I’m a Heritage Foundation alumna). Heritage Action has become increasingly vocal over the past two years, calling out congressional leaders seen as insufficiently opposed to the legislative agenda of the Obama White House and congressional Democrats. Heritage Action produces a scorecard to rate members of Congress on their voting records. While they do not endorse candidates, there has been an increasing amount of coordination between Heritage Action and the more conservative members of Congress in an attempt to promote legislation.

In the current fiscal cliff debate, the Heritage Foundation and Jim DeMint took a joint stand against House Speaker John Boehner’s counteroffer. In retrospect, the coordination just two days ago between Heritage and DeMint on Boehner could indicate just how much a DeMint-run Heritage Foundation will participate in day-to-day D.C. politics. RedState’s Erick Erickson has already alluded to the fact that Heritage Action is expected to take an even larger role under a DeMint-run Heritage Foundation.

DeMint will be retiring from the Senate in order to assume his role at Heritage, four years earlier than previously announced. A major component of outgoing president Ed Feulner’s job–fundraising–was going to be a difficult challenge for almost any successor, as Heritage’s 700,000 active “members” (donors who have contributed in the last 24 months) are accustomed to seeing Feulner’s signature on their fundraising appeals. DeMint, an expert fundraiser for the Senate Conservatives Fund, is no fundraising lightweight, which may have contributed to his appeal as a successor to Feulner. While Heritage will most likely be able to maintain its membership base after a DeMint succession, DeMint’s strategy for balancing politics and policy will be under the microscope from day one.

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DeMint Takes Over the Heritage Foundation

The big news in conservative circles today is that Jim DeMint will be leaving the Senate to run the Heritage Foundation, built from scratch by its innovative founder, Ed Feulner, into a colossus that redefined the way public-policy ideas could be integrated into the ongoing political process on Capitol Hill. Before Heritage was created in 1974, Capitol Hill was a vast wasteland intellectually and ideologically, especially on the Republican side; most policy was generated by the bureaucrats in the executive branch and then refined into legislative form by permanent staff on the Hill. Heritage began examining specific pieces of legislation and offering criticisms of them and proposals for their refinement, as well as producing short and coherent documents on a range of issues to educate congressmen and their staffs about the effects their votes could and would produce. This is now standard practice across the ideological camps in D.C., but it was entirely new and enormously influential.

Heritage is commonly called a “think tank,” but it’s something far more complex than that—it is one of the largest grass-roots organizations in the world, with an astonishing 700,000-plus donors and supporters and a budget of $75 million. And like most of the right, it has found itself see-sawing between trying to offer constructive policy advice advancing innovative legislation and standing in potent opposition to liberal innovations.

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The big news in conservative circles today is that Jim DeMint will be leaving the Senate to run the Heritage Foundation, built from scratch by its innovative founder, Ed Feulner, into a colossus that redefined the way public-policy ideas could be integrated into the ongoing political process on Capitol Hill. Before Heritage was created in 1974, Capitol Hill was a vast wasteland intellectually and ideologically, especially on the Republican side; most policy was generated by the bureaucrats in the executive branch and then refined into legislative form by permanent staff on the Hill. Heritage began examining specific pieces of legislation and offering criticisms of them and proposals for their refinement, as well as producing short and coherent documents on a range of issues to educate congressmen and their staffs about the effects their votes could and would produce. This is now standard practice across the ideological camps in D.C., but it was entirely new and enormously influential.

Heritage is commonly called a “think tank,” but it’s something far more complex than that—it is one of the largest grass-roots organizations in the world, with an astonishing 700,000-plus donors and supporters and a budget of $75 million. And like most of the right, it has found itself see-sawing between trying to offer constructive policy advice advancing innovative legislation and standing in potent opposition to liberal innovations.

The temptation for DeMint will be to stress the institution’s role in opposition, which is his stock in trade as a senator, and to downgrade its policy role, which has had its major “up”s (welfare reform) and its blind-spot “down”s (advocating a health-care mandate in 1994). But if ideas do not play the central role, Heritage will hollow itself out, and that would be a great shame. Ed Feulner stands as one of the great public-policy innovators of the 20th century; it would be thrilling if the same could be said of Jim DeMint when he passes on the mantle to his successor.

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