Heritage on the Hill

The Right's preeminent PR machine

by James Ridgeway

The Nation magazine December 22, 1997


The Heritage Foundation, which celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary beginning next month, has grown into one of the largest and most successful advocates for conservative thinking in Washington. From its unadorned, mud-colored headquarters building two blocks from the Capitol, Heritage provides research to back up the Republican right's drive to abolish what's left of the welfare state. At the same time, and of equal importance, Heritage has become a powerful propaganda arm in the war to re-create government along conservative lines.

Heritage is a "pillar" of the Washington political scene, according to Ronald Elving, the political editor of Congressional Quarterly. "It's up there with party organizations. It's terribly important," he says, noting that Heritage provides high-level jobs for conservatives as well as a meeting place for all sorts of conservative political figures. "Steve Forbes comes to town and he likes to talk there," Elving says. "It's a good forum. They don't check your conservative credentials at the door."

Even opponents, while criticizing its policies, don't see Heritage in the same light as they do the more extreme conservative groups. John Cavanagh, co-director of the Institute for Policy Studies, says that while both organizations share a desire to move power down to the local level, Heritage is "for devolving power to local and state levels, but not giving them any re sources." Still, adds Cavanagh, "they never said you're a bunch of commies and we won't talk to you."

Cavanagh recalls that for many years, Heritage "fundraised around I.P.S., as the great menace of the free world." Now, he says, with Heritage "twenty times bigger than we are, it's a little hard to use that." The Heritage Foundation's annual budget in 1996 was $28.7 million, with individuals accounting for 52 per cent of revenues, corporations 7 percent and foundations 21 per cent. Board members include Richard Scaife, whose various foundations have been a Heritage mainstay; Jeb Bush, son of former President Bush and a Florida gubernatorial hopeful; and William Simon, a former Treasury Secretary.

Organized in the early seventies by Paul Weyrich and Edwin Feulner, two young Congressional aides, with the prodding and financial support of beer magnate Joe Coors, Heritage caught fire with the Reagan presidency. It became Reagan's brain trust, and its Mandate for Leadership, prepared in 1980, be came the I ,1 00-page blueprint for taking over and refashioning government. "Mandate was one of the bibles for Reaganites," recalls Tony Blankley, Newt Gingrich's former spokesman.

Abroad, Heritage argued for much more consistent application of commando-style guerrilla activities in places like Nicaragua and Afghanistan to counter what it perceived as the threat of communism, while at home it called for the rapid privatization of government programs and reductions in social programs. The foundation's agenda suffered setbacks such as the defeat of Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court, but the election and re-election of Bill Clinton have done little to slow it down. Its greatest opportunity, in fact, is represented by the takeover of Congress by conservative Republicans in 1994, and its greatest success by the subsequent knuckling under of a putatively liberal President to the agenda set by Congressional leadership.

We truly have become an extension of the Congressional staff, but on our own terms and according to our own agenda," Kim Holmes, Heritage vice president for foreign policy and defense studies, wrote in the foundation's 1995 annual report. Heritage effectively argues for welfare "reform" and tuition tax credits, and tends toward support of a flat tax. And it is already in the midst of planning for change in the next century-the privatization of Social Security, overhaul of the tax system, elimination of the federal presence in education and the conversion of Medicare into a voucher-based medical system. "Heritage, more than the others, is interested in maintaining and preserving contacts with Republican leadership on the Hill," says Robert Reischauer, former head of the Congressional Budget Office and now at the Brookings Institution. "But I don't think they are the lap dog of the speaker or majority leader."

The foundation has sixty analysts working on issues across the board. Michael Franc, the vice president who oversees government relations, goes back and forth to the Hill three or four times a day, briefing staffs of conservative members and meeting with members themselves. On the Hill, Heritage representatives will hand out backgrounders on a bill heading for the floor the following week. If a bill's in trouble, Franc may go back to headquarters and pull out an apt Op-Ed from The Wall Street Journal or produce a quick executive memo. A staffer who knows that his office is going to have to deal with a controversial bill comes to work and finds a short Heritage report on the subject in his in-box. He can quickly find out what's involved and pass it on to his boss to use in a floor statement or in answering letters from constituents. Recalling the role of Heritage staffers while he was working for Gingrich, Blankley says, "They were useful for conservatives to quickly summarize key points on breaking issues on legislation."

And they impress many of their Democratic opponents. "They hustled," says Dan Buck, legislative aide to former Representative Pat Schroeder. "You had to give them credit. They got their stuff out and in a timely way. They were a new breed of think tank- much more activist oriented, jumping on things; their stuff was hand-delivered." He adds, "The problem with so many liberal groups is they think they're right and therefore you're supposed to agree with them. So they don't hustle as hard."

The key ideological player at Heritage is Stuart Butler, a British supporter of Margaret Thatcher who came to the United States in the late seventies as a keen exponent of free-market economics. Butler is for transforming public housing to private ownership through tenant organizations; backs changes in Social Security that would allow contributors to invest a portion in the private markets; and is exploring the notion that a stable society may be enhanced by religious practice. Reischauer says Butler re mains an independent voice on Capitol Hill: "I've been on panels in which Stuart has been very critical of positions that the Republican leadership has taken...on health care, taxes, the budget balancing plan this summer."

Butler says that over the years, he has tried to reach out to Democrats, including liberals such as Barney Frank, in the hope of exploring coalitions. Frank, however, says he can barely re member sitting on a panel on homelessness with Heritage a decade ago, and that he has no current dealings with the foundation. "They're just loyal soldiers in the right-wing army," he says. Heritage has been something of a model to the Progressive Policy Institute, which is associated with the New Democrats around Clinton and Gore. When Clinton first took office, P.P.I. published Mandate for Change, which was modeled after Heritage's Mandate for Leadership.

While many of the fights in which Heritage is engaged have been going on for the whole of its existence, the atmosphere in which it goes about its work has changed. Under Reagan, anti communism was the glue that held all the competing strands of the conservative revolution together, from supply-siders to Christian fundamentalists. Today, it is the concept of the free market, tempered not by regulation but by the tax code.

Meshing Christian family values with economics has been a major challenge for Heritage. Lee Edwards, the author of a new Heritage history called The Power of Ideas, says, "There has al ways been a healthy debate about emphasis. Heritage did stay away from cultural issues and so-called traditional-value policy deliberately for almost twenty years." Then in the early nineties, under conservative prodding, William Bennett was hired to lead a cultural studies program. "Bill Bennett got his first start talking about cultural issues here at Heritage," Edwards recalls. "The little book coming out of that was The Book of Virtues."

Heritage finds itself in accord with much of the Christian Coalition's work, but "we don't deal with them at all on their central issues of religion," Butler says. "We've not ventured much into that except to say that people should have as much opportunity to have their children educated in schools with religious values as they wish. That's why we support vouchers." As for abortion, "We meticulously avoid that."

Like the Christian evangelists with whom they share a some times tense alliance, the conservative advocates at Heritage believe in spreading their message to the uninitiated whenever and wherever they can. As an indication of the importance attached to this role, almost half of Heritage's annual budget goes into marketing ideas. While it promotes itself as a think tank on a par with Brookings or the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage is really much more of a public relations operation. Hill & Knowlton, not Brookings, provides a more fitting comparison. Indeed, as Elving points out, much of the conservative reform now being debated on Capitol Hill emerged from initiatives at the state level and was launched in the late seventies by members of Congress, Gingrich was one-well before Heritage found its own footing.

They've done one hell of a job as a bunch of hard-assed promoters," Jeff Faux, president of the Economic Policy Institute, says. "It's not a research and analysis think tank-I can't think of a serious piece of original research that has come out of the Heritage Foundation. It's not that they are biased and people like us are not. They are not a think tank in the sense that they do research and come up with their own data. Pretty much all their effort goes into influencing policy. Straight ideology."

Heritage operates as a sort of clearinghouse on conservative ideas across a wide range of issues, and it has enthusiastically encouraged the creation of some thirty-three different state think tanks, often modeled after itself. Lawrence Reed, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan, the largest of the state groups, says, "We're in constant touch," adding that he calls Heritage to "get the latest from Capitol Hill on issues." Every year the foundation hosts a meeting where the regional think tanks get together, and, as Melanie Kirkpatrick, assistant editorial page editor at The Wall Street Journal, puts it, "bounce ideas off one another. It's a bulletin board for conservative ideas." It also hosts monthly get-togethers for young conservatives, a practice started during the Reagan era.

Heritage works hard at getting its ideas into the mainstream. Its Guide to Public Policy Experts contains a listing of 1,900 experts, indexed by 108 different subjects of expertise. The book is now in its fourteenth edition, with more than 50,000 copies in print. The foundation's bimonthly magazine, Policy Review, goes out to 13,000 subscribers.

Heritage "issue bulletins"-some 200 a year-typically go out to 650 editorial page editors and thirty to forty national columnists, along with 450 talk-radio hosts. Op-Ed articles are sent regularly to fifty papers across the AP Data Feature wire, and to 200 others by mail, and one Op-Ed is prepared every week for the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. Mike Duggan, editor of the news service, says the Heritage Op-Eds go to all 350 of its client papers, where they wind up in 5-10 percent of them. "Heritage is probably the most successful" of the think tanks Knight Ridder approached in an effort to develop an array of political views, Duggan says. "Their material is well written, and Heritage is not so much on the far right as it used to be."

Walter Mears, vice president of the Associated Press, describes the conservative movement as "a growth industry." Referring to Heritage, he says, "Given the shift in political life on the Hill, they've been at the right place at the right time." Thomas Bray, editorial page director at The Detroit News, says, "The brilliant thing they did was to figure out how to get their viewpoint on your desk the next morning. Every day you open up the mail and there's a blizzard of releases from Heritage. It may not be the most thorough, or in depth, but it's there and it spells out a definite viewpoint and suggests ways of looking at things that might not have occurred to you."

Melanie Kirkpatrick of the Journal says, "What sets them apart from other think tanks is that they reach out to the heart land." As one example, Edwin Roberts, who runs the editorial page at The Tampa Tribune, says that "if there is a major tax-cut proposal such as the child credit business, they will run [data] through the big computer they've got and they will figure out how much extra money goes to people who live in every Congressional district. Nobody else is doing that."

Heritage pays relatively little attention to TV. Instead, "we concentrate on talk-radio," Herb Berkowitz, the ~P. for public relations, says, "because you get more time on talk radio." The foundation has two radio booths to accommodate radio hosts and charges only for the phone lines. Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers Magazine, the industry trade paper, and himself a talk-show host, says, "Nobody understands the new media and talk-radio as keenly as Heritage. They welcome all legitimate talk-show hosts to use their facility. No strings attached. No payback." Says Mary Matalin, George Bush's campaign manager and now a talk-radio host, "I rely on them for studied views.... I know they are touted as conservative and ideological, but they don't come on and just blow rhetoric. Know what I mean? They're numbers guys. They're facts guys. They're just scholars. They're not pundits."

Recently Heritage's pre-eminence within the conservative movement has been challenged by the libertarians at the Cato Institute, who pick at the contradictions in the big foundation's consensus style. Barney Frank says, "Cato seems to me to have a good deal of integrity and independence. I don't see that in Heritage." On a different front, media critic Norman Solomon just received a $100,000 grant to put together a "truth squad" to combat Heritage and other right-wing think-tank propaganda. The idea is to counteract a Heritage press release with one from Solomon's own group of scholars. "Heritage is in the line of fire because they're so prominent in mass media," Solomon says. "They've gotten almost a free ride. They've gone unchallenged." Modern Washington is like one big movie set. Nothing just happens; every appearance, each statement, is carefully crafted to gain the maximum political effect. Heritage's genius has been to recognize the capital for what it is and jump in with the financial resources to make itself really count. To think of the place as a think tank underestimates its importance. Heritage is a production company that has become a key player in creating the set every day. It is the city's Disney, and the impact of its message-flat tax, privatized Social Security and religion-based public policy-can only grow.


The Rest...

Former Heritage Foundation senior vice president Burton Yale Pines called them "the shock troops of the conservative revolution." They are the multitude of Washington-based, right wing think tanks that, like Heritage, have been instrumental in bringing the conservative message to Congress, the media and the public. Here is a short selection of four of the most effective on the issues-mainly domestic-that are currently at the center of national debate. Our apologies to the many that also deserve honorable mention.


§ Cato Institute: Except for Heritage, no think tank's influence is felt more strongly in Washington than the libertarian Cato Institute. Founded in San Francisco in 1977, Cato moved to Washington four years later but didn't really hit the national spotlight until the Republican landslide in the 1994 Congressional elections.

Like its namesake, the Roman statesman who opposed tyrants such as Julius Caesar but also helped crush the slave rebellion led by Spartacus, the Cato Institute is full of seeming contradictions: The group takes a conservative, market-driven approach to the economy but progressive stands on numerous civil liberties and foreign policy issues. Cato was a key opponent of Clinton's early efforts at health care reform; it has pushed regressive tax changes (one top official recently took a leave to work for Dick Armey and a flat tax at the Congressional Joint Economic Committee); and it advocates abandoning both the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. At the same time, it has called for the legalization of drugs, a lifting of U.S. economic sanctions on Cuba and a withdrawal of U.S. military commitments in both Europe and South Korea.

In 1996 Cato had a staff of fifty and an operating budget of $7.9 million. Its biggest financial benefactor has been the Koch family, owners of Koch Industries, an oil, natural gas and land-management firm that is the second-largest privately owned company in America.


§ American Enterprise Institute: This group's main current contribution to conservative efforts may well be the steady stream of "experts" it provides to the media. Increasingly, it also pays the salaries of "journalists" who double as A.E.I. scholars and fellows. On television, there is Lynne Cheney, co-host of Crossfire Sunday; syndicated columnist Ben Wattenberg, host of PBS's Think Tank; and William Schneider, world-hopping political analyst on CNN. And then there is James Glassman, seemingly everywhere. Not only does he appear on CNN's Capital Gang Sunday and PBS's Techno-Politics; he also writes a week ly column for The Washington Post and biweekly essays for U.S. News & World Report. Not even the Internet is free from the irrepressible Glassman, who has written for Microsoft's online magazine, Slate. As for the print media, there is former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick with her regularly syndicated columns; Irving Kristol and Herb Stein, both contributors to The Wall Street Journal; and Karlyn Bowman's columns in the influential Capitol Hill journal Roll Call.

A.E.I. also maintains a strong presence in academia, supplying about a hundred adjunct scholars or fellows to U.S. campuses. The institute has been active in opposing welfare, taxes and regulatory restrictions on business; it has also pushed for heavier military spending and NATO expansion.

A.E.I. has a staff of 135; its budget was $13 million, with 40 percent of revenue coming from corporate donors. The Bradley Foundation has also been a big donor, giving more than $2 million between 1990 and 1992.


§ Free Congress Research and Education Foundation (and National Empowerment Television): Free Congress Foundation, the largest conservative think tank devoted primarily to social issues, was founded twenty years ago by its current president, Paul Weyrich, a conservative Catholic who was also a founder of the Heritage Foundation. Weyrich recently made headlines when National Empowerment Television-a private cable station that started out as a division of F.C.F. and now claims to reach more than 15 million households-asked him to resign as president. The board of NET, whose programming runs to groups like the National Rifle Association and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, was apparently concerned about his increasingly shrill attacks on Republican Congressional leaders like Senator Trent Lott, whom Weyrich accused of selling out his country by supporting a chemical weapons treaty.

Weyrich's falling out with NET is not unlike his falling out with Heritage-which, as it has grown increasingly influential in the capital, has come under attack from Weyrich for becoming overly Beltway-focused and losing touch with its grassroots base.

F.C.F. Iobbies extensively on state ballot issues, among them gun control, medical marijuana and gay employment discrimination. F.C.F. is active in favor of school prayer; it also tracks Clinton's candidates for judicial appointments and was a major opponent of Clinton's health care reform bill. Perhaps F.C.F.'s most creative project is the Clinton Sexual Harassment Hotline, launched with a $250,000 ad campaign to get the number out. "If you believe you have been sexually harassed by Bill Clinton," answers a recorded voice at 1-888-HARASSU, "please leave your name and number." The mailbox was full when The Nation called.

Free Congress has a staff of thirty-four and its 1996 budget was $7.7 million. Two of its biggest backers have been the Scaife affiliated Carthage Foundation and the Bradley Foundation.


§ Family Research Council: No Washington think tank has been more active in lobbying against abortion rights and on gay issues than the Family Research Council. F.R.C. has also been at the forefront of efforts to eliminate funding for the Education Department, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts, which F.R.C. president Gary Bauer once described as a group that "has allowed itself to be used by a small cadre of cultural revolutionaries, militant homosexuals and anti-religious bigots who are intent on attacking the average American's most deeply held beliefs while sending them the bill."

F.R.C. was founded in 1983, but didn't really take off until it merged in 1988 with Focus on the Family, an advocacy group led by Bauer, a former Under Secretary of the Education Department under Reagan. The two groups later parted ways, but Bauer, a top political leader of the Christian right, remained as head of the organization. The F.R.C. Iobbied on behalf of a school prayer constitutional amendment and was a big public backer of Cracker Barrel Restaurant's decision not to hire gays. It has a staff of seventy and a 1996 operating budget of $10 million.


James Ridgeway is the Washington, D. C., correspondent of The Village Voice. Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

Media Control and Propaganda