WASHINGTON – A year ago, the establishment wing of the Republican Party was at loggerheads with a handful of right-of-center Washington-based conservative groups that were taking a pugnacious, tea party-inflected tone.
Heritage Action for America, an offshoot of the more staid Heritage Foundation, came in for especial criticism, and when House Speaker John Boehner declared in December 2013 that the tea party-inspired groups had “lost all credibility,” it was clear whom he was talking about.
Heritage Action had just opposed the budget deal House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., had reached with Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash. And it had been angering the GOP establishment all year, demanding that the 2013 farm bill be split into two parts and opposing it anyway when it got its wish, and then siding with Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in his quest to start a filibuster against the Affordable Care Act, which led to a government shutdown.
Heritage Foundation staffers found themselves banned from a meeting of conservative lawmakers on the Hill that they had been attending for years, while some of the most conservative House members spoke out openly against Heritage Action. The group was reflexively against whatever GOP leadership in Congress was for, critics charged, because that’s what helped it raise the most money from donors.
This year, Heritage Action has clashed less frequently with congressional Republicans, holding a policy summit in February that hinted at a change in direction and an effort to move beyond the criticism of Republican leaders.
Yahoo News talked with Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham at the group’s offices, to get a sense of how it will navigate the coming months in Congress, now that Republicans control both the House and the Senate. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation, which has been condensed for brevity.
Yahoo News: Obviously, Mitch McConnell is not your favorite majority leader. But are you guys going to spend any time or effort actually working against his being elected majority leader?
Michael Needham: Yeah, we’ve never gotten involved in leadership races. We’re not going to get involved. … I think the specific personalities are less important than: Can we change the incentive structures in Washington?
Change the incentive structures?
If you come to Congress today, you’re one of 435 people, you’ve got to raise millions of dollars for campaigns. The easiest way to do it is to show up at Charlie Palmer's [steakhouse on Constitution Avenue] and collect PAC checks. You feel like your voice is one voice out of 435. How do I get anything done unless I rise up in leadership, become a committee chairman? It’s a town that tries to take bold ideas and stamp them out, co-opt people, make them work as part of a system that works very well for the well-connected and those who can hire lobbyists, but is not working for Americans out there who see their median income exactly where it was when Reagan left office, see gas prices going up, have no idea how to pay for college … The only way to change that is to go out to the country, empower people with information, let them hold their members of Congress accountable, and kind of go toe to toe with the crony capital and actually fight for the real problems people face.
So instead of coming to town and going to Charlie Palmer's, what would you like to see members do?
Listen to their voters. I think that if you think of what the Internet has made possible ... So in 1995, the music industry is run by five big record labels. They have 83 percent of the profits. Sony, EMI, Warner Music. Internet comes across: peer-to-peer file sharing, Napster, eventually iTunes, and Justin Bieber gets found on YouTube. Can I mention YouTube on Yahoo News? So the Internet fundamentally disrupted the way the music industry works. That’s what’s going on in politics today. A taxpayer in Florida can meet up with somebody in Michigan, and they can both decide to send $25 to a candidate. They can both say, "Hey, we’re hearing about this farm bill, but it’s actually 80 percent food stamps." So it empowers people to create authentic networks that are disrupting politics. And I think that is enormously empowering for people who haven’t been heard in Washington, D.C., who have real anxieties, real struggles that they’re facing. They can’t go hire 10 top-tier lobbyists, but they can organize.
In the next six to eight months, do you see the [Continuing Resolution] and the Reconciliation measure as the two sort of big-action-forcing opportunities for you guys?
Yeah, they are two of them. I think when you have the Senate, you have more tools to force action than you have when you just had the House. So the House can now pass legislation that the Senate actually forces a debate over. I think it would be a huge missed opportunity not to put forth an opportunity-based agenda … and if Republicans aren’t saying President Obama has failed — his policies haven’t made life better — but more importantly, we have real solutions that can work for you, and we’re finally recognizing that there are people out there who feel unheard, are right to feel unheard, and we are going to put forth bold solutions that speak to their needs. That’s energy legislation, it’s legislation on education, higher education, so on and so forth. It’s a huge missed opportunity to not just try to win another negative campaign about how bad the other side is, but actually inspire people.
On the Continuing Resolution, you guys want a short-term CR?
I think in general, absent an emergency, lame ducks are a really bad way to govern. Until 15 years ago, you really didn’t have lame-duck sessions of Congress. The American people just spoke. There’s lots of new members coming to town … they should all have the right to weigh in on all legislation, certainly including a trillion-dollar spending bill.
But my understanding is you guys want it to be short-term, so if the president does do something on immigration, the conservatives in the House will have an opportunity to withdraw funding or withhold funding for that.
Yeah, the purse power of Congress is an important power. It’s a coequal branch. It’d be silly to throw away the opportunity to attach riders and stuff like that.
Would you be satisfied with having just the mandate in a reconciliation bill? That was ruled a tax. It’s obviously fair game for reconciliation, as opposed to maybe the whole thing.
Well, so we’re looking, you know, at what our full strategy is. All of Obamacare needs to be repealed. And next year needs to be a year that makes it very clear that the Republican Party is completely committed to full repeal of Obamacare. And that’s the only thing you can do with a hopelessly flawed law.
So you might not be satisfied with just the mandate in reconciliation?
When Obama ran, he actually didn’t even support the individual mandate. … So the mandate is one bad thing in Obamacare, but the overall law is hopelessly flawed. And the rest of it needs to go also.
Rand Paul has talked about how Republicans have been wrong to focus on voter fraud. What do you think of that statement?
I think when you look at people who are not American citizens voting 80 percent for Democrats, and then you look at a close race up in Minnesota six years ago, and so on and so forth, clearly, voter fraud is a problem and is something that we need to address. I think that’s something [people] across the ideological spectrum should be able to — my wife is a liberal Democrat. She is shocked that you can show up at a voting booth and not show your driver's license.
Rand Paul's point is that whatever the merits of it, it’s sent the wrong message to minority communities. Do you think there’s any validity to that?
I think the message we need to send to all Americans is that we’re a party that’s fighting for them, that has solutions for them, that recognizes that life is tough for all sorts of people ... You’re inspiring people by saying: I recognize the challenges that you have in your life, and I’m fighting a corrupt capital trying to alleviate them. … They rightly feel like neither political party is currently doing that.
Heritage Action has made a push to make itself known for more than just being against things. Is that an accurate perception on my part?
Yeah. Heritage Action was created because the Heritage Foundation decided that after a couple of decades of trying to get people in Congress to listen to our bold ideas and then walking out of the office and having a line of K Street lobbyists saying, "Forget what the pointy-headed guys just told you, here’s what you need to do, because we run this town." We need to go over the heads of Washington directly to the American people. And so, certainly with Barack Obama in office, a lot of what we’ve done has had to be focused on stopping bad things, and he’s done tremendous damage to circuit courts of this country, to the health care system in this country, to opportunity in America. But it’s not enough just to be against something. You have to be for solutions that work for Americans. And I think that’s exactly what the Heritage Foundation exists to provide and what we exist to fight for.
Hasn't most of Heritage Action’s opposition been to stuff the Republican Party has been doing?*
Certainly, the media tends to gravitate towards and cover conflict amongst conservatives and the Republican Party. We understand and expect that dynamic, but that says more about the press than it does Heritage Action. If you think about some of the more high-profile moments over the past four years, they've come when a faction of the Republican Party decides to work with Democrats — think amnesty, gun control and debt-ceiling increases. The dynamic changes for the better when America's conservative party is united.
The defund fight last year with the Ted Cruz filibuster, which was about a year ago, what were your lessons learned out of that? Is there any way in which you walked away from that and said, "Here are the pros of what we did. Here are the cons."
What we said right afterwards was that when the 2014 election happened, one party would have done everything it could have done to try to stop Obamacare in its tracks before it continued and hurt people and hurt our health care system, and another party would have done everything it could — including shutting down the World War II Memorial — to make sure that Obamacare went forward, and that voters would identify with the party that had done everything it could to stop it. I think that’s exactly what you saw on Tuesday [Nov. 4], and is certainly a validation of the fact that fighting to stop Obamacare was the right policy. And good policy ends up being good politics.
And what about the accusations from folks that there was just a lack of regard for governance or responsible governance?
The fact is, we live in a system of government where there are two coequal branches of government, where Congress has the right to use its purse power to force conversation about policy it disagrees with. And unfortunately, we have a president who has absolutely no regard for Congress as a coequal branch of government. So, Congress was playing by the rules we have. This is not a country on autopilot. It’s a country with annual appropriations measures that need to go through, and it was trying to use that power to stand up for the American people against a totally unworkable law. And unfortunately, the president, rather than working with a coequal branch of government, decided to shut the government down, and that’s what happened.
Does Heritage Action have a position on getting involved in a presidential primary?
We’ve never gotten involved in elections. I’m confident that if you empower the American people with information and choice and the right questions to ask, they can make our system of politics work a lot better for themselves. That’s what we’re going to be focused on.
What’s going to happen with the Export-Import Bank?
It’s my favorite topic. I can’t fathom that a Republican Party in control of the House and with 54 seats in the Senate is going to look at a government agency that gives 70 percent of its loans to companies like Boeing, GE and Caterpillar and the rest to Solyndra, Russian oligarchs, drug cartels in Latin America and the richest person in Australia and say this is a program we should reauthorize. So I think its days are done. If Congress does nothing and sits on its hands, the Export-Import Bank authorization expires [June 30]. So this is one area where I think if Congress could just do nothing, it would be good for the American people.
*This question, and Needham’s answer, were added in an email exchange and inserted here as a follow-up to the previous question and answer.