House Republican leaders' decision to ignore a key-vote threat by Heritage Action for America and pass a short-term transportation bill this week demonstrates the sometimes-uphill battle upstart groups face to build influence in Washington, D.C.
Heritage Action, however, is somewhat unique in that it is directly connected to the Heritage Foundation, one of the oldest and most influential sources of conservative thought in the United States.
Despite that connection — as well as the group's close ties to the Republican Study Committee — Heritage Action has a mixed record of influencing leaders, as demonstrated by Tuesday's decision to pass the transportation bill by voice vote. The group has even engendered the resentment of some rank-and-file Republicans.
"Heritage Action is a self-interested fundraising organization ... a worthless organization to the conservative movement," Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) told the conservative Daily Caller in a Web interview earlier this week.
Davis went on to insinuate that Heritage Action and other groups are manipulating conservative voters.
"A lot of people who may be conservative are also profiting off the anger they are creating outside," Davis said.
Heritage Action has had repeated run-ins with Republican leadership this year, including over the continuing resolution this spring and the final debt deal. Those incidents, along with the group's opposition to the transportation bill, have led to complaints that it is trying to hold the party hostage to its ideology.
Leadership aides — who mostly agreed with Davis' assessment — explained there are several key differences between Heritage Action and other, more established organizations.
Groups such as the National Rifle Association and National Taxpayers Union built their political brands in part on lawmaker accountability programs such as annual scorecards that rank Members' ideological fealty.
But Heritage Action and a number of relatively new tea-party-affiliated organizations have yet to demonstrate the type of muscle their older brethren have used not only to influence legislation but also to target for defeat lawmakers who have crossed them.
"These [established] groups have a record of making sure their ratings count on election days," a GOP leadership aide said, arguing that Heritage Action has not displayed the sort of clout with voters that would make it a major factor inside the Beltway.
A second leadership aide agreed.
"People care about their [American Conservative Union] rating, they care about their NRA rating, they care about their National Right to Life rating, but some of these self-interested organizations trying to hold things hostage, like Heritage Action, are not that influential."
Heritage Action Communications Director Dan Holler dismissed the attacks.
"We don't measure our effectiveness based on quotes from anonymous Republican aides, especially those who would rather pursue political expediency than principled conservative policies," Holler said in a statement. "We'll leave that judgment to our activists. It's worth noting, though, that senior aides typically do not go on the attack against organizations that lack influence."
Indeed, not all Members agree with the dismissal of Heritage Action.
RSC Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) defended Heritage Action and its importance to the conservative movement. "Good conservatives might disagree from time to time, but there's no doubt in my mind that Heritage Action has helped shift the debate rightward this year," Jordan said Wednesday.
"I don't think anyone can deny the value of the information they provide us," Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) said. "The research they do is invaluable to conservatives; the messaging they do is invaluable."
In a Sept. 8 "Dear Colleague" letter about his bill to defund the Legal Services Corporation, Rep. Austin Scott (Ga.), who is freshman GOP class president, highlighted Heritage Action's support of the measure in urging his colleagues to co-sign his legislation.
Still, leadership's decision to ignore Heritage Action's key vote — and use a simple voice vote to pass the transportation bill Tuesday — is remarkable.
Voice votes are rarely used in the sharply divided House and are almost never applied to massive authorization bills like the transportation package. Traditionally, any time an interest group opposed to a measure makes it a so-called key vote, at least one Member will object to using a voice vote to pass the bill, forcing a roll call vote to put lawmakers on the record.
And while no rank-and-file Members raised an objection Tuesday, the decision rankled some conservatives.
In a floor statement, Mulvaney denounced the decision to voice vote the bill.
"I was appalled by the procedure the House used in passing this bill. While I recognize the need to quickly move this bill ... I do not believe that justifies suspending the rules to move a bill that will cost tens of billions of dollars over a six-month period without any opportunity to offer amendments either in the Rules Committee or on the House floor," Mulvaney said.
"While such action does not technically violate our House or Conference rules, it certainly flies in the face of the higher standards those rules and protocols promote," he added.
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