Late last week, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., announced he was leaving the Senate to become president of The Heritage Foundation, the country’s most influential conservative think tank. From his new office perch just five minutes from the Senate floor, DeMint, a tea party gladiator, will enjoy unrestricted power to pursue America’s ideological renewal at six times his Senate salary. Members of Congress cashing in on their experience is nothing new. But it would be wrong and simplistic to assume DeMint is trading his institutional power as a senator for money and ideological purity. Indeed, Heritage offers him all three. This trifecta is a unique evolution of modern politics — and the outcome of a decision made by Speaker Newt Gingrich nearly 20 years ago to dismantle Congress’ own policymaking and researching capacity. Since then, The Heritage Foundation has slipped in to fill the resulting knowledge vacuum on the right. When DeMint crosses the street to his new gig in January, it will be like he never left the Senate.
Twenty years ago, it’s likely DeMint would have never considered this type of mid-career jump. But today, The Heritage Foundation is where policy agendas are set and tactics are developed hand-in-hand with Hill staff. This turn of events has become a pattern because in 1995, Congress lost much of its capacity to produce unbiased public-interest information — the facts that help legislators make decisions and craft sound policies. Under Gingrich, the system that supplied bipartisan information and analysis to Congress was disbanded — including the Office of Technology Assessment — the world’s premier legislative advisory body on technology. Several staffed caucuses were also axed, including those that served “big picture” shared interests like hunger, nuclear security and environmental health. Congress lost many committee staff as well; with them went its institutional memory. The Democratic Study Group was another casualty. Although run by Democrats, it also provided rapid response research on global issues to over 50 Republican dues-paying members. In 1977, 66 percent of all legislative staff relied on its information. Today the leading unofficial policy organization on the Hill is the Republican Study Committee, which managed to survive after 1995. It is for Republicans only and has at least a dozen staff sitting on Capitol Hill who organize and communicate constantly with outside groups like The Heritage Foundation. And the cuts continued. According to the Sunlight Foundation, just this year Congress reduced its staff by another 7.4 percent.
Like much of the U.S. government, Congress began outsourcing its policy needs to private contractors. Heritage was primed for the job. It had already been populating Congress with policy ideas for decades — so filling the post-1995 void was a natural expansion.
The Heritage Foundation occupies an entire block of Massachusetts Avenue in D.C., directly across the street from the Senate. Heritage is now just behind the House of Representatives on Pennsylvania Avenue, too. Its recently opened House Annex occupies an entire building conveniently located among a row of Hill staff eateries. Easy access to ideas and Congress-friendly policy wonks have always been a Heritage specialty. Heritage cultivates and maintains a bench of conservative manpower unrivaled in the policy influencing world. Indeed, a friend from a liberal nonprofit once described going up against Heritage as “fighting a well trained Army with a pick-up team.”
Congress now plays the role of the pickup team. Today, it operates with roughly 80 percent of 1979 staffing levels. At the same time, Congress is experiencing 800 percent more incoming contact from the outside world.
In an interview after his announced departure, DeMint expressed excitement about the potential for Heritage to accelerate its policy evangelizing. He specifically noted his desire to promote the analysis and research generated by Heritage. The group’s Center for Data Analysis boasts one of the largest collections of public policy in the U.S. Heritage economists have developed their own interpretive models for data which actively compete with the Congressional Budget Office. Last year, House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., submitted a formal request to the Heritage’s center of his proposed budget. The center delivered a positive response.
By eliminating its shared system and the staff custodians of public interest knowledge, it’s clear that Congress’ 1995 decision has resulted in more partisanship along with biased information becoming the basis for legislation. There is very little consensus on what constitutes the “greater good” these days and the institutions that should be defensive light brigades are in tatters. In recent years, Congress’ expert bureaucracies have come under repeated attack from the right and private moneyed interests. Conservatives have slammed the CBO over the budget and health care estimates. The Government Accountability Office has been in lawsuits as a plaintiff against the Bush administration and more recently, as the defendant in a case brought by for-profit universities. At a recent holiday party, an acquaintance noted with dismay the self-censorship at the Congressional Research Service in the wake of a rescinded tax policy report — also attacked by conservatives. Apparently CRS administration is afraid to produce anything about sequestration, aka the fiscal cliff. The House Armed Services Committee has filled part of the gap. A pop-up window on the HASC website leads the viewer to a “sequestration resource kit” on defense spending. If you read carefully, you’ll see that its contents are courtesy of The Heritage Foundation and the Aerospace Industry, among others.
Lorelei Kelly is a research fellow for the Open Technology Institute, part of the New America Foundation.