A Rich Heritage

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JONATHAN CHAIT APRIL 12, 2010

A Rich Heritage

Edward Fuelner and Michael Needham of the Heritage Foundation have a Wall Street Journal op-ed -- really more of an advertorial -- today boasting of their influence:

The Heritage Foundation has been called "the beast" of all think tanks. Last week our beast added new fangs with the creation of a new advocacy organization. This institution—Heritage Action for America—will be able to spend money to push legislation we think the country needs without the obstacles faced by a nonprofit like the Heritage Foundation.

Wow, "the beast." Great moniker. Nothing says "intellectual credibility" like being compared to a powerful, ravenous, unthinking animal.

The joke here is that Heritage needs to create an "advocacy institute" to be more beastly than its regular think-tank work. Heritage needs a separate advocacy arm because the rules of a non-profit think-tank forbid it from advocating for or against legislation. But it's not as if heritage actually takes this seriously. In 1993, Michael Kinsley wrote a hilarious column about Heritage's flirtation with the legal line:

Almost every mailing from the Heritage Foundation contains an odd 'little disclaimer at the bottom of the first page. "Note: Nothing written here is to be construed … as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress."

Oh, really? "THE NATIONAL. COMPETITIVENESS ACT (S.4): A HIGH-TECH BOONDOGGLE"? "FIFTEEN REASONS WHY THE CLINTON TAX PACKAGE IS BAD FOR AMERICA'S FUTURE"? "THE HOUSE BUDGET RECONCILIATION BILL: MAKING A BAD BUDGET EVEN WORSE"? If anyone but the Heritage Foundation itself were to assert that these were not intended to hinder the passage of a bill before Congress, I would find it hard to believe. And what about "FIVE-DAY WAITING PERIOD URGED ON CONGRESSIONAL SPENDING BILLS," which seems to be an attempt to hinder the passage not just of one bill but of all of them?

There is actually no mystery. The Heritage Foundation is a tax-exempt institution, and contributions to it are also tax-exempt. The law specifically warns that "carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting to influence legislation," is verboten.

So it's good to know that the Heritage Foundation is spending $20 million a year not attempting to influence legislation. That raises the question, What is it attempting to do? The law limits tax-exempt institutions to certain high-minded purposes. Is the Heritage Foundation attempting "to foster national or international amateur sports competition" or "the prevention of cruelty to children or animals"? I think not. Perhaps its purpose is "literary": to make surrealistic comment on the absurdity, of modern life. A piece of paper that says at the top, "H.R. 73 MUST DIE.!" and says at the bottom that it is not intended to aid or hinder legislation before Congress is rather like Magritte's famous painting of a pipe, labeled "Ceci n'est pas une pipe."

Lee Fang provides a more recent look at "the beast" in action, applying its high intellectual standards:

– Heritage On Romney’s Individual Mandate: “Not an unreasonable position, and one that is clearly consistent with conservative values.” [Heritage, 1/28/06]

– Heritage On President Obama’s Individual Mandate: “Both unprecedented and unconstitutional.” [Heritage, 12/9/09]

– Heritage On Romney’s Insurance Exchange: An “innovative mechanism to promote real consumer choice.” [Heritage, 4/20/06]

– Heritage On President Obama’s Insurance Exchange: Creates a “de facto public option” by “grow[ing]” government control over healthcare.” [Heritage, 3/30/10]

– Heritage On Romney’s Medicaid Expansion: Reduced “the total cost to taxpayers” by taking people out of the “uncompensated care pool.” [Heritage, 1/28/06]

– Heritage On President Obama’s Medicaid Expansion: Expands a “broken entitlement program,” providing a “low-quality, poorly functioning program.” [Heritage, 3/30/10]

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posted in: jonathan chait, wall street journal, america, congress, edward fuelner, lee fang, michael kinsley, michael needham, the heritage

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