Perhaps the most widely recognized of the many conservative think tanks that have proliferated since the 1970s, the Heritage Foundation occupies a privileged position among Washington’s Republican establishment. Unlike corresponding institutions on the left (and many of its fellows on the right), Heritage has managed to clamor to the top of the influence ladder less through rigorous research and analysis than through effective messaging, a methodology hinted at in its mission to “formulate and promote conservative public policies.” As one Democratic figure explained ruefully in 1998, after Heritage had firmly rooted itself in Washington politics, the organization “wrote the book on how to market and popularize political ideas."
Founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, who served Heritage’s first president, and Edwin Feulner, who has been president from 1977 to today, the organization cemented the foundations of its legacy during the Reagan administration, when it became an influential generator of conservative policy ideas. Its Mandate for Leadership, a 1,000-plus-page publication with suggestions on how to make government more conservative, became a sort of manual for President Reagan, whose administration, according to Heritage itself, introduced almost two-thirds percent of its prescriptions. Then-Reagan adviser Ed Meese, who later became attorney general, met with Heritage staff about the guide. Heritage continues to produce the Mandate policy books for each administration, albeit pared-down versions of the original detailed behemoth.
Heritage has long tried to brand itself as an ideologically conservative outfit rather than a tool of Republican insiders, but since its early collaboration with Reagan the group has been cozily intertwined with the GOP establishment. Employees are often exchanged between the think tank and Republican administrations. Several contributors to the Mandate were hired as part of Reagan’s cabinet. Reagan attorney general Meese joined Heritage in 1988, immediately after Reagan’s presidency ended, and continues fulfill two prominent roles at Heritage. Similar exchanges happened with both Bush administrations. Mitt Romney’s foreign policy team includes at least four Heritage alumni. Yet it’s been fighting the perception that it’s aligned with the “establishment” for decades.
What most betrays Heritage as an institution built to support the Republican Party is the way it has shifted rightward in concert with the GOP. Heritage, along with other conservative figures and organizations, was the first to sponsor the idea of health insurance mandates. Stuart Butler, a Heritage fellow, advised in 1989 that government “mandate all households to obtain adequate insurance” in a speech on health care. As the Democratic Party warmed up to the idea, however, Heritage fled from its proposal. It opposed health care reform efforts in 1993, and it wrote an amicus brief in support of those suing the federal government over the Affordable Care Act.
Heritage is extremely well-funded, pulling in over $73 million in 2010 and boasting assets of nearly $200 million. That year it spend over $80 million, a tenth of which went to “media and government relations” – that is, its efforts to promote its work among elected officials, the media, and the general public. As a tax-exempt charity, the think tank doesn’t have to disclose its donors, but tax forms show that it gets a lot of funding from key right-wing foundations like the Koch-run Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, the Richard Scaife-controlled Carthage Foundation and Sarah Scaife Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation. Scaife is vice chairman of Heritage’s board. Philanthropist and former investment banker Thomas Saunders III serves as chairman.
In 2010, Heritage added a 501(c)(4) advocacy group, Heritage Action for America, promising “that when a wavering congressman thinks of voting for higher taxes, increased regulation, or a weaker national defense, television ads in his home district will remind him that a vote for bigger government is a vote for less freedom.”