Heritage Action sided with 151 Democrats in opposing drought relief legislation backed by Speaker John Boehner Thursday — an instance of strange bedfellows unusual even by Washington's standards, and the latest instance of the conservative group's practice of torturing House Republican leaders.
Democrats and Heritage Action came at the vote from very different places: Democrats wanted Congress to pass a full extension of agriculture programs that included the drought relief, while conservatives opposed the bill because of the added cost to taxpayers.
Nevertheless, leadership aides privately complained about the group’s decision to “key vote” the disaster measure, arguing they essentially gave the 151 Democrats a free pass by staking out a position further to the right than the Republican leadership.
“When a supposedly conservative organization finds itself in agreement with liberals like Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, and 149 other Democrats, it's proving itself to be either ignorant or irrelevant. In this instance, it's probably both," one GOP strategist said.
Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, defended their decision to key vote the bill.
“Rather than encouraging farmers, ranchers and orchardists to plan for possible disasters, the House-passed bill simply increases their dependence on government. We should be trying to decrease government dependence, not increase it,” Holler said.
“Even worse, the bill could pave the way for a disastrous five-year farm bill that further increases crop insurance subsidies and coverage,” he added.
Ostensibly, the practice is straight forward – interest groups with an interest in a particular piece of legislation will announce they are “key voting” – or grading – members on how they vote. Those grades are then included in biannual “report cards” on lawmakers’ records as part of voter education drives.
But beyond the “education” aspect, special interests from across the ideological spectrum have come to rely on key votes as a way to enforce loyalty.
Groups like the NRA and Chamber of Commerce use key votes not only to track lawmakers’ voting records but as a threat to keep moderates and potential compromisers inline – or, conversely, to back off those threatening to undo a wanted legislative deal.
Heritage Action has stepped up its use of key votes. While most groups like the NRA or abortion groups tend to avoid putting the party they are generally aligned with in a difficult position, Heritage Action often seems to seek out those opportunities.
And rather than focus on big ticket bills only, Heritage Action has targeted numerous procedural votes and votes on bills that normally had little resistance, on the grounds that they do not live up to the group’s philosophical standards.
The strategy, according to conservatives, is based on the fact that most of the work of the government, nearly all of which strict conservatives oppose out of hand, occurs in the minutiae of daily life in Congress. So, the logic goes, if you want to curb spending and the size of the federal government, focusing on the little things can have a big impact.
In terms of impacts on legislation, Heritage Action’s efforts are a bit of a mixed bag. They’ve stopped a number of bills, most notably legislation aimed at helping workers displaced by companies moving over seas find new jobs. That, in turn has forced Congress to accept some additional reforms.
In other instances, Republicans have also blown past Heritage Action, particularly during the fight over funding the government last fall.
Still, the use of key votes has significantly upped the organizations’ profile over the last year and a half. Leadership aides regularly talk to the organization – and complain about its often Machiavellian scheming to Capitol Hill reporters.
And, according to Holler, the group isn’t going to stop using its key votes to hold Republicans’ feet to the fire, even if it means giving Democrats cover on occasion.
“Heritage Action is committed to advancing conservative policy, and we will not shy away from key voting in favor of legislation that advances those goals, and, of course, vice versa,” Holler said Friday.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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