Partisanship Over Policy at the Heritage Foundation
Interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees reveal how the think tank sidelines its scholars to score political points.
In the weeks after Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border on February 24, Luke Coffey was busy crafting the Heritage Foundation’s proposed policy responses. As the think tank’s lead policy analyst on Ukraine, he saw the House’s $40 billion supplemental aid package to the country later that spring as the practical culmination of his research.
“Let’s not blow it,” Coffey, then-director of the Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, tweeted on May 10.
Coffey claims that within a day, Heritage senior leadership ordered him to delete the post. Heritage Action, the think tank’s 501(c)4 sister organization, had taken a different view. Executive Director Jessica Anderson implored House Republicans to sink the legislation, writing: “This proposed Ukraine aid package takes money away from the priorities of the American people and recklessly sends our taxpayer dollars to a foreign nation without any accountability.” The bill passed—albeit over the opposition of 57 Republicans in the House and 11 in the Senate.
“I was not looped into the decision to put out that press release,” Coffey said in an interview. He ended his decade-long tenure at Heritage about a month after the statement’s circulation. Other former staffers say they saw trouble long before Heritage Action came out against the bill.
With the Heritage Foundation’s 50th anniversary approaching, some former employees believe Dr. Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation since December 2021, and other senior leaders have lost sight of the think tank’s original mission. Where it used to function as a haven for conservative intellectuals to shape the Republican Party’s agenda, many worry that the institution is attaching itself to a faction of the conservative movement that prioritizes partisanship over policy.
Interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees reveal restrictive workplace practices to keep scholars in line with positions favored by Heritage’s lobbying arm. With Heritage Action’s growing influence has come a wave of staff turnover from the rank-and-file to senior leadership. Fifty-one employees have departed the Heritage Foundation and 73 new employees have joined since January 1, a Heritage spokesperson confirmed. There are 275 staff members on the foundation’s payroll and 30 at Heritage Action as of Tuesday.
“There are a lot of open positions, I guess because of COVID, and we have more people applying to Heritage than we have any hope of being able to hire, open positions,” Roberts told The Dispatch. He said he remains enthusiastic about the organization’s future.
Asked by The Dispatch how many employees left the foundation in 2019, 2020, and 2021, a Heritage spokesperson declined to provide raw numbers.
Several former employees cited Heritage’s departure from its foundational commitments—without the knowledge or consent of the scholars hired to translate them into policy positions—as their reason for leaving. Others pointed to one-on-one confrontations with the members of the leadership team over the organization’s ideological trajectory.
Fights over who sets Heritage’s “one-voice policy”—which requires that all staff be publicly aligned on any given issue—have caused much of the friction.
“The one-voice policy at Heritage has always—for 49 years—been difficult to implement,” Roberts said. “The difficulty is making sure that there is a conversation internally that gets us to a good spot. The nature of the one-voice policy is that there are always competing goods.”
Some former employees said that scholars are increasingly being cut out of the deliberation process. When Heritage Action came out against the Ukraine aid bill, for example, it contradicted the recommendations of some leading subject matter experts without notifying them beforehand. In April, Coffey had written a Heritage policy paper pushing for the U.S. to “ensure the free and unrestricted transfer of weapons, munitions, and other supplies to the Ukrainians, including a continuous flow of intelligence.” In another, he urged that the U.S. “establish a persistent and continuing presence” on NATO’s eastern front.
The May legislation aimed to do that by replenishing available emergency funding to Ukraine for the 2022 fiscal year days before it was expected to run dry. In addition to the $19 billion in immediate security assistance—$9 billion of which was set aside to replenish the U.S. Defense Department’s own arsenal—the bill allocated $3.9 billion to support American forces stationed in Europe and $2 billion for NATO and Pentagon modernization initiatives. A further $16 billion went to economic support to Ukraine and global humanitarian aid programs.
“The opposition to the Ukraine supplemental was irreconcilable with not only my views on U.S. support in Ukraine, but everything I’ve written on this matter for years, so I couldn't be truthful and honest by remaining there,” Coffey, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said about his decision to leave Heritage.
Alexis Mrachek, a former policy analyst at Heritage who specialized in Russia and Eurasia, pointed to the institutional inconsistencies behind the decision to oppose the bill. “We had established a one-voice policy on Ukraine over the past several years,” she said. But Heritage Action “contradicted our one-voice policy on Ukraine and in the process created a new one-voice policy on Ukraine that I was not allowed to contradict.” Mrachek resigned from Heritage in July and joined the International Republican Institute.
“Our policy didn’t change,” Jim Carafano, who leads Heritage’s foreign policy and defense team, said. “We are for an independent Ukraine that can defend itself. We’re for government bills that are fiscally responsible, and we’re for plans that actually work.” Carafano pointed to the legislation’s investments in “so-called civil society programs,” arguing that they would “fuel fraud, waste, and corruption.”
But the policy shop has only released one alternative legislative strategy since the supplemental bill’s passage, advocating for a fiscally calculated approach to the conflict—a notable change from the tone and frequency of previous reports. A recent video on Heritage’s Instagram features the caption: “We can’t afford to give Ukraine more money.” And on September 7, Heritage Action released a statement opposing the additional Ukraine-related money Biden requested in his continuing resolution to fund the government.
The disputes extended beyond the debate over Ukraine and preceded Roberts’ leadership. Several former experts and researchers detailed limitations on their intellectual freedom beginning in the Trump era, such as being told to delete tweets and ignore areas of agreement with perceived political opponents. In almost every case, the restrictive measures served a partisan end.
“There were several instances where I was asked to scrub the phrase ‘President Trump’ from my pieces. I think it was to tamp down any suspected criticism,” said one former Heritage employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about internal dynamics. “We were definitely discouraged from mentioning the Biden administration by name as well, unless we were attacking them.”
Another former employee said staffers were also told to avoid referring to incoming President Joe Biden as the “president-elect” until electoral votes were certified on January 6, 2021, to avoid lending implicit legitimacy to the 2020 election.
One former employee recalled being instructed by management not to quote or cite Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley because of his strained relationship with former President Donald Trump. Another former employee said Heritage leaders declined a request to conduct a public panel with Republican Sen. Mitt Romney for similar reasons.
At the tail end of the Trump presidency, one former communications staffer said, the media team shut down requests to schedule economics scholars for television appearances about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement to preemptively quash any public criticism of Trump’s support for the trade deal.
In one encounter, a member of senior management approached a scholar to challenge the scholar’s stance on a policy issue, referencing a conflicting position taken by Fox News host Tucker Carlson on the air. The scholar recalled saying, “I don’t watch Tucker’s monologue anymore.” The senior staffer allegedly replied, “Well, you ought to watch it, because the people who pay your salary watch it.” This ethos may have made its way into the policy shop’s output, which increasingly resembles public positions taken by Carlson on topics ranging from election integrity to big tech.
The storming of the Capitol was another sensitive topic for senior management. Coffey recalls being required by management to remove a Twitter post condemning the January 6 Capitol riots.
Some employees went from avoiding criticism of January 6 to actively amplifying conspiracy theories related to that day’s events. That includes on the Daily Signal Podcast, where Daily Signal executive editor Rob Bluey hosted Julie Kelly—author of January 6: How Democrats Used the Capitol Protest to Launch a War on Terror Against the Political Right—in February 2022 for a conversation about the Capitol riot. During the conversation, Kelly accused Biden, former President George W. Bush, and the media of “colluding” to brand the day an insurrection: “It was like a Fusion GPS-type orchestrated campaign, PR campaign, but then a little more sinister behind the scenes.”
Many argue that the organization’s goal is now to appease, rather than to inform and persuade, the Republican base. “We couldn’t decide who our primary audience was anymore,” recalled one former employee. “We were focused more on reaching the grassroots and maybe even influencing outcomes in elections than we were on making sure that the right policy ideas—that the principal policy ideas—got into the hands of the principal policymakers.”
Roberts—who maintains that Heritage’s main audience is Congress, governors, state legislators, and the like—says that his public opinion-oriented approach is aimed at ensuring scholarly research isn’t conducted in a vacuum.
“We hear often from our broad base of supporters—who are not at all dictating what we’re doing—but because we’re close to them,” Roberts said of Heritage’s roughly half a million donors. “More than any other organization on the right in the United States today, we have a clear understanding of where everyday conservative Americans are.” According to Heritage’s website, only two percent of its support comes from corporate donors.
Carafano added, in relation to challenging the GOP’s “orthodoxy” on foreign policy issues: “If people are a little angry at us and upset or confused or whatever, I think that’s the price we’re paying, because I think we’re doing exactly what the American people want.”
Roberts, who previously served as CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and president of Wyoming Catholic College, “made clear from his first day on the job that Heritage will always be on offense” to push the organization’s preferred policies, people, and strategies, said Rob Bluey, Heritage’s vice president of communications.
What those policies, people, and strategies are might also be up to Roberts. “It’s not a one-voice policy, it’s a one-person policy,” one former employee said.
Some say this is a departure from the organization’s founding mission. Heritage’s incorporation in 1973 as a 501(c)(3) research institution filled what many right-wing intellectuals understood at the time to be a void in the conservative think tank space.
Heritage swiftly rose to prominence in the early 1980s after its founders published its Mandate for Leadership, what became an 1,100-page policy manuscript to assist Republican President Ronald Reagan’s White House. The playbook included 2,000 policy proposals dedicated to advancing Heritage’s four main policy objectives: “free competitive enterprise, limited government, individual liberty and a strong national defense.”
More than four decades since Reagan was sworn into office, Roberts’ vision for the organization recalls the leadership style championed by former Heritage president and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who presided over the think tank from 2013 until 2017. “The feeling that many of us had is that when DeMint came to Heritage, he brought his Senate battles with him,” recalled one former employee.
Some scholars say that under DeMint, senior leaders discouraged them from criticizing Trump’s policies even before he took office. Bryan Riley, a trade policy analyst at Heritage from 2010 to 2017, recalled holding his tongue on trade issues during the 2016 election to avoid clashing with the then-candidate Trump’s views. As director of the Free Trade Initiative at the National Taxpayers Union, he says he no longer feels he needs to self-censor. “When I came here the idea was to just address the policies without regard to whether it's Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or Mitt Romney or Josh Hawley,” Riley said.
It was around the same period that Heritage’s reputation began to complicate efforts by scholars to connect with lawmakers on Capitol Hill: If they were part of Heritage, some recalled, they were also considered part of Heritage Action.
DeMint was fired in 2017 by a unanimous board vote that followed internal disputes over his leadership tactics. Heritage founder Edwin Feulner—who led the organization for three decades—took his place until Kay Coles James succeeded him in December 2017. But even with DeMint gone, the partisan grip on Heritage’s policy shop continued to tighten. While many employees take pride in referring to the organization as a “do tank” rather than a “think tank,” scholars who have left say that Heritage Action’s ascendance within the organization has continued to muddy the distinctions between its research side and its lobbying arm.
“I don’t mind the idea of a think tank that is focused on real world impact and not just kind of pie in the sky, academic navel-gazing,” said Klon Kitchen, the founder and former director of Heritage’s Center for Technology Policy. “But what I think it’s actually become is a political action group that now uses serious policy scholars as a veneer to policy wash what is actually inherently political activity.” (Kitchen, who resigned from Heritage in February 2021 and is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute AEI, is the author of a national security newsletter for The Dispatch.)
Whereas scholars at right-leaning 501(c)(3) research institutions like Cato Institute, the Hudson Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) are permitted and often encouraged to disagree with each other about policy issues, Heritage prides itself in projecting the same voice on every policy issue. “The reason that we have to have a one voice policy is because unlike those organizations that don’t, we’re actually spending our resources on effecting change in our world,” Roberts said.
With the founding of Heritage Action in 2010 came the introduction of the Heritage Action scorecard, a legislative metric that rates members of Congress based on how often they vote in line with the organization’s lobbying entity. Some high-ranking congressional Republicans are candid about their skepticism of its role on the Hill.
“I’ve never understood Heritage Action,” Rep. Mike Rogers, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, told The Dispatch this summer. “I’ve just never understood their perspective on anything we do over here.” Rogers has a 93 percent session score from Heritage Action and a lifetime score of 69 percent.
“Most of us get the Ronald Reagan approach, that the best way to keep the world safe is to have alliances—that the last time somebody roamed around Europe trying to take over countries didn’t end well,” said GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, asked about his reaction to Heritage’s position on the Ukraine aid bill, which he and Rogers supported. Graham’s Heritage Action session scorecard is 69 percent and his lifetime score is 57 percent.
It’s unclear how the Republican Party’s foreign policy aims might change once voters pick the next presidential nominee in 2024. For now, polls suggest that Heritage’s recent messaging might not have the popular appeal its leadership believes: By and large, Americans still want to back Ukraine. Around two-thirds of Republican respondents supported military and economic assistance to Ukraine in a recent Chicago Council poll, and an August Reuters/Ipsos survey found that the majority of both parties favor U.S. support for Ukraine “until all Russian forces are withdrawn.”
Some tension has emerged between establishment conservatives and the national conservatives on Capitol Hill, though national conservatives are far from the dominant force in the GOP today. That’s not necessarily the case at Heritage. Tori Smith—a former trade policy analyst at Heritage who resigned from the organization in April to serve as director of International Economic Policy at the American Action Forum—observed that a similar “tension is playing out at Heritage, and the nationalist conservatives are winning, it’s abundantly clear.”
In many ways, Heritage has transitioned from being the home of conservative intellectuals to an institution that forces its thinkers to take a backseat to the base.
Roberts and Heritage Action executive director Jessica Anderson were featured speakers at this week’s National Conservatism Conference in Miami. The gathering brings together right-leaning figures who are often hostile to traditional conservative positions in foreign and domestic affairs, such as Republican Sen. Josh Hawley and tech billionaire Peter Thiel. “I come not to invite National Conservatives to join our conservative movement,” Roberts reportedly said at the conference, “but to acknowledge the plain truth that Heritage is already part of yours.”
Correction, September 15, 2022: This article originally stated Dr. Kevin Roberts has served as president of the Heritage Foundation since October. He started in December.
Correction, September 16, 2022: This article originally stated Dr. Kevin Roberts served as CEO of the Texas Public Policy Center. He served as CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.