Heritage Foundation

The Heritage Foundation is an influential conservative think tank that spreads voter and election fraud disinformation. Heritage has been active in the fight to limit access to abortion, roll back environmental regulations, and curtail the rights of LGBTQ Americans.

About Heritage Foundation

The Heritage Foundation is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization and conservative think tank. Since its founding in 1973, Heritage has become one of the world’s most influential think tanks through its relationships with Republican administrations and influence in Congress.

Heritage Action For America, an affiliated organization of Heritage since 2010, is a powerful 501(c)(4) that uses lobbying, organizing, and political spending to advance conservative political goals. Heritage Action provides training and organizing opportunities to its 20,000 members to help them hold public officials’ “feet to the fire.”

Although historically a research institution, Heritage has increasingly ventured into political advocacy and grassroots organizing through Heritage Action. Both the think tank and Heritage Action have advanced debunked claims of widespread voter fraud that have been used to enact restrictive voting laws across the country following the 2020 presidential election. The organization has also been active in the fight to limit access to abortion, roll back environmental regulations, and curtail the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans.

Founding

The Heritage Foundation was founded in 1973 to provide conservative policy analysis and research to members of Congress and other officials in Washington, D.C. The group was co-founded by the Republican operative Edwin Feulner and conservative activist Paul Weyrich, who was famously credited with coining the phrase “Moral Majority.” Financial backing for the organization in its earliest days came from the American beer tycoon Joseph Coors. 

The Heritage Foundation’s founding members were connected to conspiracy theories about a communist takeover of America. According to historians, they were also supporters of Barry Goldwater, whose 1964 presidential run realigned the Republican party as an alliance between anti-civil rights voters and pro-business interests

 

The Reagan Administration

Although it was active throughout the 1970s, the foundation did not rise to prominence until 1980. Within days of Ronald Reagan’s election in November of that year, the Heritage Foundation forwarded a “blueprint for a conservative American governmentto the incoming administration. Its plan consisted of a conservative wish list of policy objectives across a range of issues, “from cutting the food stamp program…to abolishing the Department of Energy and withdrawing the Justice Department from civil rights suits involving cross-district busing of school pupils.” Heritage officials also called on the president-elect to end affirmative action and similar programs intended to increase the hiring and promotion of Black Americans, women, and other minorities. 

The foundation’s blueprint became the first edition of The Mandate for Leadership, published in January 1981, the month Reagan took office. Within a year, President Reagan had implemented “nearly half of [the] ideas from the 1,093-page conservative manifesto. Despite these successes, Heritage still criticized the administration at the end of its first year for failing to move expeditiously in carrying out its conservative vision of the United States. Key to its criticism was Heritage’s belief that the administration was too slow to appoint officials who shared the foundation’s policy goals. This was in spite of the fact that the Reagan administration had “turned to Heritage and Feulner [the organization’s then-president] to help staff and organize his administration.”

By the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term in office, “nearly two-thirds of ‘Mandate’s’ 2,000 recommendations were adopted or attempted by the Reagan administration.”

 

The George H.W. Bush Administration

As President Reagan’s tenure in the White House neared its end, several high-ranking officials left the administration for fellowships and executive-level positions at the Heritage Foundation. Among them was Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese III, who became the think tank’s first Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow in 1988. Terrence Scanlon, Reagan’s chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, also joined Heritage as its vice president and treasurer in early 1989. He was accompanied by Elliott Abrams, the Assistant Secretary of State of Inter-American Affairs and a key actor in the Iran-Contra affair. At Heritage, Abrams continued to write and lecture on Latin American affairs.

The Heritage Foundation aimed to continue cultivating its influence within the federal government following George H.W. Bush’s election in 1988. Within days of Bush’s victory, Heritage sent “2,500 resumes and 7,500 more names of potential appointees and contacts to the president-elect’s personnel director. The organization then published the third edition of the “Mandate for Leadership,” which in 953 pages proposed more than 2,000 policies for the incoming administration to champion.

Despite these early appeals and the cautious hope that Bush would emanate a Reagan-style conservatism, Bush distanced himself from Heritage’s agenda, particularly in economic affairs. The President famously declared at the 1988 Republican National Convention that he would not raise taxes while in office. However, to reach a consensus with the Democratic-controlled Congress during budget negotiations, the President agreed to a tax increase to reduce the federal deficit. This decision, while ending Congressional gridlock and avoiding a prolonged government shutdown, drove Heritage president Edwin J. Feulner to lambaste Bush as “no Ronald Reagan.”

By the end of his presidency, President Bush had fallen out of favor among many conservatives within the GOP. Following the president’s unsuccessful attempt for re-election, the Heritage Foundation declared Bush’s foreign and domestic political agenda “a disaster.” Still, officials within the executive branch, including Veteran Affairs Secretary Ed Derwinski, departed the administration for the Heritage Foundation in early 1993.

 

The Clinton Administration

The election of Bill Clinton as president in 1992 ended nearly twelve years of general cooperation between the Heritage Foundation and the White House. In Congress, the Democratic sweep of both houses ensured that the think tank would have limited, if any, influence on federal policy during the first two years of the Clinton administration. Still, Heritage targeted Congressional conservatives with policy papers in the hopes of cultivating a voice in the legislative process. 

In March 1993, the think tank published “The Clinton Challenge Answered,” a 22-page memo outlining Heritage’s proposed federal spending cuts. That same month, Heritage and two partner organizations, the Free Congress Foundation and Empower America, also launched a new index charting what the foundation viewed as “America’s cultural decline.” The model, called the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, measured 19 separate categories that were reputed evidence of the nation’s overall morality. Indicators included crime rates, teenage pregnancy, and television viewing, all of which had risen since 1960 and, in the Heritage Foundation’s view, represented the country’s moral decline.

On September 27, 1994, just weeks before the midterm elections, 367 GOP candidates for Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol to sign the “Contract with America,” an unprecedented legislative agenda that the candidates pledged to support if elected. The sweeping proposal was effectively a conservative wishlist to shrink federal welfare programs, institute Congressional term limits, and reform the tax code. Heritage has claimed that it provided “the intellectual ammunition” that comprised “The Contract With America.” For example, all of the changes pertaining to Congress, according to Heritage president Ed Feulner, had first appeared in a Heritage study titled “The Ruling Class published the previous year.

Heritage’s focus on economic and social issues and partnership with Congressional conservatives guaranteed the think tank’s dominance within GOP policy circles following the “Republican revolution” of 1994. 

A testament to Heritage’s reclaimed prominence came shortly after the Republicans’ victory in the midterm elections. In December, Heritage put on a new members’ orientation for incoming Congressional lawmakers, a program historically hosted by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Boston. However, because the majority of newcomers were “‘terminally conservative,’ in the words of one Heritage analyst,” and generally perceived Harvard as a liberal institution, the Kennedy School chose to cancel its orientation for the first time since it began the civics course in 1972. Featured speakers and panelists at Heritage’s event included, among others, talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, the controversial sociologist Charles Murray, and Edwin Feulner, who told the incoming class of lawmakers that they should think of Heritage as their “weapons factory.”

On the first day of the new Congress in 1995, the House adopted 15 new rules, 13 of which had been recommended by Heritage. From there, Heritage continued to play a significant role in shaping federal laws in spite of the ideological differences between the White House and Congressional Republicans. For example, in 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, a piece of legislation negotiated by President Clinton and Congress to reform federal welfare programs and shrink the nation’s overall welfare caseload. The sweeping law was “based on a plan devised by Heritage experts.”

 

The George W. Bush Administration

Like earlier Republican administrations, Heritage enjoyed a unique closeness to the George W. Bush White House. Even as the outcome of the 2000 presidential election was tied up in federal court, Heritage began collecting resumes to forward to the eventual president-elect’s transition team to help fill appointments. Partaking in this effort, according to news reports, was Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who was a Heritage staffer at the time. Ginni Thomas’s position at Heritage was perceived as a conflict of interest as the Supreme Court considered Bush v. Gore in December 2000, although Heritage disputed how actively Thomas was involved in culling resumes.

During the second Bush presidency, Heritage was a significant force behind America’s foreign policy. Heritage had long promoted the idea that the U.S. should develop its national defense by increasing its military spending and investing in the nation’s weapons arsenal. The events of September 11th, 2001 brought these proposals into sharp relief as federal spending on the military dramatically increased in its wake. In 2002, the United States formally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a Cold War-era pact between the United States and the Soviet Union (later Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine) to limit the number and size of anti-ballistic missile systems. Heritage had first advocated for scrapping the agreement in the second edition of the Mandate for Leadership in 1984. Today, the think tank credits itself “in laying the legal, technical, and policy groundwork for the United States’ withdrawal.

Heritage was a proponent of both wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as national security apparatuses that formed during the War on Terror. A special Homeland Security Task Force established by Heritage in the aftermath of 9/11 published a report in January 2002 with recommendations on how the government could improve homeland security by “protecting national infrastructure, defending against weapons of mass destruction, strengthening intelligence and law enforcement, and improving military operations.” According to historian and Heritage fellow Lee Edwards, “almost three-fourths of the Heritage task force’s recommendations were ultimately adopted and implemented by the Bush and Obama administrations.” This included the deployment of U.S. customs inspectors abroad and the implementation of an action plan to secure Global Positioning Systems in navigational satellites.

In line with their hawkish view of foreign policy, the Heritage Foundation joined the Bush Administration in touting the virtues of the USA PATRIOT Act, a landmark piece of legislation that allowed for the proliferation of government surveillance in the name of anti-terrorism. In 2007, Heritage began tracking thwarted terrorist attacks to demonstrate the benefits of the PATRIOT Act as “one of the best weapons in America’s arsenal for the long war.”

Beyond the War on Terror, Heritage also informed the George W. Bush administration’s domestic agenda. In 2005, the think tank published a blueprint for responding to Hurricane Katrina. The report suggested that the federal government should divest the technical aspects of the government’s disaster response to state and local officials as well as the private sector. It also promoted deregulation as essential for rebuilding the affected region. According to Heritage, many White House officials and lawmakers embraced the think tank’s recommendations.

On immigration, Heritage continued its hardline stance against granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants. After Congressional lawmakers introduced the Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007, a bill granting a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Heritage “took the lead in killing it. A 2007 report published by Heritage fellow Matthew Spalding and future Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach called the legislation a “seriously flawed proposal [that] would undermine the rule of law by granting massive benefits to those who have willfully violated U.S. laws.” Heritage researchers likewise spoke out against the proposed law on Capitol Hill with noted effect: proponents of the law in the Senate never garnered enough support to overcome the filibuster.

As the Great Recession loomed towards the end of the Bush presidency, Heritage eschewed its fiscal conservatism to support bailing out the financial institutions that had caused the economic downturn.

 

The Obama Administration

The 2008 presidential election not only ushered in a new era of liberalism in the White House, it drove up deficits for conservatives in Congress. Democrats in both chambers continued to capitalize on gains made during the 2006 midterms. In the Senate, election victories and a switch in political alignment by Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter took the Democrats’ total number of seats to 60 (including the two independent Senators who caucused with them), providing them a filibuster-proof majority until Republican Scott Brown won a special election in 2010 to fill the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.

Despite Heritage’s limited influence on the executive branch, parts of President Barack Obama’s early foreign policy agenda, including a surge of troops in Afghanistan and the reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act, aligned with Heritage’s recommendations.

In other policy areas, particularly healthcare, Heritage waged protracted battles against the new administration. By its own telling, the Heritage Foundation led “the intellectual fight” against President Obama’s signature piece of legislation, the Patient Protection, and Affordable Care Act. In the months preceding the signing of the ACA into law in March 2010, the Heritage Foundation published a flurry of reports describing the law as “a hostile takeover of the entire U.S. health care systemand “unconstitutional.” The think tank was particularly enraged by the bill’s multibillion-dollar price tag, which President Obama and Congressional lawmakers intended to cover by levying new taxes. Heritage also took umbrage at the law’s “individual mandate” requiring all Americans to be insured or face a penalty. According to Heritage, the mandate represented an “unconstitutional tax.” Ironically, the idea of an individual mandate had its roots in a briefing published by the Heritage Foundation in 1989.

Once the ACA was enacted, Heritage continued to publish memos and research in an attempt to build a case for the law’s repeal. The organization also filed a number of amicus briefs in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the law. 

At the same time, the organization expanded its mission to play a more pronounced role in politics. In April 2010, one month after President Obama signed the ACA into law, Heritage launched a new political advocacy arm. Called Heritage Action for America, the 501(c)4 organization’s first national campaign was a digital ad targeting the ACA. The group also backed a discharge petition introduced in the House by disgraced Rep. Steve King (R-IA) to force a vote on the ACA’s repeal.

As the 2010 midterms neared, Heritage Action tapped into the fomenting grievances shared among conservatives that also gave rise to the Tea Party movement. Several of Heritage Action’s campaigns were targeted toward the grassroots. Yet among Tea Party leaders, Heritage was often seen as part of the Republican establishment that they intended to take down.

After Obama won a second term, the Heritage Foundation, under its new president former South Carolina Senator James DeMint, was “all but consumed by Heritage Action,” according to The New York Times. Heritage Action launched a multi-city town hall series titled “Defund Obamacare” in order to “[raise] awareness about the need for Congress to defund Obamacare.” The group also supported Tea Party-backed Congressional Republicans in their plan to delay or defund the ACA by forcing a government shutdown in 2013. In January, Congressional Republicans, who at the time controlled the House of Representatives, announced that they would not raise the debt ceiling — and thereby avoid a default on the federal government’s borrowing obligations — unless Democrats in Washington committed to additional spending cuts, a proposal the White House refused. After passing a law to temporarily suspend the debt ceiling, Congressional Republicans and the White House entered into protracted negotiations on both the national debt limit and the federal budget.

At the same time, many Republicans and outside groups, including Heritage, remained focused on the elimination of Obamacare. In September, prior to a vote on a procedural motion to allow for continued funding of the ACA, Heritage Action announced that it would rank lawmakers on their choice. According to TIME magazine, “Heritage’s willingness to take aim at its own party…irked more mainstream Republicans.” Still, the move drove GOP leadership to take up the mantle of permanently ending Obamacare despite their reservations about such a risky tactic. In late September, the House passed a spending bill that also defunded Obamacare. Democrats in the Senate, who were then the majority party, rejected the legislation out of hand.

The resulting impasse between House Republicans and Senate Democrats resulted in a 16-day-long government shutdown beginning on October 1, 2013. Roughly 850,000 federal employees were furloughed without pay during this period. The resulting costs of the shutdown amounted to billions of dollars.

Almost immediately, Heritage Action for America announced the launch of a $400,000 online ad campaign pinning blame on vulnerable Democratic senators that were up for reelection in 2014. However, in the short term, the government shutdown quickly turned public opinion against Congress, and in particular, the GOP. As the potential for a debt default grew, moderate Republicans in the House made a deal with Democrats to pass a continuing resolution and raise the debt ceiling on October 16. Heritage Action opposed the legislation because it did nothing to address the ACA. 

Once the shutdown had ended, GOP insiders laid blame for the botched gambit at the feet of Heritage Action. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah questioned on MSNBC whether Heritage was “going to go so political that it really doesn’t amount to anything anymore.” Speaker of the House John Boehner similarly chastised Heritage Action and other hardline conservative groups for “misleading their followers on the wisdom of pursuing a scorched earth strategy for ending the ACA.

By the end of the Obama presidency, the ACA was still law.

 

The Trump Administration

Although he portrayed himself as a Beltway outsider during the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump followed his Republican predecessors in engaging Heritage to populate his administration. Among those who left Heritage for the executive branch was Roger Severino, the director of Heritage’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society. Severino, who regularly argued against abortion rights and providing gender-affirming care to transgender individuals, joined the Department of Health and Human Services to run its Office for Civil Rights.

In the words of one report, Heritage “established a direct pipeline of Heritage alumni working within the administration; symbiotic policy has materialized, as well.”

Other individuals entered the administration on Heritage’s recommendation. They included key members of Trump’s cabinet and advisors, such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Donald Trump also turned to the think tank for guidance on his Supreme Court nominations. Jim DeMint, then-president of Heritage, was among the group of Republican insiders and Trump supporters who gathered in the Washington offices of the Jones Day law firm in March 2016 to discuss the Supreme Court. Also in attendance at the meeting was the conservative activist Leonard Leo. It was at this meeting that then-candidate Trump requested a list of names of potential Supreme Court nominees from which he could choose should he be elected. 

Despite reservations among Heritage staffers in participating in this effort, DeMint and the head of Heritage’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, John Malcolm, forged ahead. Later that month, Malcolm published the names of eight individuals — all but one of them men and all white — of acceptable nominees. Brett Kavanaugh, who was then serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, was among the eight.

As it had done in previous presidential election years, Heritage published a new edition of the Mandate for Leadership in 2016. According to Heritage, the compendium of policy proposals “earned significant attention from the Trump Administration.” Of the approximately 334 recommendations contained in the Mandate for Leadership, “64 percent of the policy prescriptions were included in Trump’s budget, implemented through regulatory guidance, or under consideration for action in accordance with The Heritage Foundation’s original proposals” within Trump’s first year in office.

The success of Heritage’s recommendations throughout the Trump presidency prompted Ed Feulner to declare Heritage as “Donald Trump’s favorite think tank.”

On Capitol Hill, Republican victories in both chambers of Congress in the 2016 election breathed new life into Heritage’s political agenda. In 2017, Congress overhauled the American tax code. Heritage “played a central role in policy conversations, offering ideas that became reality in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” Republicans, backed by Heritage, also renewed their effort to repeal the ACA. However, despite majorities in both houses, the GOP failed to maintain a coalition of support to kill Obamacare, and the law continues to be in effect.

By the end of the Trump administration, Heritage had transformed to align with the Trump doctrine. Notable tokens of this evolution were Heritage reports published after the 2020 election which lent credence to debunked conspiracy theories that widespread voter fraud had robbed Donald Trump of a second term in office.

 

The Biden Administration

The Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action have produced research and waged several media campaigns to attempt to discredit President Biden’s policies. Heritage Action, in particular, has spent millions of dollars on unsuccessful TV and digital ad campaigns to oppose the Democrats’ “Build Back Better” legislation and block the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.

In March 2022, the Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action jointly announced a set of seven “strategic policy priorities” for the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election. Proposed policy recommendations include eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, instituting voter ID laws, rolling back federal regulations, using antitrust laws to break up “Big Tech,” ending abortion, and mobilizing against “radical ideologies” regarding LGBTQ identities.

Kevin Roberts, President, Heritage Foundation

Kevin Roberts became president of the Heritage Foundation in 2021. Prior to joining Heritage, he was the president of the Wyoming Catholic College and was previously the executive director of the Texas Public Policy Institute. Roberts also sits on the CNP board of governors.

 

Jessica Anderson, Executive Director, Heritage Action For America

Prior to serving as the executive director for Heritage Action, Anderson was the associate director of intergovernmental affairs and strategic initiatives for the Office of Management and Budget in the Trump administration.

 

Rebekah Mercer, Trustee, Heritage Foundation; Board Member, Heritage Action For America

Rebekah Mercer is a billionaire heiress of the conservative megadonor Mercer family. She is one of the Mercer Family Foundation’s principal members and also plays a significant role in the family’s political giving. 

The Washington Post called Mercer the “First Lady Of The Alt-Right” for her close connections to Breitbart and Steve Bannon. Despite reports that the Mercers cut Bannon loose in 2018, Rebekah still chairs Bannon’s Government Accountability Institute as of late January 2022.

In addition to her roles at the Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action for America, Mercer holds high-ranking positions in groups such as the Manhattan Institute, a rightwing think tank focused on urban and domestic policy, and The American Spectator Foundation, the publisher of the conservative publication The American Spectator, She also served on the board of directors of the New York-based advocacy group Reclaim New York alongside influential conservative figure Leonard Leo.

 

Sean Fieler, Board Member, Heritage Action For America

Sean Fieler owns the investment management group Equinox Partners LP. In addition to his role at Heritage Action, Fieler holds positions at the American Conservative Union, the Acton Institute, the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, and the American Principles Project. Fieler is a conservative mega-donor known for his anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ stances. According to a 2015 HuffPost article, Fieler poured tens of millions into backing opponents of same-sex marriage as other principal financial backers of the movement slowed down their giving. Rewire News reported that Fieler has donated at least $18 million since 2010 to anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ groups.

Fieler was a strong advocate for a Trump administration grant that funded an anti-abortion pregnancy tracker app. The app collected medical data on thousands of women and “sowed doubt” about the effectiveness of contraception, according to The Guardian. Fieler has also donated to numerous anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion causes, including:

  • A group that supported an Uganda law that would criminally prosecute same-sex relations with the death penalty
  • A ballot initiative that would deny transgender students access to gender-affirming bathrooms and athletic opportunities 
  • Prominent anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List, the Becket Fund, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and Americans United for Life

 

Fieler has also made a series of inflammatory anti-LGBTQ comments:

  • The problem with gay marriage […] is it promotes a very harmful myth about the gay lifestyle. It suggests that gay relationships lend themselves to monogamy, stability, health and parenting in the same way heterosexual relationships do. That’s not true.”

 

Roger Severino, Vice President, Domestic Policy and The Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow, Heritage Foundation

Roger Severino is the husband of Judicial Crisis Network President Carrie Severino. The New York Times characterized the Severinos as “leaders in the anti-abortion movement” and “ubiquitous champions of social conservative causes.” Human Rights Watch described Roger Severino as a “radical anti-LGBTQ activist” for his staunch opposition to same-sex marriage and the right to medical care free from gender or sex-based discrimination. 

Roger Severino served as the director of the Office Of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services under the Trump administration. He directed the rewrite of an HHS rule that made it easier for medical providers to refuse medical services such as abortions or gender-affirming treatments.

 

Michael Gleba, Vice Chairman, Heritage Foundation

Gleba is the chair and CEO of the Sarah Scaife Foundation, one of the key funders of the Heritage Foundation’s early years. ​​Gleba holds board positions at the Hoover Institution, Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Federalist Society, and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

 

Hans von Spakosvksy, Manager, Election Law Reform Initiative and Senior Legal Fellow, Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, Heritage Foundation

Hans von Spakovsky leads the Heritage Foundation’s election law division and is a senior legal fellow at the organization’s legal and judicial center. Von Spakovsky is one of the leading voices pushing right-wing, voter fraud conspiracy theories to promote laws that would limit access to voting. ProPublica called von Spakovsky “a leading purveyor of discredited voting fraud claims.” 

  • According to the University of California at Irvine law professor, Richard L. Hasen, von Spakovsky’s claim that voter fraud by the Democratic Party is “common” helped make the theory “part of the Republican orthodoxy.” 

 

Von Spakovsky joined the Heritage Foundation as a senior legal fellow after his nomination to the FEC was blocked. After the election of Barack Obama in 2008, von Spakovsky worked with the American Legislative Exchange Council to produce model voter ID bills to restrict voting access. While at the Heritage Foundation, von Spakovksy released a report claiming that there were at least “1,296 ‘proven instances of voter fraud’ in U.S. elections going back to 1982, out of billions of ballots cast during that period.” However, the nonpartisan Brennan Center For Justice reviewed the same data set and found this data inaccurate

Von Spakovsky helps run Heritage’s Election Fraud Database, which falsely claims to contain almost 1,100 instances of voter fraud. President Donald Trump’s “Fraud Commission” relied on Heritage’s database to support its baseless claim that the election was stolen from Trump. Von Spakovsky distributed a copy of the database at the panel’s first meeting. 

Von Spakovsky’s reports for the Heritage Foundation frequently make baseless claims about Democrats trying to “take over” elections, writing pieces with inflammatory titles such as, “Michigan’s secretary of state fights to keep dead on voter rolls.” Von Spakovsky also uses his column at Heritage to push for voting laws that would make it more difficult to vote.

In addition to his election work, von Spakovsky denies the scientific consensus on climate change and made demonstrably false claims to support anti-immigrant policies. He also supported the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban.

 

False Claims About Voter Fraud

Von Spakovsky often relies on misleading, unfounded, or false claims to back up his assertions about widespread voter fraud:

  • Von Spakovsky sat on the board of “social welfare” group Nations In Action while it spread #ItalyGate, a debunked QAnon adjacent conspiracy that military satellites based out of Italy were used to steal the 2020 election for Joe Biden. Trump demanded the Justice Department investigate the conspiracy. Nations In Action’s sister group received funding from right-wing activist Leonard Leo’s Judicial Crisis Network.
  • In a 2012 interview with The New Yorker, von Spakovsky cited an Atlanta-Constitution Journal study that found 5,400 dead people that voted in Georgia from 1980-2000. However, von Spakovksy did not mention that the study was later revised because the “Georgia Secretary of State’s office indicated that the vast majority of the cases appeared to reflect clerical errors.” After revision, the study could only find one case of voter fraud.
  • In the same 2012 New Yorker interview, von Spakovsky directed the reporter to two experts he claimed could back up his claims about widespread voter fraud. Both experts claimed they supported voter ID laws if the government made voter IDs free and easy to obtain, which they claimed Republicans did not support. One of the experts, Robert Pastor, director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University, even went on the record to say “I don’t think that voter-impersonation fraud is a serious problem.”
  • In 2018, von Spakovsky testified in support of a strict voter ID law in Kansas. The federal judge overseeing the case said von Spakovsky’s testimony was “premised on several misleading and unsupported examples of non-citizen voter registration, mostly outside the State of Kansas.” The judge further pointed out that von Spakovsky “could not identify any expert on the subject of non-citizen voter registration.” The judge further chastised von Spakovsky after he “admitted during cross-examination that he had no personal knowledge as to whether or not any of these individuals had in fact falsely asserted U.S. citizenship when they became registered to vote and that he did not examine the facts of these individual cases.”
  • Von Spakovsky’s 2012 book, Who’s Counting?, alleged widespread voter fraud in the 2008 election of former Democratic Sen. Al Franken (D-MN). However, election supervisors in Minnesota, who claimed they investigated Von Sapkovsky’s claims, found no evidence to support von Spakovsky’s claims.
  • Von Spakovsky said that a 2010 Mississippi election that was won by a one-vote margin had 50 Somali-speakers vote in it – to him, clear evidence of voter fraud. However, experts noted that all 50 voters were registered U.S. citizens and von Spakovsky’s claims rested on a small clerical error. A judge presiding over the case said that the mistake “should not result in the disenfranchisement of the voters.”

 

2020 Election

Von Spakovsky held a series of private, closed-door meetings with state-level Republican lawmakers and officials concerning election administration in the run-up to the 2020 election. The meetings came as then-President Donald Trump was raising unfounded concerns of voter fraud in the upcoming election. Von Spakovksy’s meetings centered on concerns over the expansion of mail-in voting and “ways to message these concerns to your constituents.”

Months before the election, a civil rights group led by Black union leaders called on the Ohio Secretary of State to increase the number of absentee ballot dropboxes to ensure a safe election during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the Ohio Secretary of State’s office quickly wrote to von Spakovsky and organized off-the-record strategy sessions. With von Spakovsky’s guidance, Ohio placed strict limits on dropboxes ahead of the 2020 election. Evidence at the time suggested Democrats were more likely than Republicans to vote absentee.

Following the 2020 election, von Spakovksy co-authored a book titled Our Broken Elections: How the Left Changed the Way You Vote,” which promoted his long-time conspiracies of voter fraud and systematic election fraud.

 

Voter Suppression Efforts Following The 2020 Election

Von Spakovsky claimed that Mark Zuckerberg improperly influenced the 2020 election by supplying private funding for the expansion of safe voting measures in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Von Spakovsky characterized Zuckerberg’s election security grants as a “carefully orchestrated attempt to convert official government election offices into get-out-the-vote operations for one political party and to insert political operatives into election offices in order to influence and manipulate the outcome of the election.” NPR claimed that Zuckerberg’s private grants to support election systems “saved the 2020 election.” In 2022, the FEC rejected complaints about Zuckerberg’s spending in a unanimous, bipartisan vote. There has since been a GOP effort to ban private supplemental funding for election systems.

After repeated attempts to dispute the 2020 election results failed, right-wing forces pushed increasingly restrictive voter suppression efforts. According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, in 2021 “at least 19 states passed 34 laws restrict­ing access to voting.” Von Spakovksy’s employer’s sister group, Heritage Action For America, bragged to its donors about how it helped to write Georgia’s restrictive voter suppression law after Democrats won multiple key elections in 2020. The New York Times called the law “a breathtaking assertion of partisan power in elections.” Von Spakovsky has dismissed such concerns as “much ado about nothing.”

Over the years, the Heritage Foundation has been dubbed “the GOP’s intellectual backbone,” a “propaganda mill” for conservatives, and “a quasi-official arm of GOP administrations and Congress.” The group is credited for being “singularly effective in accomplishing its mission of dragging American politics to the right.” 

From the Reagan presidency onward, Heritage played a crucial role in shaping the American right and even influenced policies passed by Democrats, such as welfare reform. Slate credited the Heritage Foundation with having more influence on American politics than any other conservative institution. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting summed up Heritage’s strategy in 1996: 

Raise a lot of money from rich people with a right-wing agenda. Hire writers, commentators, and out-of-office politicians who share that agenda, and call them ‘fellows,’ ‘policy analysts’ and ‘distinguished scholars.’ And, always, back them up with a public-relations juggernaut that’s second to none.

The vaunted position Heritage has maintained in national politics and, in particular, the Republican party is widely recognized by the organization. Heritage frequently brags about aiding and stymying legislation. The organization’s vice presidents, Stuart Butler and Kim Holmes, boasted in 1996 about Heritage’s tremendous influence on Capitol Hill. “Without exaggeration, I think we’ve in effect become Congress’s unofficial research arm,” Holmes said. “We truly have become an extension of the Congressional staff, but on our own terms and according to our own agenda.”

Butler reiterated this point, “Heritage now works very closely with the congressional leadership… Heritage has been involved in crafting almost every piece of major legislation to move through Congress.”

 

Direct Access to Congress

One of the Heritage Foundation’s primary strategies for pushing right-wing policies into the mainstream is gaining access to and exerting influence on Republican members of Congress. The Atlantic called Heritage the “de facto policy arm of the congressional conservative caucus.” One way the organization has achieved this degree of influence is by meeting with Republican members of Congress at events, pushing an aggressively conservative agenda through “expert” testimony, working “hand-in-hand with Hill staff,” and helping Heritage fellows land jobs on the Hill.

Heritage has had many wins in its efforts to influence legislation over the years. The “Our Impact” page on Heritage’s website touts hundreds of examples of its affiliates testifying before Congress and the pieces of legislation that the group influenced. 

 

“Expert” Testimony Before Congress

Heritage boasts that “more than 100 [Heritage] policy experts and researchers are invited to testify before Congress nearly 40 times a year.” Heritage’s legal fellows and researchers have been criticized for lacking intellectual rigor and the “sophomoric work” it produces for Congress and the media. One scholar said that “among beltway think tanks, Heritage associates have the weakest scholarly credentials” and that the group “appears to strive for quantity.” 

Heritage’s “experts” frequently provide testimony on taxes and economic policy, labor, voting rights, gun reform, the environment, housing, and immigration. Their testimonies often use the same language as the organization’s reports. Heritage affiliates have appeared before Congress to:

  • Advocate for rolling back asylum protections for migrants, including children, building Trump’s border wall, and removing all protections for unaccompanied minors crossing the border 
  • Downplay the effects of climate change, attempt to delegitimize climate scientists, and urge Congress against regulating power plants
  • Oppose universal background checks for gun purchasers and support a provision that allows firearms dealers to legally complete a gun transfer if there is a delay in processing the background check

 

Events With Lawmakers

Heritage uses events with lawmakers as an opportunity to push Republican lawmakers further toward the right. 

Since 1994, Heritage has held a biannual “New Members Orientation” for newly-elected members of Congress, “designed for the freshman representatives to engage with conservative movement leaders and Heritage policy experts prior to taking their official oath.” 

  • Prominent Republicans who have attended the event include House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

 

Heritage also holds retreats to discuss policy with sitting members of Congress and their staff. 

  • In 2011, Heritage spent nearly $125,000 to fly about 50 members of Congress, their families, and a few staffers to Simi Valley in California “so they could be near the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library” for a retreat titled “In the Steps of Reagan.” A Heritage executive called the retreat “a 50,000-foot extended dissertation on our founding principles.”
  • In 2012, Heritage held its annual three-day retreat in Philadelphia, where volunteers took 40 members of the House Republican Study Committee on a tour of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Heritage said the field trip was a “reminder of what conservatives should fight for.” Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) agreed that the purpose of the retreat was to “re-energize” the conservative lawmakers in attendance. Heritage footed a $50,000 bill for the 2012 event. The group collaborates with the study committee annually to plan the Philadelphia retreat’s agenda.

 

Legislative Analysis

Heritage has also had an impact on members of Congress through its Center for Data Analysis, which analyzes proposed legislation and produces economic forecasts that tend to have favorable findings for conservative, limited-government policies and negative results for Democrats’ proposals. In 2011, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) submitted his budget proposal draft to Heritage to be “scored.” 

Heritage’s analyses have been scrutinized for their often partisan and inaccurate predictions. For example, Heritage has argued since 2016 that the groundbreaking Paris climate agreement would have a limited effect in curtailing the negative effects of global climate change, an assertion roundly rejected by the scientific community. In the realm of domestic policy, Heritage’s long-standing claim that the American electoral system is plagued by widespread voter fraud has also been disputed and undermined by the group’s own data.

Pipeline to Federal Government

Heritage runs multiple programs to help young professionals get jobs within the federal government and influence staffers already working on the Hill. The group’s efforts have been described as “on-ramps to congressional staff positions for conservatives.”

  • Heritage runs a “Congressional Fellowship” program for junior staffers in Congressional offices and includes professional development support, discussions on policy and congressional procedures, and networking events. Heritage says that the program’s weekly events help junior staffers “develop, promote, and defend conservative policies, making them more effective in their respective offices.”
  • The organization also runs the Feulner-Weyrich Fellows Program, a 21-session “master class” for “some of the most influential senior conservative staffers on the Hill.”
  • The “Civil Society Fellowship” is a lecture and discussion program for mid-level Hill staffers, focusing on issues “pertaining to life, marriage, and religious freedom.” The program has featured a “spirited debate on gender identity and federal law.” 

 

Voting Rights & Campaign Finance

From its earliest days engaging the Reagan administration, the Heritage Foundation has taken up policy proposals that would limit Americans’ access to the ballot box. Speaking at the inaugural Religious Roundtable’s National Affairs Briefing in August 1980, Heritage co-founder Paul Weyrich told a thousands-strong group of conservative Christians that “I don’t want everyone to vote… As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.” 

Since then, Heritage has championed a number of policies that would restrict voting rights. In 1982, Heritage publicly opposed an amendment to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, banning any election-related practice that had a discriminatory effect on racial and language minorities. Two years prior, the Supreme Court had ruled in City of Mobile v. Bolden that discrimination had to be purposeful in order to violate the Fifteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act. Under the new amendment, an assessment of racial discrimination in voting shifted from the intent of the practice to its result, even if it was unintended. Heritage contended that this results-based test was not only unconstitutional but that it would also “authorize a further expansion of the already extravagant powers of the federal judiciary… [and] be destructive of the principle of representative government embodied in the constitutional structure.” Civil suits challenging the applicability and constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act have cited reports published by the Heritage Foundation advancing this argument. 

Heritage has also been a longstanding opponent of efforts to reign in the huge sums of money influencing elections. In 1994, the think tank published an essay penned by Mitch McConnell in which the Senator from Kentucky argued that unfettered campaign spending was protected by the First Amendment right to free speech. Heritage officials put forth similar arguments during Congressional hearings on campaign finance reform throughout the 1990s

Beginning in the 2010s, Heritage has promoted baseless claims that rampant voter fraud was a feature of the American electoral system. Most of these allegations have originated from the  Election Law Reform Initiative housed within Heritage’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies. Heading up this project is Hans A. von Spakovsky, whom ProPublica has called “a leading purveyor of discredited voting fraud claims.” Von Spakovsky has published several books and articles promoting “the myth that Democratic voter fraud is common, and that it helps Democrats win elections.” In turn, von Spakovsky’s ideas have been used to defend controversial laws putting up barriers to voting. In 2018 von Spakovsky served as a key expert in a legal challenge to a 2013 Kansas state law requiring residents to present proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. A judge ultimately overturned the law, stating that “the Court does not fully credit Mr. von Spakovsky’s summary of reported incidents of noncitizen registration, given its inclusion of misleading and false assertions.”

One of von Spakovsky’s projects at Heritage is the Election Fraud Database which, in Heritage’s words, “presents a sampling of recent proven instances of election fraud from across the country.” As of September 2022, the database contained 1,375 instances of voter fraud — among hundreds of millions of cast ballots — dating back to 1982.

Despite the lack of data to support claims of rampant voter fraud, Heritage’s debunked claims have continued to inform Republican talking points, particularly in the 2020 presidential election. Shortly after Donald Trump lost his reelection bid, von Spakovsky cast allegations that illegal voting had swung the election in Joseph Biden’s favor within the realm of possibility. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, he stated that “there is a real chance that significant numbers of noncitizens and others were indeed voting illegally, perhaps enough to make up the margin in some elections.” Yet, according to the Brookings Institute, Heritage’s own data “does not make the case that voter fraud is a major problem in America.”

Heritage nevertheless continues to assist Republicans in passing restrictive voting laws. Heritage Action told its donors in 2021 that it helped write Georgia’s voter suppression law after Democrats won multiple key races in the state. A New York Times investigation found that at least 23 state bills pertaining to the vote in early 2021 shared similar language with a letter sent by Heritage Action to Georgia state legislators as well as a report on “election integrity” published by the think tank.

At the federal level, Heritage Action has launched campaigns opposing two pieces of voting rights legislation: the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act. If passed, the two laws would overturn restrictive state voting laws, making it easier for voters to access the ballot box.

 

The Courts

The Heritage Foundation has played a “leading role in moving the courts to the right.” Heritage and the Federalist Society helped compile lists of potential Supreme Court nominees for President Trump, who ended up appointing two of the judges endorsed by the groups — Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. Additionally, the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society have become increasingly “important in terms of nurturing and identifying young conservative legal talent.” As one legal expert said, “these networks could nurture the next generation of Neil Gorsuches or Brett Kavanaughs.”

The organization runs a “judicial appointment tracker” that “provides current and comparative data about key steps in the process for appointing judges to the federal bench.” The tool tracks federal judicial nominations going back to the Reagan administration.

In August 2017, Heritage praised the Trump administration for “reshaping the judiciary by appointing constitutionalist judges.” The organization said that it “is constantly researching, vetting, and recommending individuals to the President as viable candidates for nomination to judicial offices.” Simultaneously, its 501(c)(4) affiliate Heritage Action “is committed to engaging and encouraging the Senate to get committed constitutionalists judges confirmed.”

  • Heritage boasted that one of its “expert[s] helped shape [Trump’s] Supreme Court nominee list” to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, with five of the 11 potential justices on Trump’s list overlapping with the names in a commentary piece written by John Malcolm, a Heritage legal fellow and program leader. Malcolm celebrated Trump’s appointment of ultraconservative judges, acknowledging that lifetime appointments give federal judges “substantial influence on the development and application of the law over a long period, often for decades after the president who appointed them has left office.” 
  • Heritage and the Federalist Society also helped Trump choose appointees to the lower federal courts
  • The organization has also earned the approval of conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who has had “a long relationship” with the organization and spoken at multiple events. In 2021, Heritage held an event celebrating Thomas’ 30th anniversary of his confirmation to the Supreme Court. At one event in 2016, Justice Thomas “met with each one of Heritage’s interns in the Young Leaders Program after the event and answered their questions separately.” Heritage also employed Thomas’ wife, Ginni Thomas, as a liaison to the George W. Bush administration. 
  • The group once invoked Justice Thomas’s speech at one of its Leadership for America fund-raisers in a direct appeal that it sent to Philip Morris seeking a $50,000 contribution.

 

The Heritage Foundation has also led efforts to impress an ultraconservative legal doctrine on recent law school graduates and young legal professionals.

  • In October 2018, the New York Times reported that Heritage was running a closed-door “Federal Clerkship Training Academy,” aimed at “recent law school graduates who had secured prestigious clerkships with federal judges.” 
  • The curriculum for the program covered “originalism, textualism, habeas corpus, the Bill of Rights and other substantive legal and practical subject matter.” Originalism has been widely criticized for attempting to inject clearly partisan views through “a clever, neutral-sounding methodology designed to produce the results conservatives wanted for their own ideological reasons.”  
  • Application materials said that “generous donors” were making “a significant financial investment in each and every attendee.” These unnamed donors paid for the potential law clerks’ travel expenses and accommodations. In exchange, participants were required to pledge to keep program materials private and not to use the information they learned “for any purpose contrary to the mission or interest of the Heritage Foundation.”
  • Critics of the program said that the Heritage Foundation’s efforts to train and influence law clerks amounted to indoctrination and “raised serious ethical questions and could undermine the clerks’ duties to the justice system and to the judges they will serve.” One law professor said, “The idea that clerks will be trained to elevate the Heritage Foundation’s views, or the views of judges handpicked by the foundation, perverts the very idea of a clerkship.” 
  • After the New York Times article exposed details about the academy, Heritage “deleted the references to donors, secrecy and loyalty from the application materials it had posted on its website” and said it was “re-evaluating” the program.
  • The program re-launched in November 2018 without the secrecy and loyalty stipulations. Several prominent conservative federal judges attended the event.
  • Another round of the training program was held in March 2022.

 

Foreign Policy

For most of its history, Heritage has championed a hawkish foreign policy. Beginning in the 1970s, Heritage advocated for a more aggressive posture against the Soviet Union. The think tank was a noted opponent of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks as well as the resulting Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an agreement between the Soviets and the Americans to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Instead, Heritage called on Reagan to increase defense spending by an additional $175 billion in his first five years in office and to invest in the country’s weapons arsenal, including spaceborne laser and missile systems.

In keeping with its anti-Communist bent, Heritage took up positions against the interests of the People’s Republic of China and other far-left governments in the 1970s and ‘80s. On China, Heritage called on Washington to maintain a “two China” policy, which recognized Taiwan as an effectively independent, democratic nation. The think tank also supported the provisioning of aid to rebel groups waging war against leftwing governments in countries like Nicaragua and Angola.

At the end of the Cold War, Heritage lobbied for the expansion of American power into the former sphere of Soviet influence. Rebuffing West German leaders, Heritage urged President George H.W. Bush to station nuclear weapons in West Germany. This was followed by repeated calls by Heritage staffers to enlarge the reach of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into former Soviet satellite states, such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait at the start of the Gulf War, the Heritage Foundation promoted the idea that American troops could continue their offensive into Iraq by bombing Baghdad and destroying the Iraqi army. Although President George H.W. Bush did not ultimately pursue this course of action, Heritage staffers continued to pressure the U.S. government to topple Saddam Hussein by any means necessary, including the use of force, throughout the 1990s. In early 2003, as the U.S. geared up for the invasion of Iraq, Heritage cheered on the impending military intervention and advanced specious claims concerning secret caches of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When ultimately, these weapons were proven not to exist, Heritage staffers repeatedly called for a long-term occupation of Iraq in order to stabilize the country.

In the aftermath of the revelation that members of the U.S. armed forces were torturing detainees during the Iraq War, the Heritage Foundation criticized politicians who drew attention to the issue. Heritage claimed these politicians were aiding dictators abroad. 

The Heritage Foundation is a longstanding supporter of Israel and has opposed warming relations with Iran, including the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Despite the foundation’s historically hawkish foreign policy recommendations, Heritage has taken on more non-interventionist stances in global affairs in recent years. In 2022, Heritage Action for America attempted to pressure Republican lawmakers into opposing military aid for Ukraine. When speaking on one aid package, Heritage Action executive director Jessica Anderson defended the group’s opposition, stating that “America is struggling with record-setting inflation, debt, a porous border, crime, and energy depletion… yet progressives in Washington are prioritizing a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine.”

 

Climate Denial

Environmental and climate policy groups such as Greenpeace and The Carbon Tax Center have characterized the Heritage Foundation as a leading purveyor of climate change denial. The group staunchly opposes environmental regulations that would affect big businesses, going so far as to say that life-saving policies such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act “infringe on private property rights, and confound the dynamics of a free market.” Notably, the Heritage Foundation has received significant funding from the fossil fuel industry, including ExxonMobil and various groups connected to the Koch network.

Heritage relies on a roster of “policy experts” to devise strategies for obstructing the environmental movement. The organization runs PolicyExperts.org, an online database of conservative and libertarian “experts” including prominent climate change skeptics Patrick Michaels, Sallie Baliunas, Thomas Gale Moore, Robert Balling, and Fred Singer. 

  • The organization’s network of “experts” have been plotting to destroy environmental policies for decades. Greenpeace reported that in one issue of Heritage’s Policy Review journal, a group of prominent conservatives “presented a policy blueprint for the 1990s,” urging conservative activists to “[s]trangle the environmental movement,” which they considered to be “the greatest single threat to the American economy.”

 

Heritage often hides its anti-environment beliefs behind a veil of “skepticism” about global warming, citing “experts” who posit their anti-regulation policy positions as unbiased and based on “sound science.” Environmental studies scholars have said that climate skepticism is “a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism” and “has contributed to the weakening of U.S. commitment to environmental protection.”

  • In one study examining conservative think tanks and climate skepticism, researchers used the Heritage Foundation’s website to choose its sample of groups because “the inclusion of a think tank on the Heritage Foundation’s website establishes its conservative credentials.” The study found that 90% of conservative think tanks involved with environmental issues promote environmental skepticism.

 

By packaging climate skepticism into reports that, on the surface, seem academically informed, Heritage has influenced major climate change policies, including the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Protocol, and the Keystone Pipeline.

 

Kyoto Protocol

In the late 1990s, the Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tanks backed by the fossil fuel industry mobilized to prevent the U.S. from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty binding developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to specified levels. President Bill Clinton recognized the importance of reducing gas emissions and signed the treaty in 1998. However, President George W. Bush withdrew from the agreement in 2001, handing a massive win to the conservative movement and the fossil fuel industry.

  • One study of the conservative movement’s role in defeating the Kyoto Protocol highlighted the Heritage Foundation as one of the era’s most influential think tanks that “effectively challenged the environmental community’s definition of global warming as a social problem and blocked the passage of any significant climate change policy.” 

 

Paris Climate Accords

The Heritage Foundation was a key player in the conservative movement’s push to keep the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. This international treaty aimed to keep the rise in the average global temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and help countries deal with the impacts of climate change. 

Heritage worked with the Heartland Institute and other climate-denying groups in the Cooler Heads Coalition to hold a counter-event during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, which they branded as a “Day of Examining the Data.” 

  • The Heritage Foundation produced videos leading up to the conference. A press release by the leading group of the coalition, the Heartland Institute, defended the protest by saying that “humans are not causing a climate crisis” and that climate change is a “non-existent problem.” 

 

Heritage released a report in April 2016 making baseless claims that the Paris agreement would have “devastating economic costs” and “essentially zero environmental benefits.” The World Resources Institute, a nonprofit focused on sustainability and other environmental issues, broke down the numerous problems and instances of bias in the study. WRI said that “Heritage does not provide credible estimates of either costs or benefits of climate action” and that the group “presents a highly misleading picture” of the Paris climate agreement.

  • WRI noted that Heritage’s claim that the Paris agreement would harm the U.S. economy is “grounded in assumptions that skew the Heritage results toward negative economic consequences of climate actions, and it differs from the conclusions of independent organizations.” 
  • President Trump cited debunked figures in Heritage’s report In May 2017. Two weeks later, he formally announced that he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement, making it the only country to do so. Republican members of Congress also referenced the report. 

 

Keystone XL Pipeline

The Heritage Foundation pushed Congress and the Trump administration to approve the permit to construct the Keystone XL Pipeline, a move that environmental and Indigenous groups and activists heavily criticized. Heritage also regularly attacked the Obama administration for blocking the development of the dangerous pipeline. 

  • Friends of the Earth explained how the pipeline could have devastating effects on air and water quality, wildlife, and public health, as it would “cross rivers, streams, and wetlands that are a source for drinking water for millions of people and provide habitat for at least 20 rare and endangered species.”  
  • In March 2017, a Heritage fellow pushed for the pipeline’s approval in his official testimony before the House Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy, and the Environment and Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Affairs. The fellow, Nick Loris, said that “the Trump Administration’s easiest decision may be to approve the Keystone XL pipeline,” and falsely claimed that the pipeline is “environmentally responsible, will not contribute significantly to climate change.” Loris’ testimony echoed talking points from a 2015 Heritage report
  • In April 2017, shortly after the U.S. State Department issued the presidential permit approving the pipeline, Heritage published a victory lap article titled, “Heritage’s Persistence Plays Role in Keystone XL Pipeline Permit.” The organization boasted that its team ”produced more than 100 research reports and commentaries, and Heritage experts spoke on numerous TV and radio programs on the topic.” 

 

Cooler Heads Coalition

Heritage was a part of the Cooler Heads Coalition, the longest-running climate denial network self-described as an “informal and ad-hoc group focused on dispelling the myths of global warming.” 

  • CHC opposes industry regulations, and its member organizations receive substantial funding from multibillion-dollar oil and gas corporations, including ExxonMobil. The coalition works to achieve deregulation by sponsoring “educational sessions” for members of Congress and attempting to influence United Nations treaty negotiations.
  • The Climate Investigations Center reported that between 1997 and 2015, ExxonMobil gave roughly $11 million to coalition members, with nearly $3 million earmarked for climate-specific grants. Over that same period, groups in the coalition reportedly received at least $98 million from dark money groups, including DonorsTrust and foundations associated with the Scaife, Mercer, Bradley, and Koch families.

 

Anti-LGBTQ Rights

The Heritage Foundation has been a major opponent of the LGBTQ rights movement for decades. Like many conservative groups, Heritage frequently relies on a “religious liberty” argument to defend discriminatory views and actions toward LGBTQ people.

  • The organization has published reports denying the reality of discrimination against LGBTQ people and defending discriminatory and hateful practices as “reasonable policies.” One Heritage commentator said that civil rights laws should not apply to LGBTQ individuals because there is not enough “evidence of discrimination.” 
  • Heritage regularly fearmongers and spreads misinformation about gender-affirming health care for trans youth. In June 2022, the organization published a non-peer-reviewed “study” claiming that transgender youth who receive gender-affirming hormone therapy and puberty blockers “without parental consent” are at increased risk of suicide. Researchers and advocates for the trans community said that Heritage’s report was highly flawed and based on false assumptions and said that it would not have passed a peer review. The Hill noted that most major medical associations support access to gender-affirming care, including hormone therapy.

 

Reproductive Rights

 

Abortion

The Heritage Foundation staunchly opposes access to abortion and has published hundreds of articles containing misinformation about the safety of abortion procedures.

Heritage regularly publishes easily-disproven claims that “abortion harms women” and “poses serious short-term and long-term risks to women’s physical and emotional health.” 

  • The president of the American Medical Association has said that these kinds of claims are entirely false and that abortions are necessary and safe medical care. According to the AMA, “ample evidence shows that the risk of death during or after childbirth is approximately 14 times higher than the risk of death from abortion-related complications.”

 

Heritage also has repeated false, fear-mongering claims that women who obtain abortions have an 80% higher chance of experiencing mental health issues. One Heritage article cites a study conducted by Priscilla A. Coleman, a professor whose research on abortion and mental health has been criticized by other scholars for being “logically inconsistent” and “substantially inflated” by flawed methodology. 

  • The American Psychological Association has wholeheartedly disputed claims that having an abortion is linked to an increased risk of mental health issues, saying, “scientific research from around the world shows having an abortion is not linked to mental health issues, but restricting access is.”

 

Contraception 

Heritage has also published hundreds of articles opposing contraception and worked to undermine the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers’ insurance policies cover contraceptives.

  • In September 2017, Heritage released an article criticizing President Trump for failing to institute a rule exempting employers from the policy based on “sincerely held religious or moral beliefs.” Two months later, the Trump administration carved out that exemption, allowing companies to refuse to cover contraceptive services.

 

Education

The Heritage Foundation takes a hardline stance against educating students about systemic racism in the U.S. The group helped promote the conservative movement’s false claims that “critical race theory” is being taught to children. Additionally, the Heritage Foundation advocates for the ineffective and stigmatizing abstinence-only approach to sexual health education. 

 

Opposition to Anti-Racism Curriculum 

Like many conservative groups, politicians, and activists, the Heritage Foundation has weaponized false and misleading claims about “critical race theory” permeating primary and secondary education. The Washington Post characterizes the growing anti-critical race theory movement as a “conservative backlash” to efforts to increase anti-racism initiatives in education. 

  • As of September 2022, a search for the phrase “critical race theory” on the Heritage Foundation’s website produced over 13,700 results.

 

Heritage’s efforts to combat “critical race theory” paid off in 2022, when Republican state legislators used the group’s “model bill” to draft legislation undermining education about systemic racism in schools.  

  • The organization wrote a model bill for state lawmakers, “Protecting K–12 Students from Discrimination,” and promoted similar proposals by conservative groups like the Goldwater Institute and the Institute for Justice. 
  • In March 2022, Heritage took credit for a bill signed by Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves to “protect teachers and students from CRT’s prejudice.” Heritage’s press release said the Mississippi bill “rejects the application of CRT in the classroom and uses Heritage’s recommended language.” The author of the bill, state senator Michael McLendon, met with a Heritage Foundation fellow the night before he announced — at a Heritage Foundation event — his intention to write the legislation. 
  • Heritage Action, the group’s political and fundraising arm, coordinated with “anti-critical race theory groups such as Virginia’s Fight for Schools and Pennsylvania’s No Left Turn, as well as state and local politicians to implement legislation that would limit teachers’ ability to teach students about systemic racism. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund strongly criticized such laws, calling them “truth ban laws” that hold back racial justice.

 

Opposition to Affirmative Action

The Heritage Foundation opposes affirmative action policies, which were created “to alleviate some of the negative impacts of past and present societal discrimination against people of color” by helping address inequalities in higher education and the workplace. 

  • Dr. Wendy Moore, a sociologist who has extensively researched the presence of white supremacy in college admissions and on college campuses, described conservatives’ opposition to affirmative action as “an extremely efficient rhetorical tool for mobilizing white resistance to racial equity, appropriating civil rights language to serve the goals of white supremacy.”

 

In recent years, Heritage Foundation fellows have railed against affirmative action by deploying a common conservative talking point about the program discriminating against Asian Americans in favor of Black and Latino students. 

  • Dr. Natasha Warikoo, a sociologist who studies racial and ethnic inequality in education, said “conservatives are co-opting Asian Americans in their mission to end affirmative action,” pointing to their false logic that assumes that the number of white students admitted to an institution must stay the same. In doing so, conservatives try to exploit a dishonest narrative that Asian Americans and Black and Latino applicants must compete against each other for a limited number of spots.

 

Opposition to Comprehensive Sex Education

The Heritage Foundation promotes abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which medical experts have criticized as “ineffective, stigmatizing, and unethical.” 

  • Decades of research have shown that abstinence-only programs are ineffective at preventing pregnancy or STIs and are associated with higher adolescent pregnancy rates. Additionally, abstinence-only programs often harm LGBTQ students by increasing the stigma around non-heterosexual relationships. Despite this research, the Heritage Foundation continues pushing for abstinence-only programs and spreading false information about comprehensive sex education being harmful to teens. 
  • The Heritage Foundation has denounced public funding for comprehensive sexual education, while, in reality, government funding for abstinence-only sex education has increased by over 50% since 2011. The government continues to waste over $110 million on these ineffective and harmful programs every year.

 

Efforts to Undermine Public Schools

Heritage supports public school vouchers and “school choice,” a concept that originally developed as a reactionary effort to enshrine racial segregation and abolish public schools. Heritage regularly touts “school choice” and school voucher programs as vital for protecting “parental rights” and “reducing inequality among America’s children. However, many studies, including one from 2022 covered by the Washington Post, found that states which pass school choice legislation saw a degradation in the public school systems. According to the report, “More than half of states with vouchers have at least one program that pays out more than 50 percent of what would have been spent to educate the child in a public school.” In New Hampshire, for example, the public school system lost more than $8 million in a matter of months after the state instituted an education savings account program to funnel public funding to students’ private education.

 

Plans to Influence the Next Republican Administration

In April 2022, the Heritage Foundation announced that the organization was launching a “2025 Presidential Transition Project” focused entirely on preparing the next Republican presidential administration with policy recommendations and a curated list of personnel to help “take back America.” 

  • Heritage and its coalition partners are aiming to influence the next GOP administration beginning “on day one.” The coalition is building a policy agenda and databases of potential staffers, with plans to offer training to prospective employees “at all levels.” Former Chief of Staff for Trump’s Office of Personnel Management Paul Dans is leading the project. 
  • The group appears to be focused on rolling back federal policies and programs, describing the project as an offensive strategy to “defeat the administrative state.” The plan is in line with Heritage’s “free liberty” ideology. Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts said the project would ensure that the next administration’s staff members “believe in the supremacy of our God-given rights.” 

In its early days, funding for the Heritage Foundation was drawn from wealthy benefactors in the nascent conservative movement of the 1970s – who were, in the words of Heritage co-founder and president Edwin J. Feulner, “absolutely critical during the organization’s first years of existence. The Colorado-based beer magnate Joseph Coors provided $260,000 to start the think tank. Richard Mellon Scaife, an heir to a banking and oil fortune, also seeded the new venture. In 1976 alone, Scaife gave $420,000, or 42 percent of the foundation’s total income.

By 1981, Heritage had an operating income of more than $5 million drawn primarily from “family foundations, Mr. Coors, and corporations, as well as from small gifts from 120,000 individuals.” The Adolph Coors Company, the Bechtel Group, Dart Industries, and Exxon were among the think tank’s early corporate donors. 

Heritage’s newfound prominence in Washington with the election of Ronald Reagan proved to be a fundraising boon for the organization. In 1983, just ten years after its formation, the think tank’s annual revenue sat at roughly $10 million.

Heritage’s coffers continued to grow throughout the eighties and into the early nineties. By the time Bill Clinton entered office, Heritage was the United States’ most well-funded think tank, surpassing the liberal Brookings Institution. 

Heritage has maintained the distinction of being one of America’s largest think tanks since the mid-1990s. In 2020, contributions to the organization amounted to more than $65 million. Roughly $1.6 million, or 2 percent of all donations, came from corporations that year. Heritage states on its website that “corporate gifts are accepted…only to fund work consistent with our mission, principles, and priorities. Recent funders include GlaxoSmithKline, Amway, Citigroup, Hitachi, and Google, although as of May 2021, Heritage is no longer accepting contributions from Google and Facebook over allegations that both companies actively “deplatform” conservatives. According to letters sent to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the think tank returned donations to the companies in October 2020, totaling $150,000 and $225,000, respectively.

Heritage Action for America

Launched in the spring of 2010, Heritage Action for America is the political advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation. The 501(c)(4) organization originally targeted the Affordable Care Act, joining Congressional Republicans and newly founded tea party groups to take down President Obama’s signature legislation. This approach — lobbying inside the Beltway and cultivating support at the grassroots level outside D.C. — has typified Heritage’s advocacy strategy since its founding.

In recent years, journalists have detailed how Heritage Action pushed the Heritage Foundation to have a more confrontational approach and complicated the think tank’s relationship with members of Congress and staffers on Capitol Hill. A September 2022 article in The Dispatch said that the Heritage Foundation “has transitioned from being the home of conservative intellectuals to an institution that forces its thinkers to take a backseat to the base.”

  • From 2014 to 2017, under the leadership of former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), Heritage Action helped push Congress to the right by “pressuring members of Congress to vote against nearly every piece of legislation intended to attract both moderate and conservative Republicans, scoring their votes and often crusading against non-compliant members.” Heritage Action staff members also worked with policy experts on the Hill.

 

Since the 112th Congress was seated in 2011, Heritage Action has produced a legislative “scorecard” measuring how conservative members of Congress are based on their votes and co-sponsorships. The project has been met with backlash from some Republican members of Congress. In 2013, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said that Heritage was growing too extreme and was “in danger of losing its clout and its power around Washington, D.C.” Support for Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominees was considered a key vote on the scorecard. Heritage Action likewise played an advisory role on Capitol Hill during the confirmation process.

In 2012, the group launched the Sentinel Program, an initiative to train local conservative activists. That year, some 250 individuals were enrolled in the program. By 2022, they numbered more than 20,000. Sentinel participants have gone on to win elections at all levels of government, including Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional district. As of September 2022, Herrell scored 100% on Heritage Action’s legislative scorecard.

In 2022, Heritage Action announced the creation of a new super PAC called Sentinel Action Fund to elect conservatives in key battleground states to federal office. As of September 2022, Sentinel Action had endorsed eight House and Senate candidates in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas.

Heritage Action has spent millions of dollars on ad campaigns attacking Democratic candidates and liberal policies and voter outreach initiatives since 2010.

  • In 2013, Heritage Action launched two digital campaigns, totaling $950,000, calling on Congress to “Defund Obamacare.”

 

As of 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, Heritage Action had a total revenue of more than $15.8 million. In May 2022, the D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center filed suit against Heritage Action for America for failing to report its contributors as required by federal campaign finance law. The case is currently pending in the D.C. Circuit Court.

American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)

The Heritage Foundation has maintained a relationship with the American Legislative Exchange Council since the organization’s very beginning when Paul Weyrich helped found both groups in 1973. While ALEC’s mandate is more targeted toward state legislatures than Heritage’s federally-focused programming, both organizations are committed to advancing conservative ideas in public policy.

Heritage and ALEC have been particularly active since the 2020 presidential election in advancing state legislation that would make it harder for voters to access the ballot box. In 2021, The New York Times reported that Heritage’s political advocacy arm, Heritage Action, had initiated a “two-year effort” to work with ALEC and the State Policy Network to “product model legislation for state legislatures to adopt.” Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation has also attended at least one private, invite-only meeting organized by ALEC to share policy proposals on “redistricting to elections to ethics issues.” 

Heritage has hosted similar events with ALEC in other issue areas as well. In 2017, both groups launched the “Pension Reform Working Group” to “develop free market solutions” for reforming the pension system at all levels of government. In its 2020 annual report, Heritage reported that it collaborated with ALEC on a strategy session focused on critical race theory, which drew “75 attendees from 15 states, including key state legislators.”

 

State Policy Network

The State Policy Network was founded in 1992 by Thomas A. Roe, a South Carolina businessman and member of the Heritage Foundation’s board of trustees. Roe conceived of the SPN as an independent think tank that would advance the ideals of a free market economy in state-level public policy, much like the Heritage Foundation had done in the federal government.

Over the years, Heritage and SPN have collaborated on a number of projects.

 

Council for National Policy

The Heritage Foundation “has been a core partner of the Council for National Policy from the start,” according to The New Republic. The Heritage Foundation and the Council for National Policy were both founded by Paul Weyrich, who also founded ALEC. Weyrich’s organizations were meant to serve as “a three-legged stool for the right, with Heritage as the think tank; ALEC as a state-level ‘bill mill’; and the CNP as a coordinating body for donors, media, and activists.”

Heritage President Kevin Roberts sits on the CNP board of governors, and, according to a membership database published by Documented in March 2022, Heritage Founder Edwin J. Feulner and Heritage Vice President Charmaine Yoest are also CNP members.

The New Republic describes the relationship between Heritage, CNP, and conservative donor groups as a “round-robin:” Heritage, which sponsors CNP meetings, has received significant funding from the Bradley Foundation, the DeVos Family, and DonorsTrust — all of which were founded or run by leading members of the CNP.

In 2022, Heritage awarded its first-ever Innovation Prize to “financially support organizations providing innovative solutions to the most pressing issues facing America.” Heritage awarded $100,000 each to the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Independent Women’s Forum, and the State Financial Officers Foundation. ADF is led by CNP board of governors member Michael Farris, IWF is led by CNP Gold Circle member Heather Higgins, and SFOF’s board includes longtime CNP member Lisa Nelson, who is also the CEO of ALEC

 

The Koch Family

The Heritage Foundation has received millions of dollars from various Koch family foundations in the past. A report by the environmental organization Greenpeace found that between 1997 and 2017, Koch foundations seeded Heritage with over $6 million.

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