Jim DeMint: More “Fangs for the Conservative Beast”

The revolving door between government and industry is nothing new. Government regulators get jobs in related industries when they retire; military officers accept positions with defense contractors. Former members of Congress have also accepted positions in business and industry, often as lobbyists, after tiring of office or being voted out.

But there seems to be a new and somewhat unexpected trend among members of Congress: some are stepping down from elected office before their term is complete without a scandal or personal circumstances prompting their resignation.

Jim DeMint became the third member of Congress in just over three years to give up elected office to work for a think tank when he announced on Dec. 6 that he has accepted the position as head of the Heritage Foundation.

Midway into his seventh term representing Florida’s heavily Democratic 19th congressional district, self-described “fire breathing liberal” Robert Wexler announced in October 2009 that he would be giving up the House seat he’s held since 1996 to become Executive Director of the Daniel S. Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation. Not quite a year and a half later, nine-term California Democrat Jane Harman stepped down from her House seat to become the first woman President and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Institute.

DeMint, founder of the Tea Party caucus, is the first Republican and sitting senator to relinquish his elected office in order to head a think tank. The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial board has much in common with Heritage Foundation ideology, explains the impetus behind DeMint’s career change:

Sen. DeMint said he is taking the Heritage job because he sees it as a vehicle to popularize conservative ideas in a way that connects with a broader public. “This is an urgent time,” the senator said, “because we saw in the last election we were not able to communicate conservative ideas that win elections.” Mr. DeMint, who was a market researcher before he entered politics, said he plans to take the Heritage Foundation’s traditional research plus that of think tanks at the state level and “translate those policy papers into real-life demonstrations of things that work.”

While DeMint’s new salary has not been publicly disclosed, his predecessor Ed Feulner received $1,025,922 in 2010 according to the Heritage Foundation’s IRS filing for that year. The filing also indicates that Feulner received a base salary of $477,907, a bonus of $535,300, plus deferred and non-taxable compensation. Wexler openly stated that financial considerations played a role in his decision to take up a think tank post. DeMint has made no such admission, although the Los Angeles Times has pointed out that DeMint is one of the less wealthy members of Congress.

Interestingly, although the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) recent presidents overwhelmingly favor pro-Israel Democrats, DeMint has also received political contributions from AIPAC’s current president, Michael Kassen.

Since its founding in 1973, Heritage’s “think” has always been subordinate to its “tank.” Its Board is a Pandora’s box of political has-beens from the Reagan and Bush years, such as Edwin Meese, and some very rich men like Richard Scaife (a Vice Chairman who Robert Kaiser and Ira Chenoy dubbed the “funding father of the right”) and whose individual largesse, however generous, now pales in comparison to the $80 million annually that Heritage is able to rake in.

Hawkish and hardline (albeit vague) on foreign policy issues, the Heritage Foundation presents the Middle East — particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — relations with the Arab world and the Iranian nuclear threat, through an often warped prism of US “national security.”

While the Washington Post laments that “the intellectualism that was once the Heritage hallmark has become somewhat suspect in an era in which the insurgent passion of the tea party sets the terms of political activism,” Jacob Weisberg’s astute observations a dozen years ago are still timely and even more on point:

Because of its combat mentality, Heritage has never been a place with very high standards. Like other conservative outfits, it loves the lingo of academic life. Its hallways are cluttered with endowed chairs, visiting fellows, and distinguished scholars. The conceit here is that as a PC Dark Age has overcome the universities, conservative think tanks have become the refuge of thought and learning. At Heritage in particular, this is a laugh. AEI and the Manhattan Institute frequently produce stimulating books and studies and occasionally arrive at unexpected positions. Even the more dogmatic Cato Institute has cultivated a reputation for rigorous research and analysis from a libertarian point of view. Heritage, however, is essentially a propaganda mill.

To counter this image, Heritage has been attempting to cultivate a new generation of Fellows — aspiring pundits, interns, bloggers and twitterati — who spread Heritage talking points and sound bytes for the right-wing media from policy papers that could be mistaken for actual studies.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the Heritage Foundation is not permitted to engage in lobbying. When its “experts” testify before Congress, they are always careful to preface their remarks with the disclaimer “The views I express in this testimony are my own, and should not be construed as representing any official position of The Heritage Foundation.” Briefing papers and other literature intended to influence policy contain the disclaimer, “Nothing written here is to be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress.” This, Weisberg pointed out, “is an evident absurdity. Heritage exists to aid and hinder legislation before Congress and often boasts about doing so.”

The creation of Heritage Action for America (HAFA) in 2010, a 501(c)(4), was designed to sidestep such restrictions entirely. CEO Michael Needham explained that HAFA would provide “heat” while Heritage itself would continue to provide “light.” Not surprisingly, DeMint received a 99% rating from HAFA. Placing him in the top slot may mean even more “fangs for the Conservative beast“.

Commenting on DeMint’s leaving the Senate, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell disclosed, perhaps inadvertently, his own close ties to the Heritage Foundation. “We’re sorry to see Jim go. He’s had a distinguished career,” McConnell told Politico. “My wife [Elaine Chao] is a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation. She’ll be reporting to him.”

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.