Dubious Heritage study pits right against itself

Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation, at yesterday's event
Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation, at yesterday's event
Associated Press

The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein, a prominent conservative writer, noted yesterday that the Heritage Foundation’s study on the costs of immigration reform has already started a “war among conservatives.”

That’s largely true. None other than Jennifer Rubin reported yesterday:

In what was almost certainly an unprecedented press call, top fiscal conservatives from Americans for Tax Reform, the Cato Institute, the Kemp Foundation and the American Action Network took what had once been the premier conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, to the woodshed for its immigration report that sees trillions in cost and no benefits from immigration reform. […]

These are longtime allies of Heritage and promoters of free market capitalism who are witnessing the intellectual bastardization of a once great institution to adopt a cause that is inherently unconservative, namely opposition to immigration…. Fiscal, pro-growth conservatives are concerned (as they should be) that the movement may turn reactionary, rejecting not just dynamic scoring but faith in a dynamic economy and society.

There are several important angles to this, aside from the obvious significance of conservatives fighting amongst themselves on one of the most important policy debates in the country today.

Note, for example, that for much of the conservative/Republican establishment, support for comprehensive immigration reform has clearly taken root, so much so that when Heritage goes on the offensive, old alliances are thrown out the window and the pushback is candid and unrelenting. Leaders from the party and the conservative movement have clearly decided that immigration is an issue that must be dealt with – now – and it’s time for the base to get in line.

Also keep in mind, this isn’t just about immigration policy itself. There’s also the issue of “dynamic scoring” – determining the cost of a policy by factoring in the expected growth impact – which Heritage strongly supports, but ignored as part of its condemnation of the reform plan. Americans for Tax Reform’s Josh Culling told Rubin, “It’s a concern. Heritage ceded the superiority of dynamic scoring. CBO is basically to the right of Heritage. It is a worry.”

And finally, I can’t help but find it amusing to hear conservatives throughout the Beltway say simultaneously, “Wait, you mean Heritage is filled with hacks who do shoddy policy work to achieve ideological ends?”

I’m afraid so. An objective look at the “study” Heritage produced yesterday reveals it to be a lazy and incomplete scholarship. It is a political document, intended to provide cover to partisans who hope to defeat immigration reform because they hate immigration reform, not a research document, intended to provide accurate information to shape the debate in a constructive way.

In other words, the Heritage Foundation, as expected, has completed its transition from a conservative think tank to a far-right activist group.

It led Matt Yglesias to emphasize “an under-appreciated point.”

[E]ven ideological movement-oriented think tanks do their movements a disservice when they do bad work. As Republican members of Congress ponder what to do about immigration, possessing accurate credible information about the fiscal impact would be very useful to them. You actually want to have a team of people “on your side” who you can trust to do good work. Heritage is not that team.

As the intellectual infrastructure of the conservative movement deteriorates, I’m not altogether sure that team exists anywhere. Indeed, for much of the right, anti-empiricism rules the day and reliable scholarship itself is seen as a dubious pursuit.

Still, for GOP policymakers who do want credible, trustworthy information to bolster their policy agenda, it’s getting tougher to find quality materials. It reinforces the “wonk gap” between the left and right that we talk about from time to time.