When Edwin J. Feulner joined the Heritage Foundation in 1977, the conservative think tank was certainly not the Washington institution it has since become. Driven by a devotion to the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values and a strong national defense, Heritage is now solidly a part of mainstream Washington, larger than almost all other think tanks, even some that are much older.
Along the way, Feulner and his crew of scholars have transformed a federal government once guided by liberal philosophies into a government where conservative ideas now shape the debate. The idea of Social Security personal retirement accounts, for example, was first broached by Heritage two decades ago. Now it’s the central element of President Bush’s reform plan for the staggering retirement system.
“In the heyday of the Reagan Administration, I suppose we had more people paying attention to us because the ideas were more novel and the town was still run by the old establishment,” Feulner told HUMAN EVENTS. “Today, I would maintain, we are the new establishment. I don’t mean just ‘we’ as in Heritage. I mean ‘we’ as in conservatives.”
Feulner has been a part of it all–from President Reagan’s conservative leadership in the 1980s to the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 and, most recently, President Bush’s 2004 re-election mandate. And while Heritage has adapted to the times and changing tone in Washington, many of the ideas now being advanced by conservative lawmakers in Congress or by the Bush Administration were hatched years ago at its Capitol Hill headquarters.
Social Security is one issue on which Feulner plans to concentrate Heritage’s efforts this year. After all, Heritage has long sought reform by giving individuals a personal stake in the public retirement system. The think tank has assembled a team of experts–led by research fellow David C. John–to articulate the needs for reform and the best ways to go about it.
Feulner said Bush’s embrace of Social Security reform as his top domestic priority should excite conservatives. “We’ve been talking about personal accounts for Social Security for more than 20 years, and now,” Feulner told HUMAN EVENTS, “finally, the political class is catching up with the thinking class. It’s exciting to be here at a time when those issues are going to be debated and talked about.”
At the same time, however, Feulner said Heritage isn’t marching in lockstep with the White House just because the President says he wants reform done a certain way. Feulner, for instance, said he would like to see workers be allowed to contribute more than the 4% suggested by Bush, and to be able to do so earlier than 2009. “The good guys are going to be attacked anyway,” he said, “so let’s go for as much as we can.”
Beyond playing a major role in the Social Security debate, Heritage will continue to be a strong advocate for reining in federal spending, Feulner said. With the release of the fiscal 2006 budget last week–including recommended cuts to more than 150 government programs–Feulner said conservatives in Congress have a golden opportunity to do what Heritage has long sought: Hold down runaway spending. “I think it’s the best time that conservatives have had in the 40 years that I’ve been watching the Congress,” he said.
Feulner said he also expects congressional action on tort reform and welfare reform this year, both of which have been championed by Heritage’s scholars. After that, he said the think tank would be engaged in setting the tone for the debate over tax reform that will heat up after the President’s newly appointed commission completes its work later this year. Heritage also hasn’t forgotten about the Medicare prescription drug law signed by Bush that House conservatives almost derailed in 2003 because of its cost and scope.
Feulner maintains an active personal role in the political and policy scene. He is currently serving on a UN reform task force, which will soon be delivering to Congress recommendations for addressing the oil-for-food scandal. He has long taken an active role in the field of public policy formulation, demonstrated by his service on the National Commission on Economic Growth and Tax Reform, otherwise known as the Kemp Commission, and his long tenure as chairman of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.
Meanwhile, his leadership of Heritage has been recognized across the political spectrum, and was a significant factor in the creation of the liberal Center for American Progress. That think tank’s president, John Podesta, a chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, has credited Heritage for reshaping the policy debate in Washington. Feulner said he welcomes the competition but doubts his liberal counterparts will have the same kind of impact.