When former US senator Jim DeMint announced in December last year that he was leaving the US Senate to head the Heritage Foundation think tank, he said he thought he could wield more influence outside rather than inside the US Congress.
Any doubt about that may have been put to rest on Monday with the release of a study by the foundation lambasting a bipartisan immigration proposal in the Senate as a budget-buster that would cost taxpayers trillions of dollars.
While the report was written by an academic, Robert Rector, the main attraction was DeMint. That was true for boosters of the study and, as it turned out, for as detractors as well, who used DeMint’s name to discredit the findings.
The publicity tour started on Sunday when the former senator plugged the Heritage study on ABC’s This Week, not normally a venue for think-tank wonks.
It continued on Monday with DeMint defending it in advance on Fox News. Hours later, DeMint presided at the news conference where the report was released.
“He obviously has some influence as a former senator,” said Tevi Troy, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under former US president George W. Bush.
Troy said the immigration fight would be an “interesting test case” of Heritage’s clout since it is the first big issue it is taking on under DeMint’s leadership.
Hoever, having DeMint as the star cut both ways. He is a long-time opponent of immigration reform and as a senator he helped kill a similar bill in 2007. Critics of the Heritage Foundation report — and there were many — used that fact to attack the study.
The content of the Heritage study was controversial enough. It estimated that the bill’s provisions giving undocumented immigrants a 13-year path to citizenship — “amnesty” in DeMint’s words — would cost US$6.3 trillion over a lifetime because of government benefits that would be paid to them.
Conservative critics of the study called it deeply flawed because it failed to consider the benefits to the economy of the bipartisan immigration bill, which includes provisions sought by industry to fill high-tech and low-tech jobs that companies say are going begging.
The foundation said it followed respected academic methodology in producing the study.
“We are a research institution here,” Heritage vice president Derrick Morgan said.
The argument about the study, which took place just days before debate is scheduled to begin on amendments to the Senate immigration bill, marked the opening salvo in a war of talking points and studies that will play out over the next few months.
Heritage is at odds with liberal think tanks such as the Center for American Progress and also with analysts at the libertarian Cato Institute as well as some academcis at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
The divisions mirror a split within the Republican party itself, with stalwarts such as Barbour as well as Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a rising star within the party, supporting immigration reform.
Others such as Senator Jeff Sessions and Senator Ted Cruz have lined up against it.