This post first appeared in The Nation.
At Ebenezer’s Coffeehouse, a small shop next to Union Station and around the corner from the Heritage Foundation, “fair trade” coffee is dispensed and Christian books are available for customers to read.
A group of political operatives and evangelical firebrands behind the strategy to shut down the government over healthcare reform couldn’t have picked a more unassuming meeting place. Though the more famous “Wednesday meeting” is across town at the offices of Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the shutdown plotters often meet at a weekly lunch held on Wednesday at the event space of Ebenezer’s. (The group also meets regularly on Wednesday mornings at the offices of the Family Research Council.)
This other Wednesday group is a convening of the Conservative Action Project, an ad hoc coalition created in the early years of the Obama administration to reorganize the conservative movement.
The coalition is managed by Heritage and the Council for National Policy. The latter organization, once dubbed as “the most powerful conservative group you’ve never heard of,” is a thirty-year-old nonprofit dedicated to transforming the country into a more right-wing Christian society. Founded by Tim LaHaye, the Rapture-obsessed author of the Left Behind series, CNP is now run by Christian-right luminaries such as Phyllis Schlafly, Tony Perkins and Kenneth Blackwell.
Yesterday, The New York Times revealed in great detail how the Conservative Action Project has orchestrated the current showdown. The group initially floated the idea of attaching funding for Obamacare to the continuing resolution, and followed up with grassroots organizing, paid advertisements and a series of events designed to boost the message of senators like Ted Cruz.
Though the Heritage Foundation, through its 501(c)(4) Heritage Action sister organization, has played a lead role in sponsoring advertisements and town-hall meetings, tax disclosures reviewed by TheNation.com show that the Council for National Policy has provided a steady stream of funding for the organizing effort.
In my new book published this year, The Machine: A Field Guide the Resurgent Right, I profiled how the Conservative Action Project came about, and how its existence sparked a schism within the conservative movement. The group has played a background role in several high-profile political debates.
It was this rival Wednesday group that gave rise to the farcical “Ground Zero Mosque” conspiracy in 2010. The Conservative Action Project also played a consequential role in whipping up opposition to a number of key Obama judicial nominees, including judges David Hamilton and Goodwin Liu. Through rapid-fire memos and coalition advocacy, the Conservative Action Project can claim large responsibility for the fact that Obama has been deprived more than any modern American president of appointing judges of his choice for the federal bench.
But like the quagmire that GOP leaders find themselves in today, the hard-charging Conservative Action Project has bristled at establishment criticism in the past. Notably, it was the Conservative Action Project that first courted controversial Senate candidates like Christine O’Donnell and Joe Miller. For my book, I spoke to Colin Hanna, a Conservative Action Project leader, who told me that through weekly meetings with Republican legislators, his coalition members were able to persuade Republican campaign committees to generally back off and allow their insurgent candidates to compete in GOP primaries. O’Donnell later went on to cost the GOP one of its most prized Senate seats.
In another episode that enraged the Republican establishment, Republican Study Commission employees were caught encouraging conservative advocacy groups to attack the debt-ceiling deal negotiated by President Obama and Speaker Boehner in 2011. The story, reported by Politico, noted that RSC employee Wesley Goodman emailed a listserv, “We need statements coming up to the Hill every hour of the day in mounting opposition to the plan.” Goodman now officially works for the Conservative Action Project, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Many of the leaders involved in this effort are well-known Christian conservative icons, including “Christian Zionist” and former presidential candidate Gary Bauer and Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver, an activist famous for his over-the-top attacks on the gay community.
The group has engaged in clashes with libertarian-leaning GOP leaders, particularly Norquist. That is not to say the group is not well connected with well-heeled interest groups.
The board of the Council for National Policy, the Conservative Action Project’s sponsor, features Michael Grebe, an influential Republican lawyer who leads the Bradley Foundation — a GOP money machine with close ties to Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus and Gov. Scott Walker. The Heritage Foundation’s Ed Meese and Becky Norton Dunlop, both well-respected among mainstream Republicans, are said to be prime players in the effort.
Kevin Gentry, a key employee of Koch Industries’s lobbying subsidiary Koch Public Sector, has served on the board of CNP. Gentry now helped to run the new $250 million fund for conservative advocacy groups called Freedom Partners and manages the twice-annual secret gatherings for Charles Koch’s cohorts. (It was at a CNP gathering that Charles Koch once compared himself to the theologian Martin Luther.)
One CNP official has a surprising connection to President Obama and the shutdown. Since 2009, a consultant named Patrick Pizzella has helped to ensure that the Conservative Action Project achieves its goals. For a fee of $133,333, he’s been the highest paid full-time employee since 2009, when the effort began.
In August of this year, President Obama nominated Pizzella to be a member of the Federal Labor Relations Authority. The FLRA acts as a miniature National Labor Relations Board for federal workers, helping to arbitrate disputes between federal employees and labor unions. Two months later, 800,000 federal employees now find themselves at home because of Pizzella’s political project.