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The envelope, please

In the mail, a broadside from the Heritage Foundation. Nothing special about that. Like many Washington journalists, I get two or three missives a day from Washington's leading conservative "think tank." They come in a profusion of categories, with somewhat less variety in themes: Heritage Foundation News ("ECONOMIST CALLS CLINTON ECONOMIC PLAN DISHONEST, DECEPTIVE"); Heritage Foundation Backgrounder ("ADVANTAGE INCUMBENTS: CLINTON'S CAMPAIGN FINANCE PROPOSAL."); Issue Bulletin ("SIX REASONS WHY BILL CLINTON'S NATIONAL SERVICE PROGRAM IS A BAD IDEA"); Executive Memorandum ("RUSH! HUMAN RIGHTS TREATY POSES DANGERS FOR AMERICA"); Backgrounder Update ("MESSAGE TO CONGRESS: STOP SUBSIDIZING SANDINISTA TERRORISM"); State Backgrounder; SDI Report; Policy Review; Heritage Lectures; etc. etc. etc.

Yes, get on the Heritage Foundation mailing list and you'll never be lonely, although the conversation may get a little monotonous. But there is one puzzling thing about my most reliable correspondent. Almost every mailing from the Heritage Foundation contains an odd 'little disclaimer at the bottom of the first page. "Note: Nothing written here is to be construed … as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress."

Oh, really? "THE NATIONAL. COMPETITIVENESS ACT (S.4): A HIGH-TECH BOONDOGGLE"? "FIFTEEN REASONS WHY THE CLINTON TAX PACKAGE IS BAD FOR AMERICA'S FUTURE"? "THE HOUSE BUDGET RECONCILIATION BILL: MAKING A BAD BUDGET EVEN WORSE"? If anyone but the Heritage Foundation itself were to assert that these were not intended to hinder the passage of a bill before Congress, I would find it hard to believe. And what about "FIVE-DAY WAITING PERIOD URGED ON CONGRESSIONAL SPENDING BILLS," which seems to be an attempt to hinder the passage not just of one bill but of all of them?

There is actually no mystery. The Heritage Foundation is a tax-exempt institution, and contributions to it are also tax-exempt. The law specifically warns that "carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting to influence legislation," is verboten.

So it's good to know that the Heritage Foundation is spending $20 million a year not attempting to influence legislation. That raises the question, What is it attempting to do? The law limits tax-exempt institutions to certain high-minded purposes. Is the Heritage Foundation attempting "to foster national or international amateur sports competition" or "the prevention of cruelty to children or animals"? I think not. Perhaps its purpose is "literary": to make surrealistic comment on the absurdity, of modern life. A piece of paper that says at the top, "H.R. 73 MUST DIE.!" and says at the bottom that it is not intended to aid or hinder legislation before Congress is rather like Magritte's famous painting of a pipe, labeled "Ceci n'est pas une pipe."

When I read the Heritage disclaimer to former IRS Commissioner Sheldon Cohen, he said, "Methinks the lady doth protest too much." But Cohen and others agree that Heritage is probably within the law as interpreted by IRS regulations. The rule seems to be that you can say anything you wish about a piece of legislation without losing your tax exemption, as long as you don't urge a vote for or against it. "They're standing there with their shoes touching the line," says Cohen. But the question remains why anyone should believe anything else in a Heritage handout when there's an obvious whopper on the bottom of the first page.

Other Washington think tanks, which are also tax-exempt, don't print any such this-is-not-propaganda disclaimer on their propaganda. But then no other Washington think tank goes as far as Heritage in blurring the distinction between a genuine educational institution (for which the tax exemption was designed) and an out-and-out propaganda machine.

On some of its mailings, the Heritage Foundation subtitles itself, "A Tax-Exempt Public Policy Research Institution." But according to its most recent annual report, Heritage spends just 45 percent of its annual budget on research. Thirty-seven percent goes to "marketing"--which includes stuffing journalists' mailboxes--13 percent goes to fund-raising and 5 percent goes to management. Somehow, though, "A Tax-Exempt Public Policy Marketing and Fund-raising Institution" doesn't have the right ring. By contrast the other major conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, spends just 10 percent of its budget on marketing and fund-raising combined.

When I first came to Washington in the 1970s, AEI was the cutting-edge right-wing agitprop organization. But it has long since been surpassed by Heritage. This is partly because AEI went soft, developed "Brookings Envy," and lost some of its partisan edge. But it's partly because Heritage pushed the outer limits of what was acceptable partisanship in a so-called "think tank." Ed Feulner, Heritage's president since 1977, has never made any bones about the fact that Heritage is more concerned with persuasion than reflection.

Institutions like Heritage give conservatives a major advantage in the public policy debate. There is no liberal equivalent of the Heritage Foundation--and, given the reality of raising money from corporations and wealthy individuals, there never will be.

There is, of course, the Brookings Institution. Brookings is still probably more prestigious and respectable than Heritage, and its product is probably, on balance, vaguely liberal. But Brookings is not ideologically committed in anything like the same way as Heritage. It is much more genuinely a scholarly institution, more concerned with research than advocacy. And anyway, Heritage's annual budget has now surpassed that of Brookings. It's interesting to note that Brookings gets nearly a third of its money from selling books and running conferences, compared with just 5 percent for Heritage. The "liberal" think tank is meeting the test of the commercial marketplace better than the conservative one.

And it's interesting that conservatives, so concerned about the debasement of intellectual life in academia, have done their bit to debase the notion of scholarship themselves with faux-academic institutions that mimic the life of the mind-down to paraphernalia like endowed chairs--in the service of a considerably less disinterested ideal.

But give Heritage some credit. It is fighting the war of ideas, usually with honesty and always with the vigor of true belief. It is always willing to engage doubters and hope for converts. And it is not always wrong (NAFTA and health care are two issues on which it is more or less right). And without the Heritage Foundation, some days I wouldn't get any mail at all.