White House green-lights Texas think tank’s ideas, irking Capitol Hill Republicans

President Donald Trump, left, looks to Brooke Rollins, right, as she speaks during a prison reform roundtable in the Roosevelt Room of the Washington, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018.
President Donald Trump, left, looks to Brooke Rollins, right, as she speaks during a prison reform roundtable in the Roosevelt Room of the Washington, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. AP

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A conservative Texas think tank is becoming increasingly influential in President Donald Trump’s White House — notching policy victories this month on health care and criminal justice proposals that make Washington’s Republican congressional leaders uneasy.

The Senate this week voted on a plan the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation pushed that would overhaul the nation’s prison system. It’s a vote GOP leaders previously discouraged, concerned they would irritate some conservative senators.

The group also championed a Texas-led lawsuit aimed at ending the eight-year-old Affordable Care Act. A federal judge in Fort Worth Friday sided with TPPF in declaring the act unconstitutional.

The ruling, almost certain to be challenged in a higher court, has gotten a frosty reception from Republicans on Capitol Hill. Though GOP leaders campaigned successfully for years on a promise to gut the law, they have recently deemed a massive overhaul of Obamacare a losing political issue for their party after several efforts last year failed to get enough support to become law.

“Clearly status quo will be maintained pending appeals,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who serves as his party’s No. 2 in Senate leadership, said of the Texas court decision. “Everybody ought to take a deep breath.”

President Donald Trump announced on November 14, 2018 support for the first major rewrite of the nation's criminal justice sentencing laws in a generation: H.R. 5682 or the "First Step Act."

At the White House, however, TPPF’s health care and criminal justice efforts have found a friend in Trump, who has also been receptive to some of the group’s ideas on rolling back environmental regulations.

Trump’s administration now counts two TPPF alumni in influential roles, even as GOP congressional leaders bemoan the group’s approach to high-profile policy fights.

Brooke Rollins, TPPF’s former president, is an assistant to Trump for Strategic Initiatives, and oversees a White House office run by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner aimed at applying corporate-tested solutions to the nation’s problems.

“Brooke is an essential member of the team here at the White House,” said a senior administration official. “She has been a tremendous advocate in our efforts to pass criminal justice reform through (the bill now pending).”

The official, who asked not to be named, said, “The entire team has benefited from her 18 years in public policy and firsthand knowledge of successful policies in almost every issue – education, health care, regulatory reform, energy, environment, urban revitalization, and more – that have been implemented throughout the country.”

The White House declined to make Rollins, who moved her family from Fort Worth to Washington for her job, available to comment.

Also prominent in the administration is Bernard McNamee, who led a division of TPPF specifically focused on protecting states rights from the federal government. Last week he became a commissioner at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission after serving as the head of the Department of Energy’s policy office.

“It doesn’t surprise me given the very pragmatic president we have in D.C., that [this administration has] gravitated to our policies,” TPPF’s Executive Director Kevin Roberts told the Star-Telegram in an interview.

“[This White House has] a nose for policies that will disrupt problematic industries,” he added.

TPPF does not disclose its donors, but gets money from a host of corporate interests, including Chevron and ExxonMobil.

The group’s Obamacare lawsuit would pave the way for the think tank’s long-desired plans to institute state-based health care systems.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for our state leadership to lead and for Texas to be the model for state-based regulatory success on health care,” TPPF’s chief counsel Rob Henneke told the Star-Telegram the night of the court ruling.

On criminal justice reform, the plan lawmakers debated in the Senate Tuesday is modeled after reforms TPPF’s Right on Crime group pushed for more than a decade in Texas in a bid to strengthen prisoner rehabilitation programs.

In a rare appearance on conservative radio last Wednesday, Rollins downplayed complaints from reluctant Republicans who say law enforcement leaders are opposed to some of the legislation’s sentencing provisions.

“No president, I would argue, has been more pro-law enforcement, pro-law and order than Donald Trump and he spent a year studying this issue, learning about it, talking to the governors, the conservative governors out there... who have all embraced this sort of newer approach,” said Rollins.

Despite campaigning on tough-on-crime policies, Trump last month personally urged reluctant GOP leaders to approve the bill before the end of the year. Congress is expected to approve the legislation before the end of the week.

TPPF’s rapid rise to prominence in D.C. comes as GOP leaders in Austin have excluded some of the group’s top priorities, including school vouchers, from their agenda for the legislative session that begins Jan. 8.

Other TPPF ideas and personnel have had difficulty among GOP lawmakers in Washington. Former TPPF fellow Kathleen Hartnett White last year failed to garner enough support from Senate Republicans to be confirmed to lead the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality.

Amid concerns about comments she made suggesting humans might not play a role in climate change, Hartnett White asked the White House that her name be pulled from further consideration.

TPPF still sees itself as increasingly influential.

It currently has a small satellite office blocks away from the U.S. Capitol. TPPF is located in the basement of the Conservative Partnership Institute, a group founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, to train conservative leaders in Washington.

A new TPPF initiative that will be unveiled in 2019, called States Trust, will promote policy ideas from the group’s Austin headquarters aimed at decreasing the federal government’s role in energy regulation, spending and health care.

“It’s is basically a Heritage Foundation that is explaining to the swamp… why the draining of the swamp is going to come from the states themselves,” said Roberts, who said he has plans to grow the Washington office to as many as 10 employees in the coming year. The Heritage Foundation, which DeMint ran from 2013 to 2017, is an influential conservative think tank in D.C.

“The mothership is and always will be here in Austin,” said Roberts. “But it’s because of the success of initiatives that we have been privileged to be a part of [including criminal justice and the Obamacare lawsuit] that has propelled us to create this office in D.C. with a handful of people.”

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is a Corinth, Texas, native and graduate of the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She returns home frequently to visit family, get her fix of Fuzzy’s Tacos and cheer on the Horned Frogs.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.