Earlier this month, the House of Representatives experienced the longest speaker contest in 164 years. Rep. Kevin McCarthy was eventually elected speaker, but only after he made several concessions to a small but influential group of dissident conservative Republicans.While not all members of the Freedom Caucus, the far-right coalition of Republican lawmakers, voted against McCarthy, nearly all who opposed him did used to be Member of the Freedom Caucus.
This commonality has brought renewed attention to the Freedom Caucus and its role in Congress. Despite being a minority in the House, the Freedom Caucus has repeatedly punched its weight and made real change in the chamber. Powerful political factions are as old as American politics, and in most respects the Freedom Caucus is just a continuation of that tradition. But in several key ways, its members are doing something different: voting as a bloc, willing to oppose their own party’s leadership, and making a statement by undermining jobs. These differences have made the Freedom Caucus influential for the better part of a decade — and that’s why it’s only just getting started.
What’s the deal with the Freedom Caucus? | five thirty eight
Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago, “Building the Bloc: Party Organization in the U.S. Congress.” During the Progressive era of the early 20th century, a group of rebellious Republicans teamed up with Democrats to take away some of the powers consolidated in the Speaker. Congressional Black Caucus), against strong opposition from conservative Southern Democrats.
Typically, Bloch Rubin said, such influential party factions emerge only when a party finds itself particularly divided. “It’s usually because there’s enough division within the party, enough members of those factions, enough distance between a faction and a competing faction within the same party for this kind of organizing to work,” she said.
This is the case with the Freedom Caucus. In the 2010 midterm elections, a wave of Republicans elected dozens of conservative lawmakers to Congress during former President Barack Obama’s first term, giving the party six more seats in the Senate and flipping the House of Representatives. . At that time, the House of Representatives already had the Conservative Caucus, the Republican Research Committee, and many newly elected Republicans. But so are many of the more moderate members, according to former Rep. John Fleming, one of the founding members of the Freedom Caucus.
“We noticed that the committee was growing rapidly. We saw faces there that we hadn’t seen before. We saw some less conservative people join the group,” Fleming said, adding that he believed then-House Speaker John Boehner has been encouraging moderate members to join in order to “woo” the committee.
In 1995, only 7 percent of House Republicans were in the RSC. By early 2011, nearly three quarters were. Fleming said he and some conservative colleagues tried to keep the group connected to its right-wing roots, including by electing Rep. Jim Jordan as its chairman in 2011. But as membership grew, the ideology faded. At the same time, many of these members have become increasingly frustrated with the leadership of the House — Boehner in particular — and the status quo. The far right of the party has attacked Boehner for not using the Republican majority to pass more conservative legislation. According to Fleming, Boehner’s retaliation was to punish conservative members — including removing them from committee mandates — to keep them in line. Boehner did not respond to an interview request.
“We annoyed Boehner, and Boehner annoyed us,” Fleming said.
By Thanksgiving 2014, Fleming and a few other members had run out of ideas, so they decided to form their own team. In early 2015, the Freedom Caucus was born. It was designed to be very selective about its closed, sometimes secretive membership — allowing only ultraconservatives — to serve as what Fleming called the conservative “pillar” of the Republican Party in the House. Its members would try to pull the party to the right and would not budge once they took a stand.
While the Freedom Caucus has policy goals, much of its work has focused on disrupting and changing the inner workings of the House. If it can take some power away from the speaker, the thinking is that more conservative legislation might have a better chance of passing. An early and consistent way the Freedom Caucus has done this is by voting against House rules, slowing down the legislative process and making it harder to vote on bills the caucus doesn’t like. But it has also experienced some greater volatility. While the Freedom Caucus disagreed with former Rep. Mark Meadows’ decision in the summer of 2015 to move to oust Boehner as chairman, it supported him in hindsight, and that consensus was what led to Boehner’s resignation as speaker.
Part of what makes the Freedom Caucus a unique faction of the party is also its greatest strength. If 80% of its members agree with a position or action, everyone must participate. According to Matthew Green, a political science professor at the Catholic University of America and author of a book on the Freedom Caucus, it’s unlike any other group in American history. It’s not just a group of like-minded members; it’s also an effective, disruptive voting bloc, united by one. One of the founding members of the Freedom Caucus, former Rep. Raúl Labrador, who is now Idaho’s attorney general, said members were willing to do so because an internal effort was conducted to meet the 80 percent threshold. Lots of debate and persuasion. “The best debate I’ve ever had in D.C. was in the Freedom Caucus,” Labrador said.
Another difference is the caucus’ willingness to confront the Speaker and the establishment – a tendency that could have political consequences, which is why factions within the party have historically avoided such squabbles.
“It’s a big question. It’s a risky thing to do,” Green said. “Speakers are powerful, speakers have powerful friends, and you’re risking committee assignments. You could be jeopardizing your ability to raise money.”
These differences are part of how the Freedom Caucus leverages its relatively small size (currently estimated at around 40 members, although the exact number has not been made public) to its outsized impact. Perhaps most notably, it backs former President Donald Trump more firmly than the Republican establishment, gaining access and influence through the White House. (Ie: Many former Freedom Caucus members, including Meadows and Fleming, went on to serve in the Trump administration.)
Now, with the Republicans holding a slim majority in the House, the Freedom Caucus can exert its unifying and confrontational role to even stronger effect. Even a group half the size of the Freedom Caucus can hold the chamber hostage for days, as the vote for the speaker showed. So imagine what it will unleash when fully unified.