Politics & Policy

Meet the Freedom Caucus

(Getty Images)
House conservatives are tired of losing fights with leadership. Now, they’re doing something about it.

About 30 House Republicans will meet Monday evening to establish the bylaws of a new caucus animated by two principles: First, rank-and-file Republicans must pressure leadership to enact a more conservative agenda. And second, this pressure should never involve frantic scurrying on the House floor.

The House Freedom Caucus, an invitation-only group, will work in concert in order to guide the House Republican Conference at key junctures, starting with the debate over a border-security bill that has conservatives alarmed.

“We’re going to focus on what we believe middle-class voters sent us here to do,” Representative Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), the de facto chairman of the organization pending leadership elections, tells National Review Online.

As a caucus devoted to moving leadership’s agenda to the right, the group has a chance to take over the traditional role of the Republican Study Committee, which many lawmakers believe has strayed from its founding mission as an organization designed to pressure moderate GOP leaders to adopt more conservative positions. National Journal first reported that such a group was forming.

Jordan, a former RSC chairman, wants to avoid any tension with the longer-standing group. “I like to think that a smaller, more cohesive, more agile group can buttress and support some of the good policies and good ideas that are coming from the RSC,” he says.

The group has nine founding members, including Jordan and Representatives Raúl Labrador (R., Idaho), Justin Amash (R., Mich.), Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.), John Fleming (R., La.), Scott Garrett (R., N.J.), Mark Meadows (R., N.C.), Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.), and Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.). The founding members will decide who receives an invitation to join the group; to finance the hiring of staff, they’ll also pay “mortgages,” a higher level of funding for the organization than the rest of the dues-paying members will be required to provide. They hope to cap the group at around 40 lawmakers, and expect to debut with more than 30 — a crucial number, because it takes 29 dissents to block the House Republican majority from passing a bill.

The group does not conceive of itself as yet another in the long line of conservative rebellions against House Speaker John Boehner, though. The lawmakers hope to refine the process by which conservatives pressure leadership, so as to shape policy outcomes while avoiding melodramatic floor fights between Republicans.

“We are trying to push the entire conference to the right, but you can only do that effectively if you do it in a positive way,” Labrador, the group’s unofficial spokesman, tells National Review Online. “You can only do it effectively if there are no surprises, if we go ahead and sit down with leadership and let them know what we want, why we want it, [and] what ideas we have to improve the product or the process.”

The RSC has served as the leading conservative caucus in the GOP conference since 1973, when it started as an informal group with just a few members. As it has grown in size — it now has 170 members, close to three-quarters of the Republican majority — many conservatives believe it’s come to represent the more establishment wing of the party, and strayed from its original mission. The fissures in the RSC became apparent when then-RSC chairman Steve Scalise (R., La.) fired the caucus’s long-time executive director for leaking information about conversations between members to outside groups that opposed a bipartisan budget deal in 2013. Scalise went on to win a race for House whip, while the fired aide, Paul Teller, went to work for Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas).

The Freedom Caucus is forming just days after Boehner suggested that conservative frustration with his leadership is misguided.

“Frankly, a lot is being driven by national groups here in Washington who have raised money and just beating the dickens out of me,” Boehner told CBS during a joint interview with new Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.). “They raise money, put it in their pocket, and pay themselves big salaries.”

DeSantis says that Boehner’s critique might apply to some groups, but not to prominent conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth.

“I don’t think that they would be able to generate outrage or generate dissatisfaction where none existed,” he says. “I think they’re tapping into an existing dissatisfaction with Republican leadership and with Washington, D.C., more generally.”

Initially, the new organization hopes to ease that dissatisfaction by influencing the debate over a border-security bill drafted by Homeland Security chairman Michael McCaul (R., Texas) that is currently on a fast track through the House. The bill was filed Wednesday with an amendment deadline of 10 a.m. Monday morning, leaving Republicans little time to review it and draft formal changes. This hasty process is taking place before the Senate has even voted on the House’s attempt to block implementation of President Obama’s executive amnesty, leading some lawmakers to fear that GOP leadership will use the border-security bill as a consolation prize for conservatives who were promised a fight against Obama’s immigration actions.

The caucus hasn’t decided how it will respond to that bill — they’ll have that discussion on Monday, after finalizing their bylaws — but Jordan would prefer for House Republicans to hold off on the border-security legislation until the fight over the executive amnesty plays out.

“The focus should be on the president’s unconstitutional action,” he says. “Let’s keep it there.”

Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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