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Common myths about the House Freedom Caucus

Since it was formed in early 2015, the House Freedom Caucus has made headlines for blocking bills in Congress, helping remove an incumbent Speaker of the House, and otherwise making life difficult for congressional leaders.  Yet as I note in Legislative Hardball, my new book about the Freedom Caucus, for all the attention dedicated to the group, several myths about the Freedom Caucus persist.  Here are some of the more common misunderstandings of the Caucus.

  1. Freedom Caucus members are uniformly conservative.

The Freedom Caucus is routinely described as a band of legislators unified in their strongly conservative views.  “Far-right,” “hard-right,” and “staunchly conservative” are among the phrases commentators frequently use to define the Caucus and all those who join it.

It’s generally true that, depending on how you measure it, the members of the Freedom Caucus are among the most ideologically conservative lawmakers in the House of Representatives.  But this hides a considerable diversity of policy perspectives within the Freedom Caucus.  Some Caucus members are primarily social conservatives, others are more free-market oriented, and still others are decidedly libertarian in outlook.

This diversity matters for at least a couple of reasons.  First, it helps explain why the Freedom Caucus often refrains from taking official positions on major bills, since it cannot always reach a consensus.  Second, it explains why the group does not vote together nearly as often as people assume.  For example, while the Caucus was blamed for the defeat of a farm bill in mid-2018, nearly half of its members had actually voted for it.  That lack of unity can keep the Caucus from exercising more influence than it otherwise might.

  1. The Freedom Caucus is the “Caucus of No.”

Obstruction is what the Freedom Caucus is best known for.  By voting, or threatening to vote, against Republican Party proposals, the group was credited with killing border security and anti-terrorism legislation, suspending the charter of the Export-Import Bank, and forcing Republican leaders to negotiate with Democrats in order to keep the government open.  Unsurprisingly, these efforts resulted in the group being called “the Caucus of No” (or, in some circles, “the Caucus of Hell No”).

To be sure, in its early years the Freedom Caucus was most effective when it defeated bills by voting with Democrats in cross-party coalitions, or when its threats to do so convinced GOP leaders to allow votes on Caucus amendments or pull legislation from the House floor altogether.

But the Caucus doesn’t merely oppose bills.  It has also endorsed the passage of legislation, such as a ban on abortion in the District of Columbia, and it has sometimes used House rules to force their colleagues to vote on proposals blocked by Republican leaders.  It has also shown openness to compromise, especially after Donald Trump was elected president and Republicans had an opportunity to see their bills become law.  Thus, after initially blocking an Obamacare repeal bill in March 2017, the group negotiated an alternative repeal measure with GOP moderates.  It also withdrew threats to oppose two budget resolutions so that both tax reform and Obamacare repeal could pass the Senate with simple majority votes.

  1. The Freedom Caucus is powerful primarily because it binds its members to vote together.

One noteworthy feature of the Freedom Caucus is its binding rule.  If 80% of the Caucus votes to invoke the rule for a particular measure, all members of the group are required to vote the same way when that measure comes to the House floor.  Many viewed  this rule as a major source of Freedom Caucus influence while the GOP controlled the House since, by voting as a bloc with Democrats, it could command enough votes to constitute a majority of the chamber.

The power of the Freedom Caucus’ binding rule is easily overstated, however.  It’s rarely invoked, and even when it is, Caucus members are permitted a certain number of exemptions from the rule.

Furthermore, the Caucus often exercises influence without ever needing to invoke the binding rule.  For instance, during its first year in existence the group defeated short-term funding legislation for the Department of Homeland Security, successfully forced floor amendments on a No Child Left Behind bill, and stopped an anti-terrorism bill–all without taking an official binding position.

In addition, Ruth Bloch Rubin at the University of Chicago has noted other institutional features of the Caucus, such as its invitation-only membership and “code of confidentiality,” that are at least as important as the binding rule in maximizing the group’s influence.

  1. Speaker John Boehner resigned because the Freedom Caucus credibly threatened to remove him.

Perhaps the biggest victory credited to the Freedom Caucus was the resignation of John Boehner as Speaker of the House in 2015.  In July of that year, Caucus member Mark Meadows (R-NC) introduced a resolution declaring the speakership vacant–which, if enacted, would have removed Boehner as Speaker.  Boehner announced his resignation two months later, presumably because he wanted to avoid an embarrassing rejection by the House.

But this storyline misses some key details that call into question whether the Freedom Caucus could have forced Boehner out.  The Caucus was initially far from unified in supporting Meadows’ gambit, while Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi privately assured Boehner that their party would not vote for the resolution, meaning it almost certainly would fail.

Perhaps most important, Boehner—whose popularity among conservative voters was steadily falling—had grown tired of Congress and had hoped to retire the previous year.  Thus, Boehner most likely left not because he feared a Caucus-led rejection by the House, but because he did not want to force other Republicans to go on the record endorsing an unpopular speaker who had already lost interest in the job.

  1. Now that House Republicans are in the minority, the Freedom Caucus no longer matters.

When the GOP lost its majority in the House of Representatives last November, some argued that the Freedom Caucus had lost its relevance.  After all, Republican leaders no longer had the power to set the legislative agenda, so it would be pointless to use threats against them.  More importantly, Democrats did not need Caucus votes to command a majority on the House floor, robbing the group of any leverage.

The problem with this claim is that it misses how the Freedom Caucus’ influence within its own party has expanded with the departure of Republican moderates through retirement and electoral defeat.  By working closely with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the Caucus has helped lead the party’s procedural and media protests against congressional Democrats.  Its close connections with the executive branch—one of its former members, Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), is acting White House Chief of Staff—have also given the group outsized influence in presidential politics.

In fact, one important explanation for the recent partial government shutdown is that members of the Caucus successfully encouraged Trump to pursue a shutdown in hopes of securing funds for a border wall.  So despite being a minority within the minority, the safe bet is that the House Freedom Caucus will continue to matter to congressional politics for the foreseeable future.

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Topics: Committees & Caucuses