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The liberal Democratic origins of the conservative House Freedom Caucus

Perhaps no group better epitomizes what James Madison described as the “mischiefs of faction” in the 21st century than the House Freedom Caucus (HFC). Madison defines a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” While many may debate whether the HFC is “adverse” to the common good, its organization and success clearly poses a challenge to the power of party leaders and majoritarian legislative coalitions (as well as to dominant political science theories of Congress).  Much has been made by scholars, the media, and the broader public about the organization and strategy of the group, including its invitation-only membership structure.  Missing in these accounts is the organizational influence of the reform model established by the Democratic Study Group (DSG) over fifty years ago on the decisions made by the hardline conservative founders of the HFC.

Liberals formed DSG in 1959 during an era and institutional environment in which seniority norms and weak party leaders limited the capacity of liberal Democrats to participate in the legislative process, achieve leadership positions, or even effectively run for (re)election.  DSG challenged these dynamics by providing liberals with access to vital organizational services and institutional opportunities that subsidized their participation in the legislative process, subsidized the cost of running for (re)election, and provided leadership training and skills otherwise unavailable to them.

The three-pronged strategy marks a point of departure from the prior organizing efforts of factions in Congress. Rather than seek to directly monopolize official committee or party leadership offices themselves, liberals challenged the status quo by developing a pseudo-official rival to formal sites of legislative and party power.  Their choices during a period of rapid technological change, amidst an expansion of the federal bureaucracy and congressional agenda, and in a decentralized institutional environment devoid of similarly organized factions, shaped the strategic choices available to future generations of ideologues.  In 1973, conservative Republicans sought to emulate DSG’s influence and power by forming the Republican Study (Steering) Committee.  In 2015, (even more) conservative Republicans disillusioned with the RSC sought to emulate its influence by forming the House Freedom Caucus.

Extra-Legislative Resources. In 1958, DSG became the first “unofficial group” to receive office space (a 4th floor office in the Longworth building). Later, liberals secured a telephone line, established a system of member dues, and developed a “pooling arrangement” to accumulate enough clerk hire funds to support a staff of 20 (by 1968) – larger than many committee offices.  These resources supported a series of informational services and research publications that informed members about the content, and electoral and policy stakes of legislation – removing members’ reliance on committees and the leadership for information.

These liberal-led innovations were eventually written into House rules as part of the Obey Commission reforms in 1976 and 1979, which provide the foundation for the current system of Congressional Member Organizations (CMOs). When the HFC formed in January 2015, the group immediately registered as a CMO, which allowed the group to gain access to office space, receive membership dues, and share staff.  The HFC practice of invitation-only membership and secret membership lists marks a point of departure from the structure of the Republican Study Committee from which the HFC emerged.  But it is identical to the practice followed by liberals in DSG at its founding – simultaneously fostering internal unity through controlled access in the nascent developmental stages of the group, while protecting members from the potential electoral ramifications of group membership.  And of course, the HFC has worked to develop legislative and procedural resources for members, empowering them to alternatively oppose the leadership (e.g. the 2015 Department of Homeland Security funding debate), and support the leadership (e.g. the April 2017 health care reform vote).

Extra-Electoral Resources. In DSG’s early years, liberals implemented many innovations in congressional campaign activity.  In 1964, liberals founded the DSG Campaign Fund to subsidize the cost of running for (re)election during an era in which party campaign committees provided limited resources to Democratic candidates. The Campaign Fund fostered connections and donations from interest groups, conducted trainings on how to prepare for television appearances, provided at-cost polling services, disseminated draft speeches and opposition research, and helped coordinate the endorsements of celebrities such as Gregory Peck and Henry Fonda.  These services acted as a recruitment mechanism for the group such that newly elected members oftentimes came to Congress in January knowing no one else, but DSG.

The HFC’s campaign arm, the House Freedom Fund, adopts the same central strategy as liberals pursued throughout the 1960s – to provide support to members denied assistance from the leadership, and to help recruit new group members among non-incumbent candidates.  In 2018, the House Freedom Fund spent $7.5 million to support 50 candidates and incumbent members, including 7 current freshmen in the 116th Congress.  Over the past several cycles, the connections brokered by the campaign support has provided an effective recruitment tool for the HFC.  Several members, including Reps. Chip Roy (R-TX) and Ralph Norman (R-NC), announced their intention to join the group before their election.  In addition to fundraising, the House Freedom Fund also makes endorsements in contested primaries, which represents one major difference in policy with liberals in the 1960s. However, given that most HFC members are elected from safe Republican districts where electoral opponents are their fellow partisans (not Democrats), this distinction is less important in practice.

Extra-Legislative Leadership. The third – and arguably most consequential – feature of the liberal organizational strategy was structuring the group’s leadership to provide opportunities for members denied by seniority and leadership norms the opportunity to learn leadership skills and assume positions of power. DSG’s executive committee provided an opportunity for members to make a name for themselves among their colleagues, and the group’s task force and whip system fostered agenda-setting and coalition-building skills.  Countless party leaders served on DSG’s leadership, including current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and former Speaker Thomas Foley (D-WA), who served as DSG chairman. And while DSG did not have an ideological litmus test for leaders, the group’s policy of empowering former chairmen to nominate future candidates ensured its leaders reflected liberal views, and the group promoted accountability and opportunity by practicing the rotation of group leaders each Congress.

The HFC’s leadership is designed to promote the same goals pursued by liberals in the 1960s.  Indeed, Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) willingness to punish many founding HFC members (including Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC)) for their hardline conservative views by stripping them of their committee assignment or leadership position, necessitated a role for the HFC as a site of leadership power for conservatives denied access elsewhere.  HFC leadership power is shared among a nine-member board, which is elected by secret ballot from the membership each year.  A division of workload, including a policy chair, whip, and communications chair, promotes specialized leadership training and agenda-setting and coalition-building.  And of course, the indirect election of the HFC chairman by the board ensures the group’s leadership reflects conservative interests – similar to DSG’s practice described above – rather than party leadership influence.

The enduring influence of the DSG’s committee and leadership reforms in the 1970s is widely recognized by congressional scholars and members themselves as pivotal for understanding party and legislative politics in the contemporary U.S. Congress.  But arguably the most important – and lasting – reform initiated by liberal Democrats in DSG in the 20th century is the organization of the group itself.  It continues to inform factions of both parties directly through CMO regulations and indirectly through the network of groups that modeled themselves after the liberal organization.  While many have questioned the “adverse” impact of the House Freedom Caucus on the capacity of the House to represent majority interests, they – and other factions – have DSG to thank for showing them how to be effective in an institution stacked against their interests.



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Topics: Committees & Caucuses
Emily Baer-Bositis
Emily Baer is an assistant professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota....