When Raúl Labrador looks at his fellow House Republicans, he sees a lot of people who are in Washington for the wrong reasons. "They think that being a member of Congress is just so dang cool, and that there’s nothing greater than this," the Idaho Republican said in June.
In Labrador's view, he and his allies in the House Freedom Caucus are different. They're in Washington to make big changes to how the federal government operates. They're not necessarily more conservative than other Republicans in the House, but they see their role as a sort of conscience to leadership, forcing them to stay true to their beliefs in the face of opposition from President Obama. And they're more comfortable using extreme tactics — like risking a government shutdown — to defend those beliefs.
The group is relatively new — it was only founded in January — and it keeps its membership rolls secret. But it's been waging an increasingly open rebellion against Boehner and his leadership team. One of their members, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), launched an effort to unseat Boehner that ultimately led to a surprise resignation announcement last month. And the HFC's threat to withhold votes from Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the frontrunner to replace Boehner, contributed to McCarthy's decision to drop out of the race this week.
With only around 40 members, the HFC isn't close to representing a majority of House Republicans. But the group is big enough to deny the leadership a governing majority. And they've used that leverage to the hilt.
The problem is that these confrontational tactics might backfire. The group's tactics have been systematically weakening the party discipline that allows the leadership to get things done. Their hope is that this will push the House further to the right, but it could easily wind up giving more influence to House Democrats instead.
The House Freedom Caucus is so secretive we don't know who's in it
For more than a decade, the most conservative members of the House have organized themselves into a group called the Republican Study Committee. The group would develop conservative policy proposals that it would then urge other Republicans to adopt.
As House Republicans have gotten more conservative, the RSC has grown to more than 170 members, and it has begun to work more closely with Republican leaders. Steve Scalise (R-LA), the No. 3 man in the GOP leadership hierarchy, is a former chair of the RSC, and the current chair, Bill Flores (R-TX), has vowed to work closely with the leadership.
So in January of this year, a group of nine hardcore conservatives launched a new group called the Republican Freedom Caucus. Over the course of the year, the group grew to about approximately 40 members.
I say "approximately" because the group treats its membership rolls as a closely guarded secret. We know approximately how many members the HFC has, and most of the group's members have acknowledged being part of it. But some suspected members of the group have been weirdly cagey about whether they're part of it. "It’s nobody’s business but our own," Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) told a CQ Roll Call reporter about the group's membership list in July.
The HFC and the GOP leadership have been at war all year
One possible reason for the group's secrecy is concerns about reprisals from leadership. The group's size of around 40 members is significant because there are a total of 247 Republicans in the House. Subtract the 40 HFC members, and you're left with around 207 votes, short of the 218-vote majority needed to pass legislation in the 435-member body.
That means that if the HFC's members vote as a block, they can deny the Republican leadership the votes they need to pass legislation without Democratic help. And that potentially gives the group a lot of leverage to push the Republican Party's legislative agenda to the right. In February, RFC members pushed the Republican majority close to a partial government shutdown over President Obama's controversial executive order on immigration.
The other 200-some members of the Republican majority don't necessarily appreciate having their legislative agenda driven by the most extreme 40 members in the conference.
"They’re not legislators, they’re just assholes," a senior GOP aide told CQ Roll Call during the February budget fight. "These guys have such a minority mindset that the prospect of getting something done just scares them away, or pisses them off."
To avoid giving stubborn minorities disproportionate power, the Republican Conference (like majorities in legislatures everywhere) has strong norms requiring members to vote with the leadership on certain types of procedural votes. But in June, a block of 34 conservatives, including several HFC members, defied the leadership on a procedural vote that would set up the rules for debating Trade Promotion Authority — legislation that would help Obama negotiate international trade deals.
Republican leaders viewed this as beyond the pale, and they struck back at the rebels. Three members of the HFC were booted from the whip team, which is in charge of rounding up votes for legislation supported by the leadership. Another rebel, Mark Meadows (R-NC), was stripped of his chairmanship of the Government Operations Subcommittee.
The GOP's civil war escalated from there. The rebels eventually forced the leadership to reinstate Meadows, leaving everyone angry. A month later, Meadows filed a motion to vacate the chair, a little-used tactic to force Boehner out. The vote was never held because Boehner announced his resignation before the motion could be voted on.
The Freedom Caucus is interested in everything from fiscal policy to Iran
The Freedom Caucus has set its agenda one issue at a time. It takes support from 80 percent of the membership for the caucus to take an official position. Here's a partial list of positions the group has taken:
- In April, the Freedom Caucus endorsed blocking a DC law to prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on their use of contraception and abortion services.
- In May, the group called for the abolition of the Export-Import Bank, which provides credit for overseas customers of American companies. The HFC regard the group as a form of corporate welfare.
- In July, the group endorsed legislation to prohibit the federal government from punishing churches or charities based on their opposition to same-sex marriage.
- In September, the caucus called to delay a vote on Barack Obama's Iran deal until the president released the text of a "secret side deal" Iran made with the International Atomic Energy Agency (as Vox's Max Fisher put it "it is not a 'side deal,' nor is its existence secret").
- In September, the group called for defunding Planned Parenthood.
Obviously, these are all conservative positions, but beyond that there's no particular theme tying them together. Rather, the HFC seems to take stands on issues — same-sex marriage, abortion, and the Iran deal — that have generated a lot of excitement among grassroots Republican activists.
The GOP rift is about tactics more than ideology
It's worth noting that more mainstream Republicans agree with the Freedom Caucus on most of these issues. The Iran deal is widely disliked by congressional Republicans. Most Republicans in Congress are strongly pro-life, and few would object to protecting churches' religious liberty.
The big disagreement is about how hard the Republican majority in Congress should push for more conservative policies in the face of stubborn resistance from President Obama. The intra-Republican argument on this issue tends to revolve around the 2013 government shutdown. Boehner believes the two-week shutdown was a tactical disaster for Republicans; it created a lot of bad press for congressional Republicans and ultimately didn't produce much in the way of conservative policy changes.
But in the view of the Freedom Caucus, the problem is that Republicans weren't serious about winning their showdown with President Obama. They point out that the Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the power of the purse. Suppose Congress passes legislation funding all of the government except for Planned Parenthood, and Obama vetoes it. Obama would describe that as shutting down the government to defund Planned Parenthood. But conservatives say it would be just as accurate to say that Obama shut down the government in defense of Planned Parenthood.
Members of the HFC believe that with more disciplined and effective leaders, the next shutdown can turn out better than the last one did.
But even some conservative stalwarts think the HFC approach is foolish. One is Tom McClintock, a California Republican who has long been a hero of fiscal conservatives. He quit the House Freedom Caucus in September, arguing that it had proven counterproductive.
"When the House Freedom Caucus formed in January, I fervently hoped that it would provide responsible and effective leadership to advance conservative principles," he wrote. "I believe the tactics the HFC has employed have repeatedly undermined the House’s ability to advance them."
The HFC's conservative opponents believe that it's simply not possible to get more conservative policies enacted so long as Barack Obama is in the White House. They prefer to settle for more modest conservative gains over the next 18 months while laying the groundwork for a Republican to win the White House in 2016. And they believe that constant headlines about infighting among Republicans don't advance that goal.
The Freedom Caucus's tactics could prove counterproductive
The Freedom Caucus's most significant accomplishment so far has been to first pressure John Boehner into resigning and then pressure Kevin McCarthy to give up his bid for the speaker's chair. The problem is that it's not clear if anyone can win the support of both the Freedom Caucus and the GOP's more mainstream members.
The Freedom Caucus has endorsed Daniel Webster for speaker, but he doesn't seem to have much support beyond the House's conservative firebrands. One of the few people who might be able to unite House Republicans, Paul Ryan, says he doesn't want the job. And no other strong candidates have emerged.
Ironically, an ongoing leadership vacuum could push the House to the left instead of the right. John Boehner has said he will continue serving as speaker until his successor is chosen. And, freed of concerns about a conservative mutiny, Boehner will feel more comfortable cutting deals with Democrats if the most conservative members of his caucus won't cooperate.
Indeed, this is the larger danger of the Freedom Caucus's tactics. The group has spent the past nine months systematically attacking the mechanisms that promote party discipline and allow the GOP majority to act as a single, unified group. But it's far from obvious that the breakdown of party discipline would lead to more conservative governance. There are a lot more Democrats in the House of Representatives than there are Freedom Caucus members. If the House agenda becomes a free-for-all, the result could easily be less conservative legislation rather than more.
For example, one of the HFC's signature accomplishments was defunding the Export-Import Bank. Restoring the bank's funding appears to enjoy a support from a majority of the House — most Democrats and a minority of Republicans — but it's being blocked by the House leadership because a majority of Republicans — including Financial Services Committee Chair Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) — oppose it.
But as the HFC erodes respect for party discipline, moderate Republicans are becoming more willing to defy their leadership too. A group of 40 moderate Republicans have signed on to a "discharge petition" to force a vote on restoring the Export-Import Bank's funding. If the petition gets a majority of the House — which it very well could if the chamber's 188 Democrats sign on — the Republican leadership won't be able to block it from being considered.