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How the Freedom Caucus conquered the House — and what they want next

They're coming for you, Speaker Ryan.
They're coming for you, Speaker Ryan.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza has published the best account so far of the conservative insurgency that ended up toppling House Speaker John Boehner.

It's a fascinating, deeply reported look into the dynamics and psychology of the House Republican Conference right now, and in this interview Lizza expands on some of the most interesting aspects of the piece. He also details some amazing moments that didn't make it into the final article, like Rep. Pete Sessions's surprising assessment of John Boehner's political style.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Ezra Klein: Are the disagreements among House Republicans ideological or tactical? That is to say, do Boehner and the Freedom Caucus want different worlds, or do they have different ideas of how to achieve the same world?

Ryan Lizza: It really is both. I have seen some commentators say it’s not ideological, it’s just tactical. But it’s only tactical because the tactics are what would advance the ideology. There is just a basic dispute over whether it is appropriate, as the majority in Congress, to be using debt defaults and government shutdowns as negotiating tools. So that’s tactical, but it’s about ideology.

I don’t think Boehner believed Obama was evil and trying to destroy the country. But Raúl Labrador thinks that’s the problem with Boehner — he didn’t understand Obama. And Obama was willing to do anything, in the Freedom Caucus’s view, to advance an agenda that was truly something radical and different in America. And that’s why you had to start this parliamentary arms race.

EK: I’m glad you brought that up, because it was one of the most interesting moments in your piece to me. You quote Labrador saying, "You have somebody in the White House who plays hardball. He wants to fundamentally change America. And when you have a guy whose only job is to ‘govern,’" — by which he means Boehner — "and doesn’t realize that the other guy is trying to fundamentally change America, you just don’t have an even match."

What was so fascinating to me about that comment is it’s a precise mirror of how Democrats talk about House Republicans. Democrats see themselves as trying to govern, trying to compromise, trying to take half a loaf in order to get things done, and they see themselves as stymied by an utterly intractable, genuinely radical faction of House conservatives. And that’s long been one of the critiques that liberals make of Obama — that he kept trying to govern, and it took him way too long to realize that House Republicans weren’t going to work with him to govern.

RL: Yeah. Both sides take their lessons from the incredibly activist period of 2009 and 2010. The Republicans who came in in 2010 were responding to this massive political shift during this incredibly active period. From their perspective, this was like the end of times. And that came through in a lot of these interviews.

If you’re not constantly reading the conservative press and talking to conservative politicians, you can’t appreciate how much that 2009-2010 period scared the hell out of them. A lot of the Republicans who came in during that era have this view of Obama — stoked by right-wing radio and all the rest — that, to me at least, is clearly a caricature of him, but it’s their starting point for what’s going on in Washington.

And on the Democratic side, the mirror of it is they think this nice, moderate Barack Obama came in trying to pass this health care bill based partly on Republican ideas and this cap-and-trade bill based partly on Republican ideas and this bank bailout that started under Bush, and what’s so big and aggressive about this agenda anyway?

EK: You talk in the piece about Boehner working, in his words, to "educate" these members. And that takes the form of everything from traditional caucus meetings where scholars present on their issues to letting Republicans shut down the government so they can feel the aftermath. And what's interesting is how thoroughly and completely that process, depending on how you look at it, either failed or backfired.

The conventional wisdom then was that it would take a few years but these conservatives would settle down, learn how the House worked, get to know people on the other side, and become more typical in their approach to politics. But five years later, they've certainly gotten more tactically sophisticated, but they're no more moderate — they ultimately drove Boehner from office, and there's certainly no evidence that their time in Washington has humanized Obama or Nancy Pelosi to them.

RL: That’s a really good point, and I think the question is does it change under Ryan if he operates differently than Boehner?

This may not have come through as strongly as I wanted it to in the piece, but the Freedom Caucus argues that if they’re just part of the process, if they’re just in the room and just have time to understand the legislation and explain it back home, they are willing to vote for things they don’t want.

When they invite people into the Freedom Caucus, they have two rules. You have to be willing to vote against leadership, but you can’t hate the leadership so much you’ll never vote with them. So the question is whether Ryan, having heard what they hated about Boehner, can democratize the place a bit, let committees legislate more, get back to regular order. They kept saying if they just had more buy-in on these packages, they would be more willing to vote for this stuff. I'm sort of skeptical of that.

One quote that didn't make it into this piece was in an interview I did with Pete Sessions, the chairman of the Rules Committee. He was in a unique position to see all this play out, because he was sort of a tool of Boehner — he would craft the rules that would limit debate on the floor and limit input from members. His argument was Boehner believed in governing, but he believed the only way to govern and keep the majority was to have a powerful speakership — and this is very close to a direct quote — and that was his downfall.

EK: It's such a fascinating thing to see the House through the Freedom Caucus's eyes. I've heard this from them too — there's this real feeling that Boehner ran this tyrannical House. But the view everywhere else in Washington was that Boehner was an unusually weak speaker, that he was unusually reluctant to punish members, that he willingly gave up tools like earmarks that helped previous speakers manage the House. Do you have a view who is right there?

RL: Exactly. I was shocked by this, because I definitely had that other view, but the stuff from Pete Sessions — who, believe me, is not a Freedom Caucus guy — was very frank and honest in saying that Boehner’s view was you needed a powerful speakership. So there’s no doubt that that’s what these guys believed.

Remember that 60 percent of the Republican Conference has been elected since 2010. And something Sessions said was that these guys don’t want to wait and climb the leadership and seniority ladder in order to have influence. They want influence on day one. And they were all promised they were going to Washington to overturn the entire Obama agenda.

Just look at the language of the Mark Meadows motion to vacate. It was like the Declaration of Independence, with John Boehner as King George. And I think on the one hand a lot of House historians would say Boehner didn’t run the place as iron-fisted as some of his predecessors, but at the same time he was dealing with a group of new members who didn’t really care if he was historically more or less powerful than his predecessors. They saw him as a tyrant.

EK: I know that a lot of this is about process, but the processes Boehner chose were driven in part by the outcomes he was trying to achieve. And so a lot of these processes House conservatives are angry about were on bills where Republicans were split but Boehner thought the bill needed to get done. So which of these procedural compromises Boehner made to keep the House running do the conservatives think Paul Ryan won't make?

RL: This is exactly what I’m thinking about right now. Ryan is, as we speak, in the exact same position Boehner was in every year. At the end of the day, he has to pass a bill that relies on Democratic votes. I think you’re right about that.

Some people say it’s not a fair test for Ryan because he’s still clearing out the barn from the Boehner era, and next year when they go through the budget process it’ll be a whole new world of regular order and the members will be more bought into the appropriations legislation, and at the end of the day they'll support it.

But if you saw the end of the piece, Labrador gives that warning, where he says the honeymoon is over for Paul Ryan, we need some conservative policy. But I don’t see the Venn diagram of riders the Freedom Caucus will support to allow them to vote for the final spending bill but that will also pass the Senate and not be vetoed by Obama. Do you?

EK: No.

RL: So if you take that as a starting point, you’re looking at a government shutdown or a bill that gets passed with mostly Democratic votes.

EK: What's so odd to me about this situation is when Ryan was thinking about running for speaker — and initially, he really, really didn't want to — he came out with what I thought was this very smart set of demands. He needed to be endorsed by the Freedom Caucus, and he wanted certain rules changed so his speakership would be harder to challenge. He basically said, Either you make this a job I can do without too much fear of you or I won't do the job.

And I always thought it was so fascinating what happened next. The Freedom Caucus basically came back and met with Ryan, and they didn't fulfill a single one of Ryan's conditions but somehow convinced him to take the job anyway. And now Ryan is in this position where literally nothing has changed. Do you have any sense of what happened there? Why did Ryan take this job when none of his conditions were fulfilled?

RL: It’s a really good question. He wanted an official endorsement from the Freedom Caucus, which he did not get, and he did not get an elimination of the ability to file a motion to vacate, which was the gun to Boehner’s head. Labrador can be a little bit mischievous and chest-thumping, and he told me, "Ryan had five demands, and I don’t even remember what they were." That was Labrador’s summation of the wooing process of Ryan, which was pretty dismissive.

Now, the reality is Ryan did make one process change that was really important to these guys. If you’re a member of the House, the Steering Committee runs your life. It decides your committees, it’s how leadership runs the place. The speaker gets five votes on it. The Freedom Caucus realized the steering party was being used to exclude them, and so one of their demands was Steering Committee reform. And Ryan has reformed the committee, broadened its membership, made it more to the liking of the rebels. So one question is how much goodwill did that buy him?

EK: Okay, but I just want to note how our conversation went there. The question we started with was Ryan has all these demands and none of them were met, but the answer was, well, the Freedom Caucus has these demands, and Ryan met some of those! In terms of the message that must have sent to a group of people who have become pretty good at using very aggressive forms of leverage to bring speakers to heel, it doesn't sound like that message is going to make Ryan's life easier in a year and a half.

RL: I think you’re right. One other thing he did — and again, it’s something Ryan did for them, not something they did for him — is he created a weekly gathering with members of the Freedom Caucus, the Republican Study Committee, and the more moderate Tuesday Group. So he’s trying to make them feel like they have a part in the process. A lot of it is about making sure these members feel like they have input. That’s one thing they said they wanted, and he's doing everything he can to appease that criticism. I’m deeply skeptical that’s going to be enough.