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The Freedom Caucus is at a crossroads

The identity crisis behind the American Health Care Act negotiations.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), chair of the House Freedom Caucus.
Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call

The loose agglomeration of hard-line conservatives known as the House Freedom Caucus routinely threatened to derail the government during the presidency of Barack Obama. Now, they’re threatening to derail the top legislative priority of President Donald Trump.

On the morning of the day the House is supposed to vote on the American Health Care Act, the White House — facing enough defections from both the Freedom Caucus on the right and a “coverage caucus” of moderate-ish Republicans — is negotiating directly with the Freedom Caucus to try to win over its support.

But what’s the point of the Freedom Caucus under a Republican president?

Some Republicans (Trump allies, to be sure) think the caucus has fulfilled its function, and should sit down and shut up. Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) told Bloomberg this week that the Freedom Caucus “doesn’t serve a purpose any longer. They served a purpose on the far right to message to Barack Obama; it is now Donald Trump.”

Freedom Caucus member Justin Amash responded on Twitter with a call to principle:

But what principles, exactly? Now that the Freedom Caucus is no longer simply standing against a Democratic president, what exactly is it standing for?

It’s clear that the members of the Freedom Caucus don’t have a single, considered answer to this. After all, the way the negotiations have happened — with the White House and members of Republican House leadership making concessions to conservative policy demands, only to have Freedom Caucus head Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) come out and say they still don’t have the votes — makes it clear that Freedom Caucus members hold a lot of autonomy.

Ultimately, though, what the Freedom Caucus or its members say or think they stand for matters less than the choices they make. The outcome of the Freedom Caucus’s AHCA negotiations will reveal which principles its members consider non-negotiable — and that, in turn, will say something about what the Freedom Caucus is going to do with itself under Trump.

Is the Freedom Caucus a watchdog against ballooning federal spending?

If you wanted a chart to prove that Republican presidents don’t always govern in line with conservative principle, you could do worse than this one:

Federal deficits by year
Brookings Institution

Yes, the eye-catching part of this chart is the Great Recession spike that coincided with Obama’s first term. But the worrisome part, for fiscal conservatives thinking about a Republican president, is the shift from the end of the Clinton administration (when the federal government was running surpluses) to the deficits run by George W. Bush in the mid-2000s — deficits that were the result of changes in government policy, not by changes in the economy.

The Bush tax cuts cut federal revenue, while the Iraq War and Medicare Part D increased costs. (Meanwhile, the biggest budget-cutting measure proposed by the Bush administration — Social Security reform — went down in flames.)

President Trump is, if anything, less committed to fiscal conservatism than the Bush administration. He ran on the promise of protecting Social Security and Medicare; he’s talked about passing a massive infrastructure package; his “skinny budget” for 2018 makes deep cuts to domestic spending, only to plow that money back into increased defense and security outlays.

It would be reasonable to conclude that fiscal conservatism has to be imposed on the Trump administration from the outside — from, say, the Freedom Caucus.

If the Freedom Caucus exists to stand up for fiscal conservatism, it should be fighting for the AHCA to cut federal spending and reduce federal deficits as much as possible.

It might push to delay the House vote until the Congressional Budget Office has scored the latest version of the bill, to ensure that members of Congress aren’t inadvertently voting on a budget-buster. It might be wary of changes like those proposed Wednesday night to free insurers from having to include certain “essential health benefits” in all health plans — because past experience has shown that the combination of tax subsidies and minimal coverage requirements can cause more people to buy government-subsidized insurance than otherwise would.

Conversely, if these aren’t the battles the Freedom Caucus is picking, it’s sending a message that there are principles more important than fiscal conservatism.

Is the Freedom Caucus there to stand up for free market principles?

There’s a difference, subtle but important, between fiscal conservatism and the free market. Both are concerned with the government doing things that they feel are better left to the private sector. But if the primary concern of fiscal conservatism is the bottom line of government spending, the primary concern of free-market conservatism is the ability of businesses to do what is best for their bottom line (and their customers) with maximal efficiency and minimal interference.

One key objection raised by Freedom Caucus members to the AHCA is that the bill doesn’t address Title I of the Affordable Care Act — which placed various new regulations on insurers, like requiring them to offer coverage to people with preexisting conditions.

House Speaker Paul Ryan Holds Weekly Briefing
Paul Ryan wants Title I deregulation in “prong three”; the Freedom Caucus disagrees.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Because rescinding those regulations isn’t primarily about reducing federal spending, House leadership had originally worried that addressing Title I in the AHCA would make it impossible for the Senate to pass under its 50-vote “reconciliation” procedure. But opinions in the Senate appear to differ, and Freedom Caucus members have renewed their push to gut Title I now rather than waiting to do so in a separate bill.

If the Freedom Caucus’s primary concern is the free market, then making Title I the focus of its negotiations makes sense. Title I regulations limit the kind of products insurers can offer — making it harder, conservatives argue, for insurers to give healthier people the less-expensive insurance they want, and reducing the pressure to come up with innovative ways to make more extensive plans profitable.

Is the Freedom Caucus there to drag the legislative debate to the right?

One way to interpret Rep. Collins’s remarks about the Freedom Caucus having served its “purpose” is that, under Obama, the Caucus took routine votes (to, say, raise the debt ceiling) and turned them into opportunities to express objections to the Obama agenda. They rarely if ever succeeded in forcing concessions from the administration, but they successfully made it seem like a big concession on their part to simply allow government to operate — making any actual legislation all but unthinkable.

But the key here is that they rarely if ever succeeded in forcing concessions. Consistently, the Freedom Caucus didn’t have the votes for their demands, and once their attempts failed, former Speaker John Boehner was able to use a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans to pass whatever would maintain the status quo.

A similar dynamic threatens to develop under the AHCA. While the Freedom Caucus keeps making its demands — and as members keep refusing to back the bill, even after concessions from leadership — House Republicans who want something very different out of Obamacare reform are beginning to stand up and assert their own interests. This “coverage caucus” is more worried about the 24 million people who would lose insurance under the original version of the AHCA (as estimated by the CBO) than about the bill’s impact on insurance regulations or the budget.

The changes made since that CBO score, to placate conservatives, are likely to reduce coverage further (in quantity, quality, or both).

If the Freedom Caucus’s function is to ensure that the legislation passed by the House is as conservative as possible, it would make sense for them to get on board with the most conservative version of a bill that doesn’t lead to too many “coverage caucus” defections. It would certainly make sense for them to do whatever it takes for leadership to keep negotiating with them, and not with the “coverage caucus,” to get the votes. But if the Freedom Caucus’s purpose is the expression of principle, settling for half a loaf makes less sense.

Is the Freedom Caucus the representative of contemporary grassroots conservatism?

The Freedom Caucus didn’t just arise in response to the presidency of Barack Obama. It was an outgrowth of the 2010 and 2012 classes of GOP “freshmen” — new members elected on the back of the Tea Party surge and a new-seeming commitment to grassroots conservatism.

The conservatism of the Tea Party’s members — or of the GOP base writ large — isn’t necessarily that of the conservative movement. It isn’t necessarily concerned with fiscal conservatism (not at the expense of, say, defense spending), or with the free market (see: Medicare).

And while Republican base voters thrilled to elect people like Justin Amash or Mark Meadows in 2010 and 2012, many of them were even more excited to elect Donald Trump in 2016. Trump’s concern with immigration and terrorism matched the concerns of his base; he remained committed to federal spending that helped them.

Donald Trump and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sign autographs during a Trump campaign event in Texas Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) said in 2015 that when he was elected, in 2010, he thought it meant a critical mass of voters supported free-market principles; but when he saw those same voters gravitating to Trump, he realized “they’re just voting for the craziest guy in the race.” The merits of that observation aside, the point remains that the political base of the Freedom Caucus and the political base of the administration with whom they’re negotiating are one and the same.

That political base, of course, is sold on the idea of Obamacare reform because they’re sold on Trump’s promises that they will have better, cheaper insurance than they have right now. The current AHCA very much does not provide that, and to the extent that the Republican base is aware of this they very much do not support the bill.

If the Freedom Caucus were primarily responsive to its constituents, it would be standing with the president in support of the AHCA — or joining the “coverage caucus” in pushing it to do more for older and rural Americans. To the extent that they aren’t doing that — that they are, in fact, doing the opposite — it’s a statement that the Freedom Caucus has chosen the principles they thought they were elected to represent over the (sometimes fickle and incoherent) preferences of the voters who got them there.

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