The most powerful caucus in Congress?
Updated: Jun 27, 2022
A half-dozen years ago, I wrote an academic paper about divisions within the House Republican Conference after the 2012 elections and submitted it to a prominent political science journal. The editors promptly rejected it, in part because it was too narrow a topic for their journal. (This was a perfectly fair reason, and I ultimately did publish the paper in a more specialized journal.)
However, the editors also turned it down because, they argued, splits within the House GOP didn’t really matter. “It’s far from obvious” that such internal fights “should have much predictive value for the near future,” they explained.
What happened next? After the 2014 elections, those divisions manifested themselves in the House Freedom Caucus, a group created by conservative malcontents within the Republican Conference. Over the next two years, it served as a powerful veto point, making credible threats to block numerous GOP rules and bills. It even helped push Speaker John Boehner out of Congress altogether.
So much for internal party divisions in Congress having no predictive value.
But the ongoing hearings of the January 6 committee have underscored something that neither I nor the journal’s editors predicted: the Caucus’ influence has only continued to grow. The committee has been investigating how several members of the Caucus served as the vanguard for efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, encouraging other congressional Republicans to challenge the electoral votes of two states. It has also looked into how members like Scott Perry (R-PA) worked behind the scenes to get both the Justice Department and outside agitators to reverse Trump’s loss.
And that’s not all. Consider:
The Caucus has been a launching pad for some of its members to run for higher office, including Ron DeSantis (Governor of Florida), Raúl Labrador (GOP nominee for Idaho Attorney General), and Mo Brooks (running for the GOP nomination for Alabama Senate).
Some Caucus members who stayed in Congress have moved into important leadership positions, such as Jim Jordan (ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee).
·Boehner’s successor as Speaker, Paul Ryan (R-WI), allowed Caucus members to be included in informal leadership discussions, and the group has considerable sway with GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who is reluctant to openly criticize the Caucus or its members, even extreme ones like Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Several Caucus members were given positions in the Trump White House, including Jim Bridenstine (NASA administrator), Mark Meadows (White House Chief of Staff), and Mick Mulvaney (who held multiple positions in the White House, often simultaneously).
Insider accounts suggest that the Caucus influenced President Donald Trump’s legislative and political strategy on several occasions, such as his decision in 2018 to threaten a veto against an appropriations bill if it did not include funding to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The group has inspired Republicans in state legislatures to form their own Freedom Caucuses, of which there are currently more than a half dozen.
It is very rare for a congressional caucus to exercise so much influence on national politics and be a source of power and opportunity for its members, especially an intraparty organization that is relatively small (40 or so members at most). How has this happened?
For one thing, power has long been an important objective of the Caucus. The group was not formed so its members could take symbolic positions for reelection purposes (its membership was initially kept secret). And unlike policy-oriented caucuses, it has never been especially interested in developing new legislation. Rather, its goal was to amass enough power to be a pivotal bloc that would vote with Democrats to kill GOP rules and bills if it didn’t get its way. That desire to influence political outcomes has remained a central mission of the Freedom Caucus.
Developing ties with more powerful individuals is a critical means by which the group increases its influence. In 2015, the Caucus forged an alliance with Financial Services Committee Chair Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) to successfully (albeit temporarily) kill the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. Alliance-building has remained a key tactic of the Freedom Caucus (most notably with Donald Trump), as have other techniques such as developing its own campaign fundraising arm and encouraging state legislatures to create freedom caucuses of their own (with the help of an organization started by former Freedom Caucus founder Mark Meadows).
The group has also been helped by the fact that most Caucus members are willing to openly follow the direction of conservative voters and media outlets. In 2016, only one member of the group, Scott Desjarlis of Tennessee, had endorsed Trump in the presidential primaries. (The vast majority endorsed Texas Senator Ted Cruz or chose to endorse no one.) Several members openly expressed grave misgivings about Trump’s conservative bona fides.
But the organization began to shift after Trump’s election. By 2018, the Freedom Caucus was giving Trump its full-throated support and echoing the nativist, authoritarian, and even conspiracy-minded rhetoric of his base. Caucus members who didn’t left the group. That in turn cemented the Caucus’ ties to Trump and allowed its members to say that they were the only lawmakers truly representing the GOP’s base.
Finally, the Freedom Caucus has been able to exploit a unique opportunity: their party’s leaders have been extraordinarily weak. Boehner’s support within the Republican Conference was thin, and he either disdained the exercise of power or used it too bluntly. Trump lacked strong roots in the Republican Party, and once he was elected president, he desperately needed allies in Washington – a need that the Caucus was happy to fill. And Kevin McCarthy -- who already failed once to get nominated Speaker and faces the possibility of a narrow majority in the House after the 2022 elections – is eager to retain the Caucus’ support for the speakership. (In addition, if Donald Trump is to be believed, McCarthy has an “inferiority complex.”)
The Freedom Caucus has thus morphed from a group of dissatisfied House Republicans into an important political player in American politics. And while the story of the Caucus may be unique -- it benefited from many unexpected and unusual events – it may nonetheless offer a roadmap for future intraparty organizations that want to punch above their weight class. At a minimum, it is a reminder that internal party divisions in the Congress can be highly predictive of the future.