Freedom Caucus: The Fight Club of Congress
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Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a key player in the shutdown drama, often appears with the Freedom Caucus. But he says he’s technically just an “admirer.” Georgia firebrand Marjorie Taylor Greene was a member, and now isn’t, under circumstances that remain unclear.
You can only join if you’re “vetted and invited,” says Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, strolling back from the House last week after casting one of six GOP votes that blocked leadership from bringing the defense appropriations bill to a vote.
“Andy Biggs, my hero!” says Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, a fellow Freedom Caucus member, sidling up to him at the edge of the crosswalk leading back to House office buildings.
“Hey, what’s up,” he says, before turning back and declining to elaborate further on the caucus’s “internal workings.”
It’s all part of the mystique surrounding the ultraconservative group that often seems like Capitol Hill’s version of Fight Club. (First rule of Fight Club: You don’t talk about Fight Club.) Founded to rein in spending and decentralize power in the House, it has been a thorn in the side of GOP speakers from John Boehner to Paul Ryan and now Kevin McCarthy. It has shut down government operations and careers before – and has made clear it isn’t afraid to do so again.
Yet while Freedom Caucus members have more clout than ever, including key seats on committees and subcommittees, this latest standoff has also exposed cracks within the group itself. Members have been publicly divided over tactics, the desirability of a shutdown, and whether to accept a short-term fix.
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One reason for the chaos is simple math. Republicans hold only a four-seat majority, which means that just a handful of lawmakers can gum up the works. That gives any holdouts outsize leverage, which disincentivizes banding together or compromising. As the government edges closer to the brink of running out of money, Speaker McCarthy isn’t negotiating just with the Freedom Caucus, but with a rotating cast of individuals, both inside and outside the group – all with seemingly disparate demands.
“Didn’t we sing kumbaya the other night?” jokes Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, a Freedom Caucus member, when asked about the group’s internal divisions. Mr. Buck himself has publicly criticized Mr. McCarthy’s decision to launch an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, calling it a transparent attempt by the speaker to distract from the spending fight.
“We all held hands,” quips Representative Biggs, walking alongside him.
“It’s a big group. And it’s a group that’s going to disagree,” says Mr. Buck, more seriously. “People look at that and say, ‘That’s disorganized.’ I look at that and I say, ‘I’m learning a lot.’”
What, specifically, has he been learning?
“There’s a lot of conservatives that will vote for more spending.”
Conservatives were “getting rolled”
The Freedom Caucus was born during a secret January 2015 meeting of nine GOP members of Congress in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
During the Obama years, Republicans had retaken the House with the tea party wave of 2010, but many were frustrated that they hadn’t made much progress in exacting fiscal discipline. A 16-day shutdown in late 2013 over the president’s Affordable Care Act failed to extract any changes to the health care policy, and the GOP saw its approval numbers plunge.
Conservatives felt like they were “constantly getting rolled,” says Matt Salmon, a veteran representative from Arizona who was recruited to join the Hershey meeting. He and his co-founders saw a need for a new group that could harness the collective clout of right-wing members. Their goal: pressure Republican leaders to restore “fiscal sanity” and constitutional principles, and allow legislators to actually legislate – instead of making big spending decisions behind closed doors.
Many today insist the group’s mission remains unchanged. Freedom Caucus leaders say they are trying to draw a line in the sand, to get a bankrupt and broken Washington back on track before it’s too late.
“Our members are united on one thing, and that is to make sure that we cut spending in this government and that we fund things that the government should be doing – no more and no less,” says Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida.
Mr. Salmon, however, is dismayed over the group’s current state. He says the caucus abandoned its core principles to become a “cheering squad” for President Donald Trump, staying mum as the Trump administration ran up big deficits. (What members say in their defense: They weren’t in Congress yet, or the economy was much better then.) That, he says, created a credibility deficit that has undermined its power.
“Where were you during those four years when we were spending like drunken sailors on shore leave?” asks Mr. Salmon, who left Congress just before Mr. Trump took office in January 2017. “It’s like, ‘Guys, you used to have actually a fiscal heart and soul, and now you’re just playing political games.’”
Others on the right are less critical but agree the caucus is struggling to exert the influence it once had.
A more unified Freedom Caucus would actually be helpful in the current situation, argues Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky libertarian who is not in the group but is a fiscal conservative. “If they were functioning as they were founded, where they consolidate ideas and plans among the most conservative portion of the party,” they could win some meaningful concessions, he says.
“The problem we have right now is that the Freedom Caucus is not leading” the dissent, Mr. Massie adds. “A lot of times when you find five or 10 dissenters, there’s no common objection. So it’s hard to get past that impasse.”
Fighting for the sake of fighting?
“Anybody seen a bald guy with a goatee?” asks someone in the bowels of the Capitol where journalists are milling around to get the latest scuttlebutt after a GOP meeting breaks up.
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It’s a tongue-in-cheek reference to Rep. Chip Roy, an ideological heavyweight within the Freedom Caucus and one of the most prominent members pushing Speaker McCarthy to hold the line on government spending.
Mr. Roy knows all about government shutdowns, and the political risks they carry: He was serving as chief of staff for GOP Sen. Ted Cruz when the senator championed the 2013 shutdown over the Affordable Care Act. He doesn’t want another one now, and he’s chastised some of his more hard-line colleagues for flirting with danger.
But he’s also insistent that Congress needs to rein in “out of control” spending.
“The federal government will spend $2 trillion more than it takes in this year,” Representative Roy said at a Freedom Caucus press conference earlier this month, noting that the government had already added $1.5 trillion in debt since the “so-called debt deal” in June. “We’re now spending more on interest on the debt than we are on defending the United States of America.”
“Thank God for the Freedom Caucus,” chimed in Florida Sen. Rick Scott at the same presser. “We’ve gotta stop this insanity.”
Still unclear is how they plan to do that.
With Democrats currently in control of the Senate, and President Biden in the White House, nothing can pass without bipartisan support, which means, in the end, that some form of compromise will be required. The question for conservatives is how much pain they want to try to inflict in advance of that eventual compromise – and whether those efforts will actually help or hurt their cause.
Many are still irate over the debt ceiling deal Mr. McCarthy brokered with the president back in June. Others concede that the speaker’s hands were essentially tied. Some critics question whether the current holdouts can be placated by any concessions, or simply want to fight for the sake of fighting.
Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, who withheld his vote for Mr. McCarthy to become speaker until the 11th of 15 rounds, says he’s fine with being one of only a handful of GOP members standing apart from the rest of the Freedom Caucus if that’s what it takes to achieve “economic security.”
“We’re going to fight for the country,” says Representative Norman. “I don’t care whether we’ve got four [members], or we’ve got more.”
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Hanging over the negotiations is the threat that at any moment, a single disgruntled member could bring a “motion to vacate” the speaker’s chair – in other words, a vote on whether to kick Mr. McCarthy out of his job.
In a Sept. 12 phone call with reporters, Mr. Gaetz accused Mr. McCarthy of backtracking on promises he made to conservatives when trying to win the speakership – and threatened to bring such a motion “every single day” for as long as it takes.
Democrats have been watching this drama unfold with a mixture of frustration, schadenfreude, and even a touch of sympathy.
“We’ve all had friends in relationships where we say to them, ‘They’re not good for you, and they’re not that into you,’” says Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer of Washington. “And this feels like that dynamic.”
The majority party has always had to deal with disgruntled factions, notes former House historian Ray Smock. But it’s unusual for a handful of people to wield such outsize power. Previous Speaker Nancy Pelosi managed to largely maintain discipline in the last Congress with an 11-seat Democratic majority.
“The fact that the leadership on the Republican side has not found a way to deal with their own hotheads, as I’m prone to call them, is kind of a mystery,” says Mr. Smock. “At some point they will have to be called to account.”
A temporary fix falls short
Over the past week, Mr. McCarthy began bending to some of the renegades’ demands. Mr. Gaetz and others have been insisting on 12 separate spending bills rather than one big “omnibus,” which has become the default for Congress and makes it difficult to influence funding levels in specific areas.
Earlier in the summer, however, some of those same members stalled that 12-bill process by bringing the House floor to a complete standstill in retaliation for Speaker McCarthy’s compromise on the debt ceiling. Conservatives said Mr. McCarthy had reneged on promises he made in January to win their backing for the speakership.
“What we ended up doing was sort of re-litigating January … in July,” says Representative Massie. “It was sort of like, ‘OK, Kevin, you didn’t hold your end of the bargain, so we’re going to stop you from doing anything.’”
The speaker held votes Thursday on four of those 12 bills, and got three of them passed in addition to one that passed this summer. But he got little in return. On Friday, 21 Republicans torpedoed a GOP stopgap spending measure – known as a “continuing resolution,” or CR – that would have kept the government running in the short term.
The measure, which Representatives Roy and Donalds, along with Freedom Caucus chair Scott Perry, hashed out with other Republicans, provides for lower overall spending levels and provisions to improve border security. But more than 10 of their own Freedom Caucus colleagues, including Mr. Biggs, Mr. Buck, and Ms. Boebert, helped kill it.
Rep. Garrett Graves, who was the chief negotiator between the caucus and Mr. McCarthy during the debt ceiling standoff, said last week that walking away from the CR was a “big mistake.” The measure wouldn’t have passed the Senate as written, but it would have given Mr. McCarthy some leverage in his negotiations with Democrats. Now, they may be heading for a politically damaging shutdown that eventually forces Republicans to cave entirely.
“I think the closer we get to shutdown, the more and more leverage you lose,” he said.
When asked whether the stalemate reflects a breakdown in ideological cohesion, personalities, or just general dysfunction, he gave a tired smile.
“I’ve got a whole lot of reasons as to why that’s happening,” he said. Tapping his head, he added, “But I’m just going to keep them right there for right now.”