The tension between GOP leadership and House conservatives might have eased somewhat, now that Rep. Mark Meadows has his subcommittee gavel back. But the distrust, even anger, within the conference after last month's crackdown on House Freedom Caucus members hasn’t quite been relieved.
Instead, leadership's effort to subdue the 34 Republicans who defied the speaker on a June 11 trade vote seems to have left conservatives emboldened, not cowed.
Boehner Dismisses GOP Infighting as 'Family Squabble'
Evidence of that came just before the July Fourth recess, when HFC members made it clear that Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz needed to reinstate North Carolina's Meadows as chairman of an Oversight subcommittee.
In a roughly two-hour meeting of the panel's Republicans, which HFC Chairman Jim Jordan described to CQ Roll Call as “a good family discussion,” HFC members presented Chaffetz with a reality. He needed their votes to pick a new chairman — and Chaffetz was in the minority.
Oversight — not generally considered a plum committee assignment — is stacked with HFC members. Roughly half of the 25 Republicans on the committee are, like Meadows, in the Freedom Caucus, and many more were sympathetic to Meadows, who is well-liked in the conference.
During that members-only meeting on June 24, committee Republicans confronted Chaffetz with GOP conference rules: “The selection of Chairmen of the Committee’s subcommittees shall be at the discretion of the full Committee Chair, unless a majority of the Republican members of the full committee disapprove the action of the Chair.”
That meant, at the very least, when Chaffetz tried to appoint a new Government Operations Subcommittee chairman, he’d face a vote — one he probably wouldn’t win.
On top of the rules issue, members were collecting signatures on a letter that would openly chastise the Utah Republican for taking Meadows’ gavel.
Chaffetz had two options: Reinstate Meadows, or face rebellion in his own committee. The chairman asked for 12 hours, which for some members further confirmed suspicions it was ultimately leadership, not Chaffetz, behind the Meadows decision.
Either way, Chaffetz reversed course. But what he didn’t know was the lengths to which HFC members were preparing to embarrass him.
In addition to the letter and a new subcommittee chairman vote that they insisted Chaffetz would lose, HFC members were plotting to undercut Chaffetz by moving to adjourn an IRS hearing the following day. The rebels figured Democrats would vote with them to effectively take Chaffetz’s gavel out of his hands.
Leadership dodged that spectacle by making peace with Meadows, and even though Speaker John A. Boehner's team was able to put the hammer down on other troublemakers, the Republican Conference established a line in the sand: Subcommittee chairmen don’t lose their gavels — or there will be consequences.
Of course, members suspect much of this has to do with more than the trade rule vote, which temporarily delayed "fast-track" authority for the president. During their last meeting in the basement of Tortilla Coast, HFC members were asked if they had given any money this year to the National Republican Congressional Committee. Only three members present raised their hands.
HFC members seem to increasingly feel they don’t need to kick in to the NRCC. The group mostly helps vulnerable Republicans, who tend to come from more moderate districts and therefore have more moderate ideologies. The conservatives withholding NRCC donations mostly come from safe, deep-red districts. When HFC members stick together, moderates are forced to govern with Democrats, which in turn makes them more susceptible to primary challengers.
Those vulnerable Republican seats are also the ones that give Republicans the majority, so there is a natural danger in putting moderates in a difficult position and in Republicans from safe districts not donating to the GOP’s campaign account.
Hence much of the frustration among GOP leaders and moderates.
But conservatives counter it’s inappropriate for them to give to the NRCC when there are Republican PACs running ads against them and their friends. (It’s hard to overstate the impact of Boehner’s former chief of staff, Barry Jackson, being on the board of the American Action Network, which has targeted a number of conservatives.)
Meadows himself explained his refusal to personally give to the NRCC was a result of that group running ads against him.
Add a general paranoia on the part of conservatives that leadership is out to get them, and it's clear that tension between moderate Republicans and HFC members is mounting.
Consider this: One HFC member theorized to CQ Roll Call that Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is tasked with handling committee chairmen, forced Chaffetz to take Meadows' gavel not just to punish a dissenter, but to take a potential rival down a notch. McCarthy wanted to take Chaffetz and "dirty him up," the member suggested, in case the Utah Republican were ever to consider going up against him in a leadership fight.
That sort of Machiavellian move sounds more like "House of Cards" — maybe even "Game of Thrones" — than McCarthy's operation. A McCarthy aide had a good laugh at the theory, pointing out the California Republican is notably close with Chaffetz. (McCarthy generally seems more concerned with getting through the next week than in maneuvering a speaker election.)
But the McCarthy's-out-to-get-Chaffetz theory speaks to conservatives’ general mistrust of any move, the suspicion that leaders are twirling their mustaches in the most nefarious ways.
Add to that the sense from leadership that conservatives are constantly plotting against them. Add that the HFC meets in the basement of Tortilla Coast with a list of members that is kept secret — (the Wikipedia entry for the House Freedom Caucus has a “Known members” section) — and the sense from both sides that the other is out to get them doesn’t sound as crazy as it maybe should.
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