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After the Revolution, a Single New Spot of Influence for the Freedom Caucus

Huelskamp was the second-highest vote-getter in the Steering Committee election. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

If you’re a member of the House Freedom Caucus, are you better off now than you were a dozen weeks ago?  

That question is worth asking in light of last week’s down-ballot House Republican leadership election. It was a sort of insiders-only coda to all those months of turmoil in the ranks that climaxed with Speaker John A. Boehner’s resignation announcement at the end of September. On the one hand, the most avowedly combative conservatives were granted one of their most prominent demands before quieting their uprising. As he’d promised them, new Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., arranged an opening for the Freedom Caucus to secure a significant voice at his top table.  

But on the other hand, those lawmakers were only able to make minimal use of their hard-won opportunity. They significantly underperformed in the elections for the six openings Ryan created on the Steering Committee, the group of lawmakers who dole out the committee assignments that do more than anything to define the public prominence, legislative influence and fundraising ability of their peers.  

Four Freedom Caucus members were among the 11 lawmakers who wanted a spot . Only one of them won.  

At the same time, two of the victors were the anointed choices of the Tuesday Group, which bills itself as the caucus of the most moderate Republicans. Another had been one of Boehner’s closest allies at the Capitol, while the final two are squarely positioned in the pro-business GOP mainstream.  

To be sure, the Freedom Caucus winner is as good a poster child as anyone for the philosophies of the group and the antagonism it focused on the previous House administration: Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, who was swept in on the 2010 tea party wave and has remained true to its no-more-business-as-usual spirit ever since.  

One of his early apostasies was to vote in the Budget Committee against the fiscal blueprint advanced for the party by Ryan, then the panel’s chairman. And Huelskamp bucked the caucus power structure so many more times as a freshman that as soon as he’d won his second term he was removed from both the Budget and Agriculture panels by the very same Steering Committee to which he now belongs.  

His triumph can fairly be portrayed as a sign that defying the leadership on questions of public policy, and deriding its internal management tactics, no longer risk a political death sentence within the House GOP. “My colleagues have sent a strong message that they’re listening to the conservative heart of the party,” declared Huelskamp, who’s also chairman of the Tea Party Caucus.  

But at the same time, his win effectively revealed the limits of influence for those most emphatically on the right. Huelskamp got 33 votes, finishing second in the balloting. But the Freedom Caucus has only 39 members, suggesting that while he may have consolidated the group’s support, he was unable to expand his appeal to any new corners of the GOP conference. (The other Freedom Caucus members who came up short were Steve Pearce of New Mexico and Ted Yoho of Florida, while David Schweikert of Arizona dropped out just before the secret ballot.)  

And other than plotting to get his old committee assignments back — he’s now consigned to Small Business and Veterans Affairs — it’s not clear what else Huelskamp can accomplish on behalf of his fellow confrontationists. The Steering Committee now has 33 members, with he and Cynthia M. Lummis of Wyoming (already on board to represents the 17 states with one or two GOP members) the only ones aligned with the Freedom Caucus.  

The Tuesday Group, in contrast, overperformed in the election. It has 55 members, but a combined 72 votes (or 29 percent of ballots cast) went to the two candidates it formally endorsed, Fred Upton of Michigan and Susan W. Brooks of Indiana.  

The other winners were Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a devoted Boehner lieutenant for many years; Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, one of the most outspoken advocates at the Capitol for lifting all caps on defense spending; and Jason Smith of Missouri, at 35 the second-youngest House Republican and the recipient of a Ways and Means seat in his first full term.  

(The others who lost were John Culberson of Texas and Darrell Issa of California, who’s been looking for a new avenue for influence since his term ended as Oversight and Government Reform chairman.)  

To be sure, other factors may have factored in the outcome. Brooks was the only woman on the ballot, for example, while Upton, as chairman of Energy and Commerce, and Cole, a previous chairman of the House GOP campaign committee, were essentially bidding to reclaim seats they had until recently on the Steering Committee but which were declared open as part of Ryan’s promise fulfillment to the Freedom Caucus.  

But the results — also welcomed by the most influential group advocating for centrist GOP policies, the Main Street Partnership — nonetheless support a central claim of the Hill’s corporate conservatives: Their strength in numbers is ultimately more of a force than the rhetorical volume of the small-government purists.  

The next and more lastingly important piece of evidence is due this week, in the form of the final consequential vote of the first session of the 114th Congress. When the House passes its comprehensive and overdue appropriations package for this budget year, $50 billion more spending will be allocated than originally proscribed — under a law the “hell no” caucus once hailed as a singular triumph for their cause, but which is now being consigned to the ash heap of revolutionary history.

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