House Freedom Caucus Looks to Be a Force — in Leadership and Lawmaking
The House Freedom Caucus is only a few weeks old, but some members say the new conservative faction is already pulling the House Republican Conference to the right. Before the HFC convened a single meeting, it so complicated the GOP debate on a proposed border security bill that leadership eventually had to pull the measure from the floor.
But even more than a formalized “hell no” caucus that can thwart GOP leadership’s most moderate plans, the HFC could be a springboard for a new conservative leader — even if that’s not the group’s intention.
“I don’t look for any springboards,” Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio told CQ Roll Call last week. “I’m just trying to serve the families I get the privilege of representing — plain and simple.”
Jordan is one of the nine founding members of the organization and he could be the chairman of the HFC, though he said, “That’s for the group to decide.”
Asked to cut the “aw-shucks stuff,” Jordan replied, “But that’s me!”
“I’m not worried about raising my profile,” he continued. “I’m not worried about running for anything else. I don’t even know if I’m going to be the chairman of this organization.”
It’s true the HFC hasn’t chosen a leader — it might ultimately decide to not have a chairman — but in conversations with a number of HFC members, it seemed Jordan has the inside track if the group goes that route.
“I’d love to see Jim Jordan as speaker myself,” said one member, who went on to compare Jordan to George Washington.
“Jim doesn’t have that ego,” the member said. “He doesn’t need some power position to make his life one with the universe.”
Being chairman of a newly minted conservative group is a long, long way from being speaker. And even though Speaker John A. Boehner likes to tout that he was once a rabble-rousing outsider himself — when the Ohio Republican was a freshman in the early 1990s, he was part of the “gang of seven” that took on a number of business-as-usual scandals at the Capitol — he has also maintained strong ties to pro-business Republicans and the donors that come with those positions.
Jordan, meanwhile, spent a recent Monday afternoon at The Heritage Foundation, railing against the 114th Congress’ business-focused agenda and “crony capitalism.”
All the “Jordan as speaker” talk assumes a collection of the most disagreeable Republicans could actually coalesce behind one person — and draw in an even larger swath of the conference. Not impossible, but not exactly likely.
After two official meetings — the most recent, on Monday night, lasted almost two hours and went until nearly 9:30 p.m. — the HFC doesn’t have a chairman. As Jordan acknowledged, he might not even be the leader of the group. Some members pointed to Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho as a possible choice.
But whoever the leader is, the HFC could be a real thorn in leadership’s side. The group is already claiming victory in what was shaping up to be an intraparty showdown over Texas Rep. Michael McCaul’s border security bill.
The bill was purportedly pulled because of the weather, but is conspicuously not on the schedule this week, with no commitment from leaders that the House will ever take it up.
It’s an early bit of obstructionist momentum that worries some mainstream Republicans, who fear the faction is less about imparting a conservative vision and more about preventing anything from getting done.
“They’re not legislators, they’re just assholes,” a senior GOP aide told CQ Roll Call. “These guys have such a minority mindset that the prospect of getting something done just scares them away, or pisses them off.”
The aide said the Republican Study Committee, a larger and more established collection of conservatives, had shown some willingness to work with leadership. “So the fact that the RSC can’t be the ‘no’ caucus, they have to create their own ‘no’ caucus.”
The aide said the HFC — a collection of “the craziest of the crazy” — was obviously a repudiation of the current RSC.
RSC Chairman Bill Flores of Texas disagrees: He said the new group is “complementary” to his group. But while there is nothing in the bylaws preventing a member from joining both, it’s clear some members won’t.
Labrador, for instance, is done with the RSC, while it looks like Jordan, a former RSC chairman, will remain a member.
But more than a criticism of the RSC, more than a springboard for the speakership, the House Freedom Caucus seems like it could have true influence inside and outside the GOP conference.
“It’s going to be a large bloc,” Justin Amash of Michigan told CQ Roll Call this week. “It is already a large bloc. And leadership is going to have to take it seriously, and understand that we expect the House to work in a way that is open and accountable.”
Labrador told C-SPAN Tuesday the group has 30 members on board already. He told CQ Roll Call the night before that those members will find a voice in the HFC.
“That’s the whole purpose of the organization,” Labrador said. “We have a lot of people here who feel they are not being heard.”
Members on Monday discussed the rules for the organization, which they still have not finalized. But the larger discussion was on the House-passed Department of Homeland Security funding bill currently before the Senate. “We spent two hours talking about what our response is going to be and what’s going to happen if the Senate fails to reach cloture,” Labrador said Monday night.
And what will that response be?
“Our position is going to be pretty simple,” Labrador said. “We passed a bill and we need the Senate to act.”
That means not caving on a clean DHS funding bill — one that doesn’t block President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration. Labrador said Tuesday morning he was open to a House and Senate conference on the bill. “Boehner and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell told the American people before the November elections that we needed to fight ‘tooth and nail,’ that we needed to stop the president and his illegal, unconstitutional actions — and I think if they fail to do that as leaders, they’re going to fail the American people.”
Exactly how the DHS funding bill plays out is unknown, but two things have never seemed in doubt: There won’t be a shutdown at DHS, and the president won’t sign a bill that blocks his immigration action.
Those two conditions don’t portend well for the HFC’s stance. But either way, members insist the group is really more about process, about fairness. “There should not be some congressmen who are more equal than others,” Mo Brooks, R-Ala., told CQ Roll Call, summoning George Orwell to discuss the HFC’s principles.
Members understand that coming together on policy will be the biggest challenge. They see the HFC, however, as a step in the right direction.
“That’s been the conservative problem all along,” one member said. “It’s that the approach has always been really scattered. And it’s always been a day late and a dollar short.”
The member continued that he was hopeful the HFC could change a trend in conservative lawmaking: “Somebody comes up with a plan 24 hours ahead of time and everybody scrambles around, like, you know, can’t find their butts with both hands and a flashlight.”