Milder Persona, Same Hard Line from New Freedom Caucus Chairman
Mark Meadows is eager to back Trump, but only when he adheres to the House GOP conservative group’s views
A defining principle for the House Freedom Caucus can be summarized this way: The painful short-term political consequences for the Republican Party from provoking internal discord must be steadfastly disregarded in the name of long-term conservative purification.
The second lawmaker to lead the group, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, has a reputation as one of the friendliest and folksiest newcomers to influence in Congress. But he is signaling no interest in deviating from that combative rubric even in the coming era of unified GOP control over Washington, born out of an election where voters signaled an intense desire to end the capital norms of backbiting gridlock.
“I’m about treating everyone with the utmost respect, regardless of ideology,” he said Tuesday. “But at the same time, I’m going to be tenacious at attacking the parts of the status quo the American people aren’t satisfied with, and that’s going to be just as true confronting my own party when necessary as it is the other party.”
The most notable shift, as the Freedom Caucus approaches its second birthday in January, looks to be toward confrontations over policies rather than personalities.
The coalition of about 40 members will count for one out of every six members of the Republican Conference in the next Congress, but it’s not waiting to the new year to start putting down its markers.
Meadows was chosen without opposition as chairman Monday night after Jim Jordan of Ohio decided against staying at the helm of the caucus. (As is the group’s custom, the meeting was at Tortilla Coast, a restaurant across the street from the party establishment’s base of operations at the Republican National Committee.)
On Tuesday, he picked a new and consequential fight with the party’s leaders and joined his Freedom colleagues to revive an older and entirely symbolic confrontation.
Meadows served notice that the emerging congressional GOP plan for tackling the 2010 health care law is a non-starter with the Freedom Caucus. The group has more than enough voting strength to stop anything the House GOP high command hopes to pass along party lines, so his announcement amounts to the biggest intraparty obstacle so far for the legislative priorities of President-elect Donald Trump, who has counted Meadows since the summer among his most loyal congressional allies.
The emerging GOP plan for the health care law is to enact a repeal in time for Trump’s signature soon after taking office, but with language phasing out many aspects of the complicated statute over three years — yielding an unexpectedly long period for the “replace” part of the party mantra, which Republicans are nowhere close to agreement on how to carry out.
Meadows says the deadline for replacement should be the end of the 115th Congress, but preferably before the open insurance enrollment next fall.
Any timetable allowing deliberations beyond 2018, he says, would subject the GOP Congress in the next campaign to worthy criticism about breaking a central 2016 campaign promise.
The more immediate Freedom Caucus crusade forced a test vote, which proved lopsidedly unsuccessful, pressing the impeachment of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.
Members of the group have pushed impeachment for more than a year, maintaining Koskinen lied to Congress during its investigation of his agency’s targeting of conservative groups. But Speaker Paul D. Ryan has opposed such a dramatic action (no executive branch official has been impeached since 1876) as unwarranted, and at the leadership’s behest, the House voted to send the impeachment matter to certain death in committee.
With that quest ended, the Freedom Caucus plans to turn its attention away from people and onto proposals of the Trump administration.
One could spark confrontation with the next president. A top priority will be legislation requiring executive agencies to finish all rule-making to implement a law within three years of its enactment, which Meadows expects Trump to resist because the effect would be to limit his authority while giving a balance-of-powers boost to Congress.
In the meantime, the group is working on a roster of federal regulations to recommend to the new president for repeal.
Meadows, a member of the Transportation Committee, has sounded enthusiastic about Trump’s desire for a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure in the coming decade, asserting that using tax breaks and public-private partnerships to finance the public works boon is something diehard limited-government conservatives could still get behind.
He also did several television interviews Tuesday endorsing Trump’s plan to scuttle the next generation Air Force One. And he’s been a solid defender of the rockier aspects of the transition, saying, “You’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelet.”
His combination of avuncular style and hard-line ideology has made the 57-year-old Meadows a particular favorite of cable TV bookers since July 2015, when he burst from obscurity by launching an effort to force out Speaker John A. Boehner. Meadows’ motion to “vacate the chair” never came to the floor, but the threat of such an unprecedented vote of no confidence helped prompt Boehner’s departure that fall.
Meadows endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for president but became a loyal surrogate for Trump starting at the GOP convention in Cleveland. Like the president-elect, the congressman was a real estate developer before entering electoral politics.
Meadows was born in France while his father was in the Army and his mother was working as a nurse. The family settled in Florida, where he recalls high school years struggling to lose enough weight to shed a “fat nerd” reputation. He and his wife, Debbie, graduated from the University of South Florida, visited western North Carolina on their honeymoon and moved there a few years later, opening a sandwich shop without any prior restaurant experience but doing well enough to help him launch his real estate career.
His only formal political position before Congress was a two-year stint as a rural county GOP chairman.
His congressional campaign materials describe him as a “Christian conservative businessman,” and he’s become one of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s most forceful critics of China’s human rights record.
His voting record is anchored hard to the right. Since winning an open seat anchored in the Great Smoky Mountains in 2012, he’s supported President Barack Obama’s position just 6 percent of the time; only 10 other House Republicans have backed the president less often during the past four years.