Five years ago, the nascent House Freedom Caucus irritated Republican leaders to the point that some of its members got kicked off key committees. Now two of the group’s founding members have risen the ranks to the top of two prominent panels.
On Tuesday, the House Republican Conference is expected to approve recommendations from its Steering Committee that Ohio’s Jim Jordan become the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee and that North Carolina’s Mark Meadows take his place as ranking member of the Oversight and Reform Committee.
“There’s no question I think we have a little bit more meritocracy,” Arizona Rep. Dave Schweikert, one of the Freedom Caucus members who was once kicked off a committee, said of the Jordan-Meadows moves. “We just need to keep pushing to be able to have that opportunity to prove that we’re good at policy.”
Jordan and Meadows helped found the Freedom Caucus in 2015 as a far right offshoot of the Republican Study Committee. As the first two members to chair the Freedom Caucus, they spent the better part of the next four years waging policy and political battles with their own leadership.
Even as they racked up conservative wins, though, Freedom Caucus members were largely pariahs in the Republican Conference.
That started to change after President Donald Trump was elected and started developing close relationships with group members, particularly Meadows. But it wasn’t until Republicans lost the House majority in 2018 that GOP leadership and the Freedom Caucus formed a real truce.
In the majority, the Freedom Caucus’ strength came from its numbers. While the group of roughly three dozen conservatives was a small portion of the conference, when they banded together they had enough votes to block GOP leaders from advancing bills they didn’t like.
In the minority, Republicans have no control over the policy agenda, providing little incentive for such infighting. The Freedom Caucus and GOP leaders are both stronger working together to fight against the Democratic majority.
“I think we’re beginning to see some melding of the two, so that we’re not necessarily viewed as just unbelievable hard right-wingers that just can’t be worked with,” Freedom Caucus member Randy Weber said.
The Texas Republican said he’s encouraged Jordan and Meadows are getting top committee slots because they’ve worked hard for Trump and the Republican agenda — something he believes House GOP leaders get.
“I think it’s a new day,” Weber said. “And the fact that they got those positions is a harbinger of that, and you’re going to see it continue.”
‘They’ve earned it’
Current Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs agreed his predecessors have worked hard to become committee leaders.
“They’ve earned it,” the Arizona Republican said. “I think it’s as rational a move as I could imagine, actually.”
The moves are occurring because Republican Conference rules prohibit current Judiciary ranking member Doug Collins from serving in the role while running for a Senate seat in Georgia. The Steering Committee is allowing Collins to remain in the post for another month before Jordan transitions over and Meadows moves into his Oversight role.
Meadows is retiring at the end of the Congress, meaning he'll only serve as Oversight ranking member for a maximum of 10 months. No one else wanted to run for the position, and Meadows was a natural choice to take over for Jordan since the two friends had already worked closely together on Oversight matters.
Jordan said he appreciates the Steering Committee's recommendation. Meadows did not return a request for comment.
GOP leaders have long stacked the Oversight Committee with Freedom Caucus members. When a series of Republicans who chaired the committee — Darrell Issa of California, Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Trey Gowdy of South Carolina — retired in quick succession, it left the committee without much of a bench.
Jordan challenged Kevin McCarthy for minority leader after the 2018 election. After McCarthy won, the Steering Committee, which is led by leadership, chose Jordan to be the top Republican on Oversight. But that was only after leadership made clear they wouldn’t support him for the top slot on Judiciary, the post Jordan really wanted.
Meadows had been running for Oversight ranking member while Jordan contemplated a bid for Judiciary, but he dropped out of contention to allow his friend to get the job.
A little over a year later, Jordan has proven himself as a capable committee leader and trusted member of the Republican Conference. McCarthy has said Jordan has been “amazing” in that role, particularly as Trump’s chief defender during the impeachment inquiry.
Trump has been even more complimentary. During a White House event last week celebrating the Senate acquitting him of the House impeachment charges, the president lauded dozens of lawmakers who came to his defense. But he saved some of his highest praise for Jordan and Meadows, who were among a group of House Republicans he selected to message on his behalf during the Senate trial.
“They worked. It was like their life was at stake,” Trump said.
Trump’s ‘staunchest supporters’
Trump reportedly wanted Jordan to succeed Collins as Judiciary ranking member and Meadows to replace him on Oversight. That may explain why no one on Judiciary, which has a deep bench of Republicans, challenged Jordan for the job.
Weber recalled a meeting Freedom Caucus members had with Trump at the White House a few months ago and a message Vice President Mike Pence delivered to Trump as he joined partway through the discussion.
“The vice president said, ‘Mr. President, you know these guys are all your staunchest supporters.’ And he said, ‘Absolutely,’” Weber said.
Weber credits Trump with helping the Freedom Caucus gain favor with GOP leaders, but he also thinks both sides now see benefit in working together. He hopes the alliance will continue if — Weber says “when” — Republicans take back the majority.
If Republicans are successful in that quest, McCarthy will run for speaker and will need the backing of Freedom Caucus members to secure the gavel. The California Republican dropped out of the race to replace former Speaker John A. Boehner in 2015 because he didn’t have enough support from conservatives. The Freedom Caucus helped push Boehner into early retirement, especially after he spent the year kicking members off committees and the whip team for crossing him. (Boehner kicked Schweikert off Financial Services a few years earlier, before the Freedom Caucus had officially formed.)
Biggs said that “it’s way too early to say” whether McCarthy would have Freedom Caucus support in the next leadership race or whether the group and leadership would start clashing again if the GOP is back in the majority. But he acknowledged a change in the party at large that suggests the comity may continue.
“You see Republicans united across the country in a way that I think that’s very different than we typically see,” Biggs said. “We usually have these circular firing squad type things. But what you see is I think President Trump is sitting probably mid-90s on his approval rating among Republicans, and I think that’s reflected on people representing their districts here.”
Schweikert, too, sees a change in that there’s no longer a distinct line between establishment Republicans and conservatives.
“The petulance that was a decade ago, that sort of arrogant petulance, I think that has faded away,” he said. “It was just sort of, hey, if you’re not part of the cool kids club, you used to get the crap kicked out of you. And today I think there’s a little more egalitarian understanding of where we all come from.”
Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry said it’s not just Meadows and Jordan who have transitioned from loathed members of the Freedom Caucus to prominent positions, citing Trump picking Mick Mulvaney as Office of Management and Budget director and later acting chief of staff, and Florida electing Ron DeSantis governor.
“We get things done. We’re reasonable,” Perry said. “The president, they’re seeing that — when I say ‘they,’ the rest of leadership. We’re at the position or have the positions that most Americans have, our constituents and their constituents have. So what’s good for them is good for us, and vice versa.”