At the beginning of this month, the House endured the longest contest to elect a speaker in 164 years. Rep. Kevin McCarthy ultimately was elected speaker, but only after he made several concessions to a small but influential faction of dissenting conservative Republicans. Though not every member of the Freedom Caucus — a far-right coalition of Republican lawmakers — voted against McCarthy, nearly every member who did oppose him was a member of the Freedom Caucus.
That commonality has drawn renewed attention to the Freedom Caucus and its role within Congress. Despite being a minority in the House, the Freedom Caucus has repeatedly punched above its weight and effected genuine change in the chamber. Powerful political factions are as old as American politics, and in most ways, the Freedom Caucus is just a continuation of that tradition. But in a few key ways, its members are doing something different: voting as a bloc, willing to go against their own party’s leadership and to gum up the works to make a statement. Those differences have allowed the Freedom Caucus to exercise influence over the better part of the past decade — and are why it’s only just getting started.
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Modern congressional caucuses emerged in the last century, though less formal organizations of like-minded members have existed in Congress since the start, according to Ruth Bloch Rubin, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and the author of “Building the Bloc: Intraparty Organization in the U.S. Congress.” During the Progressive Era in the early 20th century, a group of insurgent Republicans worked alongside Democrats to strip away some of the powers that had been consolidated by the speaker. In the 1960s and ’70s, the left-leaning Democratic Study Group worked to push through civil rights legislation (along with, later, the Congressional Black Caucus), against bitter opposition from conservative Southern Democrats.
Typically, such influential intraparty factions emerge only when parties find themselves especially divided, Bloch Rubin said. “It’s usually because there’s enough of a cleavage within the party that these sort of factions have enough members and the distance between one faction and a competitor faction within the same party is enough that it warrants this kind of organizational work,” she said.
This was true of the Freedom Caucus. In the 2010 midterms, during former President Barack Obama’s first term, a Republican wave elected scores of conservative lawmakers to Congress, giving the party six more seats in the Senate and flipping the House. At that time, there was already a conservative caucus within the House, the Republican Study Committee, and many newly elected Republicans joined. But so did many of the more moderate members, according to former Rep. John Fleming, one of the founding members of the Freedom Caucus.
“We noticed that the committee was growing rapidly. And we were seeing faces in there that we had never seen before. We saw people who were not known to be very conservative joining the group,” Fleming said, adding that he believed then-House Speaker John Boehner had been encouraging moderate members to join in order to “co-opt” the committee.
In 1995, just 7 percent of House GOP members were in the RSC. By early 2011, nearly three-quarters were. Fleming said he and some fellow conservatives tried to keep the group tied to its rightward roots, including by electing Rep. Jim Jordan as chairman of the group in 2011. But as the membership swelled, the ideology got a bit diluted. At the same time, many of these same members were growing increasingly frustrated with leadership in the House — particularly with Boehner — and the status quo. The far-right flank of the party felt Boehner wasn’t taking advantage of the GOP majority to get more conservative legislation passed, so they needled him. Boehner retaliated by, according to Fleming, punishing conservative members — including by removing them from committee assignments — to keep them in line. Boehner did not respond to a request for an interview.
“We were irritations for Boehner, and Boehner was an irritation for us,” Fleming said.
By Thanksgiving 2014, Fleming and a handful of other members were at their wits’ end, so they decided to form their own group. In early 2015, the Freedom Caucus was born. It was designed to be very selective about its closed, sometimes secretive membership — only ultraconservatives allowed — in order to serve as what Fleming calls the conservative “anchor” of the GOP in the House. Its members would attempt to tow the party toward the right, and once they staked out a position, they wouldn’t budge.
While the Freedom Caucus had policy goals in mind, most of its work has focused on disrupting and altering the internal workings of the House. If it could wrest away some of the speaker’s power, the thinking went, more conservative legislation might have a better shot at passing. One early and consistent way the Freedom Caucus did this was by voting against House rules, slowing down the legislative process and making it harder for bills that the caucus wasn’t happy with to come up for a vote. But it also took some bigger swings. While the Freedom Caucus didn’t agree to former Rep. Mark Meadows’s decision to file a motion to vacate the chair in the summer of 2015 in an effort to oust Boehner, it backed him after the fact, and that consensus was part of what led Boehner to resign as speaker.
Part of what makes the Freedom Caucus a unique intraparty faction is also its greatest strength. If 80 percent of its members agree to a position or action, everyone has to be on board. That’s different from other groups throughout American history, according to Matthew Green, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America and the author of a book about the Freedom Caucus. It isn’t just a group of likeminded members; it’s also an effective, disruptive voting bloc that stands together. Members are willing to do this because in order to get to that 80 percent threshold, there’s a lot of debate and persuading internally, according to former Rep. Raúl Labrador, one of the founding members of the Freedom Caucus and now Idaho’s attorney general. “The best debates I ever had in Washington, D.C., were in the Freedom Caucus,” Labrador said.
Another difference is the caucus’s willingness to buck the speaker and establishment — a disposition that can come with political consequences, which is why intraparty factions have historically avoided such sparring.
“That’s a big ask. That’s a risky thing to do,” Green said. “The speaker is powerful, the speaker has powerful friends and you’re risking your committee assignments. You could put your fundraising abilities in danger.”
These differences are part of how the Freedom Caucus has leveraged its relatively small size (it’s estimated to have around 40 members currently, though exact membership numbers are not public) to have outsized impact. Perhaps most notably, it aligned behind former President Donald Trump more resolutely than the Republican Party establishment, gaining access and influence through the White House. (To wit: Many former Freedom Caucus members, including Meadows and Fleming, went on to hold positions in Trump’s administration.)
Now, with the GOP holding just a narrow majority in the House, the Freedom Caucus can wield its unity and antagonism to even sharper effect. As the vote for speaker demonstrated, a group even half the size of the Freedom Caucus can hold the chamber hostage for days. So when fully unified, just imagine what it might unleash.