The Republicans’ failed strategy to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act is puzzling. Knowing that a more conservative health-care bill would be dead on arrival in the Senate, why did President Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) seek the votes of the House Freedom Caucus (HFC), a group of about 30 of the chamber’s most conservative members?
Desperate to secure a majority, the White House offered significant last-minute policy concessions to the group — turning off the more centrist members of the Tuesday Group, failing to secure Freedom Caucus votes and dooming the bill.
Not all party factions are alike
To understand why Trump and Ryan aggressively courted the Freedom Caucus, notice the asymmetric organization of Republican centrists and hard-liners.
The Freedom Caucus favors a centralized approach to organization, relying on formal rules and procedures to govern their internal decision-making. Restricting their ranks to a small number of highly disciplined true believers, the group has an invitation-only policy for new members. Run by a formal governing board, the Freedom Caucus enforces a strict code of confidentiality and operates under bylaws that specify voting procedures and meeting schedules.
In contrast, the Tuesday Group operates much more informally. Although it has a system of elected co-chairs, raises money collectively and meets regularly when Congress is in session, the 50-member group lacks the binding mechanisms and rules governing membership and participation that structure the HFC.
Organization means influence
The Freedom Caucus’s organization gave the advantage to Republican hard-liners in several ways.
For starters, their procedures for collective deliberation and code of confidentiality enabled members to work out their differences behind closed doors. As one Freedom Caucus member told Politico: “[Our] strength is in sticking together . . . and at least not making the commitment to someone else before you talk to the rest of the folks who are like-minded.”
With such rules in place, Freedom Caucus members were able to present a united front in negotiations with party leaders. When members were pressed by the White House to divulge whether they as individuals would vote for the health-care bill, they refused, saying that Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the caucus’s chairman, spoke for the group.
Moreover, the group’s code of confidentiality made it more difficult for Republican leaders to go behind Meadows’s back to cut deals directly with individual members. Although the bloc did not publicly commit to bind members to vote for the AHCA, they forged a “secret pact” to keep the Freedom Caucus together in negotiations. Twenty-eight lawmakers privately pledged to consult with the entire group before casting their votes. As one member observed: “It made it much harder if you were in leadership to pick these guys off.”
Nevertheless, the Freedom Caucus’s organizational discipline made its members particularly appealing bargaining partners for Trump and Ryan. Because Meadows could credibly deliver the needed yeas or nays if a deal were struck, Republican leaders could attempt to buy votes in bulk — a more efficient strategy than corralling centrist votes one by one.
As an added benefit for Republican leaders, hammering out an agreement with the Freedom Caucus would put the burden of enforcing compromise on Meadows, and not the party’s whips. If the caucus did not deliver, blame would fall on the hard-liners.
In short, the Freedom Caucus’s influence in the health-care debate was more than the squeaky wheel getting the grease. House leaders more aggressively sought the votes of the far right than the party’s centrists because only the HFC had the organizational potential to guarantee Trump and Ryan their votes. The Tuesday Group had nowhere near the organizational capacity of the Freedom Caucus, and party leaders knew it.
Winning the battle, losing the war?
The Freedom Caucus’s failure to strike a deal over the GOP’s repeal-and-replace bill suggests that, with so much bargaining power, it can be tempting for hard-liners to overreach and go for broke. On Friday, Trump identified one consequence of their ideological intransigence:
The irony is that the Freedom Caucus, which is very pro-life and against Planned Parenthood, allows P.P. to continue if they stop this plan!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2017
And as Ryan made clear after canceling the vote, failure meant that “Obamacare is the law of the land.”
If the hard-liners’ future influence depends on capacity to compromise, the Freedom Caucus leaders may find themselves in a precarious position. In upcoming battles over tax reform and government spending, unless the caucus can convince members and party leaders that they’ll compromise, Trump and Ryan may decide to look elsewhere for votes. For Republican centrists, this could prove to be an opportunity, especially if the Tuesday Group can more tightly bind its 50-member force.
Republicans may be hopeful that future legislative battles will generate greater consensus. But the party’s organizational asymmetries mean intraparty struggles are here to stay.
Ruth Bloch Rubin is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and author of the forthcoming book “Building the Bloc: Intraparty Organization in the U.S. Congress.”