Presidents usually look to longtime allies, close friends and family members for political and policy guidance. But a new account of the most recent federal government shutdown suggests President Trump takes advice from an unusual source: a small group of Republican backbenchers in the House of Representatives.
Those backbenchers are members of the House Freedom Caucus, lawmakers who embrace hardball tactics. While one might wonder why the Freedom Caucus would throw its weight behind a president who is hardly a conservative true-believer, the shutdown underscores how the caucus’s efforts to build political alliances pay big dividends for the group.
What is the Freedom Caucus?
In January 2015, a group of conservative House Republicans felt shut out of power and frustrated that GOP leaders made legislative compromises with Democrats and then-President Barack Obama. They founded the Freedom Caucus to help move their party further to the right.
The group adopted a binding rule: 80 percent of its members could commit the entire caucus membership to vote together on a given proposal. Within months, the group had roughly 40 members, enough to be pivotal on highly partisan votes.
The caucus soon became known for using hardball legislative tactics to achieve its goals. Republican leaders who refused to make bills more conservative or to allow the caucus to offer floor amendments faced the likelihood that a coalition between the Freedom Caucus and House Democrats would kill those bills or the procedural motions that brought them to the floor.
Developing alliances is a key caucus strategy
In my new book about the Freedom Caucus, I identified 18 instances in which the organization tried to shape political or policy outcomes during its first two years. It succeeded (at least partially) 11 times, an impressive rate of success for a small group of lawmakers. But the caucus didn’t only use threats to win; sometimes it developed partnerships with powerful individuals.
For instance, one of its early goals was to eliminate the Export-Import Bank, the federal government corporation that facilitates U.S. exports. It viewed the bank as wasteful corporate welfare. The group had too few members to block the bank’s reauthorization on its own. So, the caucus worked with the chairman of the Financial Services Committee, who refused to pass the reauthorization bill out of committee, and the bank’s authorization expired. A cross-party coalition of lawmakers had to use a special House procedure to bypass the caucus and the committee and eventually reauthorize the bank.
Trump’s 2016 election offered the Freedom Caucus a chance to use the same strategy with the executive branch, because Trump had few allies in the GOP and little knowledge of how Washington worked. Although the caucus and the president at first clashed over the repeal of Obama’s Affordable Care Act, caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) eventually developed close relations with the president, and the group became one of his biggest advocates.
That relationship grew stronger when Trump appointed Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a caucus co-founder, as his budget director and then as his acting chief of staff, one of the most powerful positions in the White House.
In late 2018, when it appeared that Congress would wrap up its business without funding a southern border wall, Meadows and other caucus members were able to leverage their White House ties and push for what became the longest federal government shutdown in American history.
The caucus is not all about power
The Freedom Caucus is not driven solely by a desire for more power. Policy goals also matter. One caucus member told me that hardball tactics were necessary because “we have some serious [policy] issues that face us,” while another observed that the group’s meetings were often productive because “no one’s questioning anyone’s conservative credentials.”
Caucus members also care about delivering what they think their constituents want. They often justify their tactics as ways to keep their campaign promises, as Meadows did when he encouraged a possible shutdown in contrast with politicians who “forget what they promised the American people.” And caucus members have long believed that public conflict — like shutting down the federal government — is a strong negotiation tactic and a valuable way to show voters their commitment to policy.
The desire to reflect the will of voters also helps explain why caucus members defend the White House. During the GOP primaries, Trump dominated his rivals in Freedom Caucus districts, including candidates backed by many caucus members. Caucus members also feel pressure from their constituents to support the president’s policy goals.
What comes next?
Staying on good terms with the Trump White House is not easy, given the president’s mercurial approach to politics and relationships. If siding with Trump pushes the caucus too far from its ideological principles, the group may have trouble recruiting and keeping members, or maintaining support from conservative activists.
The caucus’s influence also has limits, especially because Democrats control the House. The group and its allies are outnumbered in Congress, whose cooperation the president needs to implement his agenda. For example, when the White House recently joined a legal challenge against the Affordable Care Act — a decision traced to Mulvaney — members of both congressional parties openly complained. Trump promised a new health-care law to replace the ACA, or Obamacare, but retreated when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told him the Senate wouldn’t pass one.
But for a group that’s a minority in the minority party — and in a chamber where the minority party has few opportunities to legislate — staying close with the White House is a rational political strategy. Barring dramatic developments, we should expect to see a Freedom Caucus-influenced White House for some time to come.
Matthew Green (@mattngreen) is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and author of “Legislative Hardball: The House Freedom Caucus and the Power of Threat-Making in Congress” (Cambridge University Press, 2019).