In the early days of the House Freedom Caucus, the running joke among the secretive group of hard-core conservatives was that it was a lot like a congressional version of movie cult classic “Fight Club”: The first rule was not to talk about it.
Now, it seems, just about everyone on Capitol Hill is talking about the Freedom Caucus.
In less than a year, the group has unseated a House speaker, prompted management changes inside the GOP conference and pushed for an ever-harder line in congressional dealings with President Obama.
In doing so, the Freedom Caucus became a household name in Washington and in conservative activist circles around the country, wielding influence that its leaders are now hoping to extend in the coming election year.
Members of the close-knit group of 39 lawmakers — including its chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — have met with candidates vying for open House seats and have established a political action committee that would allow it to raise money for candidates who share its hard-nosed approach.
Among the seats in play is the southwestern Ohio district vacated last month by John A. Boehner, who was drummed out of the speaker’s chair by a conservative revolt.
Jordan declined to elaborate when asked in a recent interview what message it would send for a Freedom Caucus endorsee to replace Boehner: “I don’t know that we’re going to [endorse], but we’ve talked to some of the candidates, so we’ll see.”
Other members are more openly excited about the prospect of drawing new members and giving the House Republican Conference an even more conservative bent.
“We fully expect to start our own separate fundraising, our own separate vetting for candidates, and you’ll see us trying to get good conservatives elected in open races,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a caucus co-founder. “We recognize the fact that we have a brand, and we’re going to try to use that to further our mission.”
The caucus quietly set up a political arm, the House Freedom Fund, earlier this year by renaming a little-used leadership PAC set up in 2013 by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). The group, now under Jordan’s sponsorship, raised $23,000 in the first half of 2015, but Meadows said preparations for a serious fundraising push are underway.
The leap into campaign politics comes at a crucial moment for the Freedom Caucus, which was formed in January by a cadre of conservatives who felt marginalized by the mainstream Republican leadership — starting with Boehner.
Their strength has been less about their numbers and more about their resolve. Though they represent less than a fifth of House Republicans, the group includes enough votes to deny GOP leadership a majority on any issue they choose to oppose en bloc. And the mere threat that the group’s members might call a rare vote to vacate the speaker’s chair was enough to prompt Boehner’s retirement and set off a reshuffling on Capitol Hill that has left the Freedom Caucus in a very influential position.
New Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) won the backing of most caucus members by pledging to adopt their ideas for a more inclusive governing process, in some cases by ceding some of his power.
Republicans recently ratified changes to the party steering committee, which makes important personnel decisions such as committee assignments, that slightly reduced the speaker’s clout. And Ryan includes the Freedom Caucus in a “kitchen cabinet” of House GOP subgroups alongside the moderate Tuesday Group and the mainstream conservative Republican Study Committee.
For a group that started out with a working title of the “Reasonable Nutjob Caucus,” Mulvaney said, that’s not too shabby. “We’re seen as an equal partner within the party organization,” he said. “That’s success.”
“To have that happen in 10 months’ time is unheard of in this place,” added Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.). “It has a very different feel, and that wouldn’t have happened without the Freedom Caucus.”
With Ryan handing conservatives the seat at the table they wanted, the Freedom Caucus is pondering what comes next. They haven’t become the establishment, by any means, but they have a new institutional role that could give them spots on key committees and a regular role in setting the House agenda.
But there is some decision about what comes next. A few members started drawing up an agenda, tentatively titled “Contract With America II,” after Newt Gingrich’s 1994 campaign manifesto. But that document, first reported by Bloomberg News earlier this month, doesn’t yet have widespread buy-in among caucus members, and several have disclaimed any effort to draft a formal agenda.
That speaks to the fragile nature of a caucus made up of independent-minded members who have thus far been united around what they oppose rather than what they support. But Jordan said the group has played a valuable role in rallying conservatives regardless of whether the group has a formal agenda.
“If three years ago, the day after [Obama’s] election, if someone would have then said to conservatives: ‘Hey, there’s going to be this group of members in Congress who are going to be shaking things up a little, that Paul Ryan is going to be the speaker of the House, and that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are going to have a real chance to be president of the United States,’ a lot of folks would have said, ‘Okay, that’s not bad,’ ” he said.
The issues Jordan cited as future areas of focus for the Freedom Caucus include many of Ryan’s pet issues: tax reform, welfare reform and developing a workable alternative to Obamacare. But he also mentions issues — such as impeaching the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, John Koskinen — that are currently considerably more dear to the conservative base than to Republican congressional leaders.
The group is readying for one last big fight in 2015: over the government spending bill being forged ahead of Friday’s deadline.
Talk of a federal shutdown is not nearly as widespread as it was in September. But numerous Freedom Caucus members say that Ryan will have to quickly prove his mettle.
“We need some real policy riders that reflect a victory for us,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.).
Jordan noted that a large majority of Republicans, 165 of 247, opposed the budget deal that Boehner struck with Obama during his final weeks in office. “Six weeks later, you’re going to turn around and support an omnibus that spends that money at those higher levels?” he said. “You’ve got to get some policy wins before I think members are going to be comfortable supporting it.”
There is not yet an official Freedom Caucus position on which policy provisions will be considered make-or-break for conservatives. But, according to an informal survey of Freedom Caucus members, several issues have risen to the fore — none more prominent than the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
But the good news for Ryan is that no one is threatening to oust him if he can’t force Obama to accept conservatives’ terms. It’s unclear, though, whether that reflects a honeymoon period or a real change in the Freedom Caucus’s insurgent attitude.
Despite the splash it made in the past year, Salmon said, the caucus’s impact has yet to be felt.
“Our goal truly is to fix this place — not just to pontificate, not just to get our name in the paper, not just to do message legislation,” he said. “The reason that we did the outside thing was to get in the inside and actually make a difference.”