Congress battles it out with a ragtag group of mercenary Tea Party extremists eager for power and control…
It sounds a bit like a Hollywood production, doesn’t it? Maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest movie or the latest episode of Continuum?
If we could only be so lucky. As it turns out, this is but another chapter in the ongoing destruction of the Republican Party.
The Unprecedented Insurgency of the House Freedom Caucus
There hasn’t been a political faction fighting against both parties since at least the Civil War – that is, until the recent emergence of the House Freedom Caucus.
As Alan Greenblatt writes for Politico Magazine: “Congress has never seen anything quite like the House Freedom Caucus. There’s always someone unhappy on Capitol Hill and it’s not unusual for malcontents to band together. A rebellion made up of members who refuse to work with either party, however, is something that hasn’t happened in living memory.”
“This is an unusual and indeed unprecedented development in the history of the party,” says Geoffrey Kabaservice, a research consultant to the Main Street Partnership, a centrist GOP group.
Laura Blessing, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Government Affairs Institute, told Politico: “I can think of a number of major examples throughout history where a party has had divisions of consequence,” adding: “It’s rare that those divisions would represent a position on the fringe of the political system, where they’re not working with either party.”
How Does the House Freedom Caucus Wield So Much Power
“Loosely associated with the Tea Party,” the House Freedom Caucus is relatively new, having been founded in January but already yields unprecedented power.
The group keeps its membership roll secret, and as Vox explains, the caucus has “only around 40 members,” which isn’t close to representing the majority of Republicans in the House. However, “the group is big enough to deny the leadership a governing majority. And they’ve used that leverage to the hilt.”
There are currently 247 Republicans in the House of Representatives, and a bill moves to the Senate if it “passes by a simple majority of 218 of 435.” In short, without the support of the House Freedom Caucus, Republicans cannot pass a bill or elect a Speaker.
Take for instance their recent rebellion against former Speaker John Boehner. One of the Freedom Caucus members, “Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), launched an effort to unseat Boehner that ultimately led to a surprise resignation announcement last month. And the HFC’s threat to withhold votes from Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the frontrunner to replace Boehner, contributed to McCarthy’s decision to drop out of the race,” opening the path to Paul Ryan’s ascension.
What are the Interests of the House Freedom Caucus?
The House Freedom Caucus has a variety of interests, and it takes 80 percent of its membership before the group will take an official position on a subject.
The positions they take are typical conservative positions, and, as Vox reports, “the big disagreement” with other conservatives centers around “is how hard the Republican majority in Congress should push for more conservative policies in the face of stubborn resistance from President Obama.”
The following is a “partial list of positions the group has taken,” according to Vox:
It takes support from 80 percent of the membership for the caucus to take an official position. Here’s a partial list of positions the group has taken:
- In April, the Freedom Caucus endorsed blocking a DC law to prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on their use of contraception and abortion services.
- In May, the group called for the abolition of the Export-Import Bank, which provides credit for overseas customers of American companies. The HFC regard the group as a form of corporate welfare.
- In July, the group endorsed legislation to prohibit the federal government from punishing churches or charities based on their opposition to same-sex marriage.
- In September, the caucus called to delay a vote on Barack Obama’s Iran deal until the president released the text of a “secret side deal” Iran made with the International Atomic Energy Agency (as Vox’s Max Fisher put it “it is not a ‘side deal,’ nor is its existence secret”).
- In September, the group called for defunding Planned Parenthood.
Obviously, these are all conservative positions, but beyond that there’s no particular theme tying them together. Rather, the HFC seems to take stands on issues — same-sex marriage, abortion, and the Iran deal — that have generated a lot of excitement among grassroots Republican activists.
The Future of the House Freedom Caucus
The future of the House Freedom Caucus is uncertain. So far their “most significant accomplishment” has been to “pressure John Boehner into resigning” and then to “pressure Kevin McCarthy” into giving up his bid for speaker. However, they were unable to retain a unified front when it came to preventing Paul Ryan’s eventual election to Speaker over their endorsed candidate for speaker, Daniel Webster.
As Vox points out, their “confrontational tactics” could very well backfire. “The group’s tactics have been systematically weakening the party discipline that allows the leadership to get things done. Their hope is that this will push the House further to the right, but it could easily wind up giving more influence to House Democrats instead.
There are more Democrats in Congress than Freedom Caucus members and, as The Nation points out:
As recent events have made clear, the corporate partners who dominate the GOP coalition have their own strong interest in promoting progressive social change—their customers demand it, and their employees and overseas markets expect it.
Deep political change cannot reverse history in a single election cycle—it will take many elections—but Democrats have a great opportunity to force the question on the nation in 2016. Instead of playing limp and vague, Dems can launch what Howard Dean called for in 2005: a 50-state strategy that runs on liberating issues. Instead of ignoring GOP bigotry, the Democratic ticket can promise to challenge it on every front and attack reactionary Republicans who try to impose the past on voters.