WASHINGTON —The conservative U.S. House Freedom Caucus is changing its leadership and its tactics as critics question the relevance of the faction that helped steer the GOP to the right in recent years.
U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) is preparing to take the reins of the caucus on Oct. 1, taking over for the current chair, U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), after a tumultuous period when the group condemned U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of Cascade Township for calling for President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
“I think he’s wrong. I just think Justin’s wrong on this,” U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, told the Advance in May. “We had a board meeting and every single member of the House Freedom Caucus board felt he was wrong.”
In June, Amash left the Freedom Caucus, which he helped start in 2015. On July 4, he exited the Republican Party, too, and declared he was becoming an independent. He’s been flirting with a Libertarian challenge to Trump in 2020.
Republicans lost the U.S. House majority this year and no longer set the agenda in the lower chamber of Congress. The caucus that spent years pushing Republican leadership to the right is now fighting the Democratic majority and gearing up to boost conservatives in 2020.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a veteran Democrat from Washington, D.C., said the group’s power has “diminished markedly.” Now it’s “just another caucus cryin’ in the wind.”
Biggs and his allies however, say the band of archconservative lawmakers will remain important players in Congress, even though they are now in the minority party.
“We’re going to continue to be the conscience of conservatives,” he said in an interview this month.
Biggs laid out his agenda in a recent op-ed, pledging to “help beat back the Democrats’ efforts to overturn the 2016 election and to institute radical socialized policies across the nation.”
He also wants to focus on spending — an issue about which he has “great concerns.”
In the short term, this means keeping “poison pills” out of measures to keep the government funded. He warned against provisions that would use federal dollars to pay for abortion or that would prevent the use of funds to build a fence at the southern border.
In the longer term, he wants to improve transparency in the budget process by merging the Appropriations and Budget committees, the two panels with jurisdiction over federal spending. “Systemically, we’ve got a problem,” he said in a recent TV interview. “The process is broken.”
The caucus is also laying the groundwork for the 2020 elections, Biggs said, noting that members are engaged in recruiting and supporting conservative candidates. The caucus is affiliated with the House Freedom Fund, a political action committee (PAC) that backs candidates who support “open, limited, and accountable government.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) said she expects Biggs to “do a great job and continue promoting fiscal responsibility and conservatism.”
Although the group’s role is changing under Democratic House leadership, some expect the caucus to continue to have substantial sway within the broader GOP and inside the White House.
Patrick Sebastian, a GOP operative with Majority Strategies, said the caucus still has “quite a bit of influence in the Republican conference” even though its members are no longer in the majority party. Caucus members, he said, have the ear of the president and continue to spread their message on cable news programs.
“I think that everybody in the Republican caucus is now a conservative,” said U.S. Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) when asked whether the group’s influence is waning. “It’s real easy to say, ‘No, this is too far left,’ when the Democrats are in charge.”
Asked this week if the group of Republican hardliners is still relevant in a House controlled by Democrats, Meadows said with a smile: “Oh, more relevant than you might imagine.”
The Freedom Caucus came together in 2015 and kept its membership secret out of fear of retaliation from party leaders, according to Matthew Green, a political science professor at Catholic University of America and author of a book about the caucus.
The group has no official website and does not publicize its membership, though it has a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a new podcast.
In 2015, Meadows launched a bid to unseat then-U.S. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The following year, Meadows was elected to chair the caucus, a position he leveraged to push for a repeal the Affordable Care Act and to enact tax reform, according to U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the group’s first chair.
But Meadows’ influence went beyond legislation, Green said.
The congressman expanded the caucus’ network of connections, especially within the Trump White House, and softened the caucus’ confrontational edge, which paved the way for deals with more moderate Republicans, Green said. When negotiating legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), for example, he worked closely with ex-U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, former chair of a group of moderate Republicans known as the Tuesday Group.
Caucus members praised his legacy in interviews on Capitol Hill this week. U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, another caucus member from Arizona, said that Meadows brought integrity back to Congress.
“I think he’s been a stalwart person for freedom and looking out for the rule of law,” he said.
Buck said he expects Meadows to continue to be a conduit between the caucus and the president.
But Green said Meadows’ legacy is mixed, in part because he was seen as sometimes sacrificing conservative principles on the altar of partisan politics.
The caucus muddled its message earlier this year when it scolded Michigan iconoclast Amash for tweeting that Trump committed impeachable offenses — sending the message that loyalty to the president trumps ideology, Green said.
“That’s a problem for a group that developed a reputation as being ideological, first and foremost,” he said.
The caucus’ silence on other issues — such as executive power, freedom of the press and individual liberty — also tarnished its reputation, Green said. “If the president says, ‘I don’t like the press and we should lock up reporters,’ it was hard to find the Freedom Caucus coming out against that — even though [freedom] is a central value to the caucus.”
Advance Washington Bureau Chief Robin Bravender and Editor Susan J. Demas contributed reporting.