Freedom Caucus Forms ‘Fight Club’ in House
Six months after the House Freedom Caucus was founded, it’s still unclear what exactly it is — or will be — beyond two key characteristics: its commitment to secrecy and to being a thorn in the side of House Speaker John A. Boehner.
There is no official roster. Leaders of the hard-line conservative group won’t say exactly how many members are in the caucus, which has already made its mark. The last count, based on conversations with members who are trying to keep track, was 42, but members are being added almost every week; CQ Roll Call has observed 38 attend at least one caucus meeting.
“It’s like ‘Fight Club,’” says Rep. Jim Bridenstine, an Oklahoma Republican and caucus member, referring to a film dialogue in which the first rule is that you don’t talk about it, and the second rule is that you don’t talk about it.
But why all the secrecy?
“We’re not deliberately not being transparent,” Louisiana Republican John Fleming said during a conference call the group held for reporters.
Except that’s not exactly true. One member, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified rules, says the caucus believes keeping GOP leaders in the dark could be an advantage as it stakes out its next moves. And while the group’s chairman, Jim Jordan of Ohio, has reportedly been keeping in close contact with Republican leaders, the HFC is still largely a mystery.
Here’s what we know: There are nine founders of the group, and three full-time aides. Members can say they are members, but may not refer to others’ status. It takes 80 percent to take a formal position. There is a meeting after the House’s first votes of the week, with no set location although members have taken a liking to the basement of Tortilla Coast, a Capitol Hill bar.
The caucus has taken three official positions to date — and has notched a solid record.
The group opposed reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, and watched its charter expire last month. It called for a disapproval resolution of a Washington, D.C., abortion law, and the House adopted one (HJ Res 43). And it endorsed a bill (HR 2802) to protect the tax-exempt status of churches that refuse to perform same-sex weddings. Idaho Republican Raúl R. Labrador, the sponsor of the bill and a caucus co-founder, is optimistic it will get a vote.
They haven’t been without losses. The caucus was at the forefront of the failed effort to block President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration earlier this year. And many Republicans think it’s only a matter of time before the Ex-Im Bank is renewed.
It’s also debatable how broad the HFC’s appeal is with its colleagues, many of whom are eager to shed the GOP conference’s reputation for dysfunction. When Labrador lost his bid for majority leader last year, the race wasn’t close. Also of note, the group was formed after South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney’s defeat to lead the Republican Study Group, a well-established conservative caucus.
Still, the caucus’s influence shouldn’t be underestimated. Trade legislation backed by Obama and Boehner was nearly derailed last month when many caucus members revolted against a key procedural rule.
After GOP Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who took part in the trade rebellion, was stripped of a subcommittee gavel, the HFC pressured leaders and Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah into reversing the decision.
In the process, GOP leaders might only have emboldened the rabble-rousers on the right.
This article originally appeared in the July 20 edition of CQ Weekly.