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The Freedom Caucus Filibuster, Explained

Freedom Caucus members Jim Jordan and Raúl R. Labrador descend the Capitol steps on Oct. 21. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Freedom Caucus members Jim Jordan and Raúl R. Labrador descend the Capitol steps on Oct. 21. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“If it wasn’t for the filibuster, he’d still be the speaker today.”  

That out-of-the-box theory was unspooled the other day by the ultra-right wing Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona. In his view, Speaker John A. Boehner’s agenda was sufficiently conservative to merit the good graces of almost all the most confrontational House Republicans and their like-minded constituents. But Boehner’s commitment to the cause, Franks posited, got unfairly overlooked because so little legislation got through Congress. And that, he said, was the fault of the bedrock Senate rule permitting 40 senators to block almost anything — including so much of what the House majority has wanted so badly for the past five years.  

Such a novel analysis is particularly ironic coming from a member of the House Freedom Caucus, which drove Boehner out by effectively leveraging its own super-minority status and has minimal interest in changing its approach once there is a Speaker Paul D. Ryan.  

One way of explaining the political worldview of the Freedom Caucus, in other words, is that they believe the 40 or so of them should be able to dictate the terms of the Republican Conference. Their assertion of their own importance translates to 16 percent of the House GOP, or one out of every six of them, having a filibuster power that trumps the will of the rest.  

And when it comes to actually passing legislation, the mathematical lopsidedness of the situation threatens to become still more dramatic.  

No. 7 among the 21 demands of the Freedom Caucus, described in the form of a questionnaire for all potential speakers, is that the so-called Hastert Rule be formalized. The previous GOP speaker, J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, had a policy of not putting a bill before the House that wasn’t certain to command at least a majority of the majority party’s votes.  

Boehner abandoned that tenet and relied on mostly Democratic votes many times, particularly to break budgetary impasses, to the consternation of many on the farthest right of the rank and file. He’s very likely to do so again as one of his final official acts this week to pass legislation that alters the debt ceiling and avoids a government default.  

But right after that antagonizing-to-conservatives move, many of them will begin pressing Ryan hard to go beyond the old policy and adopt an even stricter standard: No measure should come before the House that cannot advance exclusively with GOP votes. Given that no Democrats can be counted on to endorse anything of consequence on the House agenda, this translates into a supermajority of 89 percent Republican support required for passage.  

Put another way: One-eighth of the membership of one party should be permitted to override the clear will of the whole chamber.  

Such an approach to regulating the work product of the House would be almost unprecedented, and is all the more remarkable in light of where the idea is originating: Many of the most combative Republicans like to refer to themselves as “constitutional conservatives,” which is their code for strict constructionists when it comes to limitations on the federal government’s reach.  

Surely they must be familiar with the founders’ conception of the House of Representatives as the most majoritarian institution in the American governmental system.  

To be fair to the Freedom Caucus, its concept of math would probably fulfill the daydreams of many if not all House members. Most elected officials, it’s safe to say, are always aspiring to have more leverage in whatever forum they’re operating.  

It’s also the case that much of what the hyper-conservative bloc wants is not about altering the balance of power over the entire legislative process. Instead, it’s about gaining more leverage within their own ranks, by changing House GOP rules and practices. Ryan was able to secure the blessing of a solid majority of the Freedom Caucus, although not its formal endorsement, without acceding to any of their demands. Instead, he promised only to discuss their wishes in detail after he takes the reins.  

In effect, his colleagues are asking Ryan to reverse a trend toward consolidating power in the leadership that began two decades ago, when Newt Gingrich became the first GOP speaker in four decades. Neither he nor any of the three subsequent speakers has had anything close to the control exerted by arguably the most powerful House boss of all — another conservative Republican, Joseph G. Cannon.  

“Uncle Joe” became so autocratic that he was effectively neutered by a bipartisan revolt in 1910, which ended with the speaker being stripped of his control over the Rules Committee and his power to name committee members and their chairmen.  

Only a mild echo of that fight is sounding now.  

GOP chairmanships and panel assignments are currently made by a Steering Committee, although the speaker has five of the 38 votes plus effective control of several more. The Freedom Caucus would limit Ryan to one vote and claim at least one seat at the top table as a way of assuring more prestige posts for the hard-liners.  

The Rules panel has returned to something similar to its early 20th century role as a handmaiden of the speaker, and voting on the floor against its proposed ground rules for debate and limitations on amendments is among the few first-class violations of party discipline. The Freedom Caucus says members should be able to cast such ballots without fear of reprisal, and that they should be given a guarantee their proposals won’t get boxed out in the amending process.  

Maybe if Ryan gives them some accommodation on these sorts of demands, the Freedom folks will back off on their de facto filibuster ideas. But only maybe.  


House Freedom Caucus Stops Short of Ryan Endorsement

Second House Freedom Caucus Member Resigns

House Freedom Caucus Looks to Be a Force

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