Skip to content

House Freedom Caucus goes full ‘swamp’

Hard-line conservatives decried closed-door deals — until they got the chance to make one for themselves

Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., left, speaks with Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., after the fourth attempt to elect a speaker on Jan. 4.
Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., left, speaks with Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., after the fourth attempt to elect a speaker on Jan. 4. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House Freedom Caucus has gone native — for now, at least.

“We’re just having a nice day, behind closed doors, doing our jobs,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said Jan. 5, according to the Texas Tribune. How times have changed on the House side of the Capitol.

The conservative Republicans and their allies complained for years that leadership often crafted major legislation behind closed doors. Its members groaned that such tasks were done by leaders who only consulted a handful, if any, GOP rank-and-file members — and sometimes not even relevant committee heads.

Then came last week.

The conservatives methodically negotiated behind closed doors with now-Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his top lieutenants. Never did one of the GOP holdouts voice a single concern that their efforts were not happening in a more transparent manner.

“Concessions to the GOP’s extreme tail weaken McCarthy as speaker,” wrote Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Needing their votes to become speaker, McCarthy does not appear to have demanded anything from the Freedom Caucus in return for sharing the procedural reins.”

James Wallner, a political science professor at Clemson University, said via email that “some decisions will always be made in private,” adding: “In the past, conservatives [and] the Freedom Caucus have criticized closed-door negotiations that produce compromise agreements that are then rubber-stamped on the House floor.”

Last week, “conservatives negotiated with McCarthy in private to increase their ability to participate in the legislative process in the future in public — in committee and on the floor,” Wallner added. “The negotiations do not differ from their stated positions.” 

They were so successful that one of the holdouts — for 14 ballots, at least — Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, boasted during a Jan. 6 Fox News appearance that he had run out of things to demand McCarthy give up in return for cooperation to secure the speakership. (Gaetz is not a Freedom Caucus member.)

Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., said during a Jan. 5 floor speech that GOP leadership’s tactics in recent years meant that “the voices that were sent here to equally — equally — represent each of the 435 districts across this nation have become diminished … through the consolidation of power into the hands of the speaker and a fortunate few who happen to serve on the Committee on Rules, which controls every aspect of legislation that travels through this body.”

“The debate and the discussion have been all but eliminated, and the balance of us are left to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Those are our options. That is what has led to the disintegration of the relationships that we see across this floor,” he added. “We have had more discussion and debate over the last three days than I have participated in on this floor for the last two two years. It is healthy.”

Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., told Fox News on Jan. 6 that lawmakers “haven’t had a chance to have these debates. The Democrats have pushed everything, for the most part, without objection [from] us. We didn’t see the bills until they … were on the floor. We’re tired of it. And that’s why all this is taking place.”

Sophomore Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., whom the holdouts repeatedly nominated as an alternative to McCarthy, said that early in his first term he “gave Kevin the benefit of the doubt, but it came pretty quickly clear to me that we were getting nowhere.”

“And so, at that point, it was saying, OK, how long is this going to go? What’s this going to play out like?” he told Fox Business on Jan. 8. “And so, it was really about trying to make sure that we can get people to the table in order to construct a framework that everybody in our conference can get behind. … What people are seeing now is one of the most transformative reshufflings in the people’s House.”

‘Backroom deals’

Yet, moderates who were shut out from the Freedom Caucus’ turn at some backroom dealing claimed they remained in the dark about the deal’s full contents for several days after McCarthy cut his final deal with the rebels.

“What backroom deals were cut, did they try to cut, and did they get those? Because we shouldn’t be operating like Nancy Pelosi, this small faction,” South Carolina GOP Rep. Nancy Mace told CBS News on Jan. 8. “And they’re the ones that are saying they were ‘fighting the swamp,’ but then yet went and tried to act like, you know, like, they actually are the swamp by trying to do these backroom deals.

“And we don’t know what they got or didn’t get. We haven’t seen it,” said Mace, a McCarthy backer on all 15 floor ballots. “We don’t have any idea what promises were made or what gentlemen’s handshakes were made. We just have no idea at this point. And it does give me quite a bit of heartburn.”

The secretiveness of the dealmaking comes with risks. For instance, newly installed House GOP Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota confirmed Tuesday that the final parts of the Freedom Caucus agreement lie somewhere between being “no addendum” and “more than just aspirational.”

“Publicly releasing the details is for their own benefit. If it’s not public, you can count on McCarthy later to pretend it never happened,” former Freedom Caucus member and former Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., warned in a Jan. 10 tweet.

And while Freedom Caucus and other conservative members last week delivered a master class in all the tactics they had long railed against, doubts abound about whether they will help their party actually pass legislation — especially the spending bills that so irk them.

“There are many in the House GOP caucus who simply object to the routine function of governing,” former GOP Rep. David Jolly of Florida said by email. “It will inevitably lead to a severely compromised GOP speaker, or more likely, a very short-tenured speaker.”

But Clemson’s Wallner said, “The negotiations appear to have produced a more open process — the accountability link between lawmakers and constituents is not diluted nor undermined.” 

Time will tell on that.

‘Not a weakened speaker

Paradoxically, Emmer suggested Tuesday that the concessions conservatives extracted from McCarthy were all secured in public view, for the entire country to witness. Typically, he argued, such negotiations “take place behind closed doors, long before anyone gets to see how the sausage is made.” 

That is correct. But it ignores the fact that Freedom Caucus members met with McCarthy and his consiglieres in private all week. There was no negotiation broadcast live on C-SPAN and cable news networks. Both sides kept telling reporters they would not answer their questions and negotiate through the press.

That did not stop Emmer on Tuesday from contending that Pelosi had secured her second speakership in 2019 by “giving away all sorts of things” in private meetings. Fact check: While true, McCarthy did exactly the same thing.

Emmer defended McCarthy, saying the agreement the speaker worked out with the Freedom Caucus and its allies would make McCarthy “arguably not a weakened speaker.” Operative word: “arguably.”

In what your correspondent hopes is a preview of what Emmer will bring to the leadership team’s media engagements, he went even further, saying the agreement will make McCarthy “perhaps the strongest speaker in modern times — more on that to come.” Operative words: “to come.” 

Freedom Caucus members’ gripes are not exclusively about McCarthy.

“This is no different from being in any congressional Republican district,” Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said in a brief interview. “They’re hearing directly from people back home that want to see more fight and less wag. The wag is trying to get things so you can get them to pass.”

“There are those that want something that’s different,” he added.

The unresolved problem for House Republicans is that the McCarthy-Freedom Caucus deal did little, if anything, to resolve the conflict between “different” and “the wag.”

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter.

Recent Stories

Menendez expects to win ‘biggest fight yet,’ defends seized cash

Cardin to take Foreign Relations gavel again after Menendez charges

Lee, administration officials issue plea for five-year PEPFAR

Vilsack sees shutdown taking away children’s food, farmers’ loans

Unions rebut claims green jobs will be worse for workers

Capitol Lens | Pacific host