What the Freedom Caucus stands for
WASHINGTON — With a mellifluous name suggesting bucolic tranquility, Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, is an unlikely object of the caterwauling recently directed at him and the House Freedom Caucus he leads. The vituperation was occasioned by the HFC’s role rescuing Republicans from embracing an unpopular first draft of legislation to replace Obamacare.
A decisive blow against the bill was struck by the quintessential Republican moderate, New Jersey’s Rodney Frelinghuysen, chairman of the Appropriations Committee whose family has included a member of the Continental Congress, four U.S. senators and, in 1844, a vice presidential nominee: “Hurrah! Hurrah! The country’s risin’, for Henry Clay and Frelinghuysen.”
Although just a little over two years old, the HFC signals a revival of congressional resistance to the dangerous waxing of executive power under presidents of both parties. The HFC is a rarity, a heartening political development: People giving priority to their legislative craft and institution rather than to a president of their party barking at them.
The HFC’s 30 members, and six others informally affiliated, are barely 8 percent of the House, but their cohesion is a force multiplier. The cohesion comes, Meadows says, from its members being “here for a purpose.” And, he adds dryly, from the fact that, for many, “This is not the best job they’ve ever had.” Among the never more than 537 people who are in Washington because they won elections, none are more threatening to tranquility than the few who are not desperate to be here. They do not respond to the usual incentives for maintaining discipline.
The HFC has rules, bylaws and weekly meetings, often featuring experts on particular issues. HFC members have, Meadows believes, “a competitive advantage” in the House because they hone their arguments together in what Meadows calls “the best debating club on Capitol Hill.” If 80 percent of the HFC agree on an issue, it votes as a bloc, although members can receive two exemptions per Congress.
Meadows was contented as a businessman for whom politics was an avocation. About 30 years ago, he was the only person to attend a precinct meeting, thereby becoming the precinct’s chair. He rose in Republican ranks until redistricting after the 2010 census produced a congenial district, which he won in 2012.
In December 2014, he and a few others were disgusted by what was called “cromnibus.” This testimony to Congress’ normal dysfunction was a combination of a continuing resolution to keep the government running and an omnibus spending bill. Cromnibus was another of those “this is a binary choice, so you have no choice” moments. He and eight other conservatives chose to form a group of kindred spirits.
Meadows came to the nation’s attention by doing something eccentric: He read the House rules. Therein he learned about a “motion to vacate the chair.” Such a motion requires a vote on the Speaker. John Boehner resigned as speaker and from the House rather than rely on Democratic votes to make up for lost votes from the HFC, whose members had felt the sting of his disapproval of their insufficient docility.
In last month’s dispute about Speaker Paul Ryan’s health care bill, the president thought it was wise to tweet a demand that the HFC “get on the team.” And for Steve Bannon to summon HFC members to reportedly be instructed by him that “this is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.” And for the White House director of social media — your tax dollars at work — to tweet that an HFC member, Michigan’s Justin Amash, “is a big liability” who should be defeated in a primary.
The 32nd president, a somewhat more accomplished politician than the 45th, tried to purge some members of his party’s congressional caucus. Franklin Roosevelt became angry when some conservative Southern Democrats helped to defeat his plan to break the Supreme Court to his saddle by enlarging it and filling the new seats with compliant liberals. He recruited and supported primary opponents against the offending Democrats.
All survived. One of them, Georgia’s Sen. Walter George, told that FDR was “his own worst enemy,” replied: “Not as long as I’m alive.” Republicans gained eight Senate seats in 1938 and their House ranks almost doubled, from 88 to 169. FDR never again had a liberal legislating majority in Congress. Today’s president should have second, or perhaps first, thoughts about a purge.