How The Mysterious House Freedom Caucus Is Radicalizing the Republican Party

You might not have heard of the HFC, but you should, because they have plans to pee in your Cheerios in 2016.
Publish date:
January 8, 2016
politics, republicans, Congress

House caucuses (officially "Congressional Member Organizations") range from the highly productive to the delightful to the utterly bizarre. These groups meet regularly to discuss policy, develop legislation, and promote common interests — you've probably heard of a few, like the Congressional Black Caucus, the House Republican Caucus, and the Blue Dog Coalition.

Others might be more obscure: The House Small Brewers Caucus, Congressional Algae Caucus, and Congressional Maker Caucus. In a delightful act of recursion, Congress has a Rule 34 too.

One caucus, founded in January of last year, is a little more murky: The House Freedom Congress, recently profiled in RH Reality Check. It may be obscure, but it's still important, and the shroud of mystery that surrounds it is what makes it all the more relevant, because the members of the HFC are taking major steps to push American policy to the right — perhaps unsurprisingly, speculation about the members of the group indicates that it consists almost entirely of Republican extremists. While a senior GOP aide dismissed the caucus as a bunch of hot air in February 2015, that assessment may have been a little too hasty.

Like other caucuses, the group consists of members of Congress with like-minded views and ideas who want to organize and vote as a block, meeting together to develop policy goals, draft proposed legislation, and direct the future of their parties. Many caucuses are bipartisan, addressing a wide variety of causes from concerns about the environment to civil rights, and they're a driving force behind getting things done.

The HFC, despite remaining under the radar, has a very specific conservative agenda, and it's especially relevant this week, when the House yet again attempted to defund Planned Parenthood and repeal the Affordable Care Act. The president will veto, and the House won't be able to override, but it brings the U.S. a step closer to the landscape right-wing Republicans want.

They're in the news this week for another reason, with a statement condemning the prison sentence for the ranchers at the heart of the bitter standoff in Burns, Oregon. Describing the armed occupation of a federal building as "civil disobedience," Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) railed against big government while many other members of the caucus voiced their support. Their support highlights another policy priority, with their focus on American exceptionalism and absolute individual freedoms, even at the cost of the public good.

The Republican party has been struggling in recent years as it fractures into splinter factions that refuse to coalesce under the party umbrella. Tea Party Republicans, for example, favored an aggressive right-wing approach to politics, while Donald Trump is demonstrating that extremist conservative attitudes are quite popular among some sectors of the public, even as the Republican National Committee attempts to rein him in. The RNC is taking a distinct shift further right, but it's not far right enough for some, which is how the HFC was born, as its members (more about them in a moment) fled existing Republican caucuses because they felt these organizations weren't conservative enough.

It's a secret, invite-only club formed by members of the House who were unhappy at the Republican Study Committee, which isn't exactly a socialist group. One of their goals was to push Speaker John Boehner out, at which they certainly succeeded (with some help from other quarters), leaving a temporary power vacuum for a seat no one wanted until Speaker Paul Ryan stepped up. The leader of the revolt appears to have been Jim Jordan (R-OH), joined by Mick Mul­vaney (R-SC), Justin Amash (R-MI), Ron De­S­antis (R-FL), John Flem­ing (R-LA), Scott Gar­rett (R-NJ), Raul Lab­rador (R-ID), Mark Mead­ows (R-NC), and Matt Sal­mon (R-AZ).

"We support open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety and prosperity of all Americans," says the group, reflecting common right-wing attitudes that the federal government is too interfering and doesn't place enough emphasis on individual rights.

If the individual rights argument sounds familiar, it should, because it's at the core of the bitter acrimony surrounding the Second Amendment. In addition to setting a legislative agenda, the group is also agitating for fundamental reforms in how Congress runs, using its conservative interpretation of the Constitution as a basis to argue for moves like stripping the federal government of a number of regulatory powers on the grounds that they violate states' rights.

Now, the group appears to have swelled to 36 members, reports Pew, which used public statements, media comments, and information from staffers to confirm their identities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the organization found that the members of the caucus swing much further right than other Republicans. It's a majority white (only one member is a person of color), majority male (only one member is a woman) organization, which also probably shouldn't come as a massive surprise.

At Politico, Alan Greenblatt remarks that: "There’s always someone unhappy on Capitol Hill and it’s not unusual for malcontents to band together. A rebellion made up of members who refuse to work with either party, however, is something that hasn’t happened in living memory."

Their agenda is one that liberals and some moderate Republicans should be concerned about: Militant advocacy for defunding Planned Parenthood, dismantling the Affordable Care Act, instituting draconian immigration policy, opposing reproductive freedoms, and making radical cuts to social services. The members have committed to voting as a block on all legislation they oppose, and have made this abundantly clear to House leadership.

They'll also go to any lengths to accomplish their goals, which is equally worrying. While many caucuses develop policy, they're willing to work with the larger House (and sometimes across the aisle) to accomplish important goals.

Not so for the HFC, which wants to steamroll Congress into compliance with moves like taking down the Speaker of the House, arguing points of order into oblivion, promoting and endorsing fellow extremist conservatives, fighting over budgets, threatening filibusters, and other tactics that snarl Congress into a standstill.

In many ways, the HFC consists of a bunch of very dangerous toddlers with the ability to bring not just Congress, but the entire country, to a grinding halt until they get what they want — and despite threats to turn this Congress around, their more moderate counterparts can't get them in check because members of the HFC have no respect for their parent party. There aren't enough of them to ultimately win at the end of the day, but they'll still create a nuisance while the grownups try to get things done.

At The Atlantic, Michelle Cottle isn't convinced they'll be a threat, noting that their proposed legislative moves thus far have failed, primarily acting as posturing to show what the caucus thinks the Republican party should be doing.

It might not be advisable to dismiss their role in Congress so hastily, however. An American public interested in social conservatism is paying attention, and the presentation of right-wing ideas in Congress could sow the seeds of further discord and send a signal to more moderate Republicans: Go right, or else.