One Year Later, Freedom Caucus Upbeat on 2016 Goals
BALTIMORE – One year ago, a group of conservatives frustrated with the direction of Republican Party formed the Freedom Caucus and, within that year, disrupted GOP leadership to the point of forcing Speaker John Boehner to resign.
Now, with 2015 in the rearview mirror and the presidential election looming, conservatives and leadership are mostly in lock step on a vision for 2016.
At the annual Republican retreat here last week, new Speaker Paul Ryan and his leadership team laid out their strategy for the year, describing plans for a broad, conservative policy agenda to set sharp contrasts with Democrats. Key members of the Freedom Caucus, who in the past have ranged from skeptical to outwardly distrustful of leadership, are mostly aligned with the goals laid out by Ryan and cautiously optimistic they will be met.
“We certainly think that the speaker talking about the distinction, talking about the difference, highlighting these and talking about big, bold policy initiatives, we think that is right on target,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan told RealClearPolitics in an interview at the retreat.
It marks a departure from the discord within the House Republican conference at the same gathering a year ago. But it will take a heavy lift to craft these conservative policies, let alone to get them passed in the House – which will likely be the end of the line, as the Senate and President Obama are disinclined to go along. While Ryan and Freedom Caucus members appear to be agreement for now, some significant roadblocks lie ahead.
The Freedom Caucus in 2015
In January, nine House members formed the group at the Republican retreat and quickly recruited enough conservatives to cause major problems for party leaders.
The first dispute, in February over funding for the Department of Homeland Security amid a fight tied to Obama’s executive actions on immigration, played out similarly to past battles. The House passed a bill defunding the executive actions, which couldn’t get through the Senate over Democratic objections. The Senate passed a “clean” bill funding DHS and the House, after some late-night drama and one stopgap measure, agreed, over the objections of a significant majority of Republicans. The deal infuriated Freedom Caucus members and set the stage for much of the GOP discord for the rest of the year.
In July, that discord culminated in North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, presenting a motion to remove Boehner from the speakership. It marked a significant ratcheting up of the animosity within the conference. When the House returned from its summer recess in September, questions remained about Boehner’s future, especially given concerns over how to fund the government while also trying to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood. It was a familiar position for the House GOP.
In the end, Boehner announced his retirement and secured a budget agreement, again without the support of a majority of Republicans. Following weeks of uncertainty, the GOP conference, including a majority of the Freedom Caucus – though notably not enough for an endorsement – coalesced around Ryan for the top job.
Rep. Matt Salmon, one of the founders of the caucus, said it was “phenomenal” how quickly they were able to effect change in the House.
“I think I realized all along that if you could get enough resolve among a nucleus of people, a fairly decent nucleus of people, you can accomplish a lot,” the Arizona Republican said. “Almost everybody in Washington is so scattered, if you can unify a bloc, you have incredible ability and I think we’ve proved that."
Conservative Policy Proposals
Ryan has emphasized a major point when selling his agenda for this year: With Obama in the White House, it isn’t going to become law. Instead, he’s made it clear the biggest driver of those plans is electing a Republican to the White House. There, Ryan and the Freedom Caucus are in complete lock step.
“For me, 2016 is about doing all we can to help elect a Republican president,” Jordan told RCP. “This is where the speaker has been, I think, very good talking about tax reform, health care reform, welfare reform, how we would secure the country. Showing the difference, showing the distinction, showing how, here’s where Obama, [former Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton, [and Vermont Sen. Bernie] Sanders are; here’s where we think the American people are and where we are as conservatives and Republicans.”
For most conservatives, however, just laying out the policies isn’t enough. They want to see them make it through the entire legislative process – from subcommittees to committees to the House floor for a vote.
“We should have votes,” said Rep. Justin Amash. “People at home are not going to be happy if we just put out ideas but don’t actually try to implement those ideas.” The Michigan lawmaker said many in the party are too quick to blame the Senate or White House, rather than trying to “persuade” Democrats and Republicans alike on their ideas.
Jordan agreed that there needs to be votes on the policy proposals, but added he’s under “no delusions” that Obama would sign any of the legislation. Instead, he echoed a point Ryan has made that it’s about setting up the agenda for a Republican president in 2017.
“That’s why you want to pass them now, because the ones that pass now, if we get a Republican president, they’ve already passed. Bring them up, let’s go, pass them and send them on,” Jordan said.
Boehner never had the confidence of the Freedom Caucus during the final year of his speakership, even when he held votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act or defund Planned Parenthood. Salmon said he “never really had high expectations for John Boehner because I didn’t think it was in him.” With Ryan, however, the bar is high.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Salmon said. “I think Paul, his heart’s in the right place and I think somebody as energetic and brilliant as he is, I think he should be able to get it done. He’ll have a lot of willing accomplices, but we’ve seen a lot of things miss the mark over the years, so I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Reforming the Budget Process
Another key goal for the Freedom Caucus is to end the habit of funding the government through omnibus deals and instead pass 12 separate appropriations bills funding individual departments of the government. This is also a goal for Ryan and the main objective for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
It may sound simple, but all 12 spending bills haven’t been signed into law in more than two decades, so it may prove a complex task, particularly in an election year when Congress spends much of the summer on the campaign trail.
Salmon, who was in Congress for three terms from 1995-2001 and elected again in 2012, said it would be “monumental” to pass all of the appropriations bills. He said without getting the budget and appropriations process fixed, grand policy proposals are much less likely.
“I think it’s the predominant cause of the dysfunction here, that we can’t even get our act together to do our most basic job, and that is to authorize and appropriate,” Salmon said. “How can we ever even contemplate the big stuff when we can’t do the required stuff?”
Here, however, Republicans might hit a snag. The agreement negotiated by Boehner in the final days of his speakership increased spending by $80 billion and 167 Republicans voted against it. Amash said conservatives would fight for spending levels below what was agreed to last year.
“It’s not right to draft a budget at the higher number when most Republicans don’t support the higher number,” he said. Jordan echoed those concerns and added that the budget agreement “sets the framework for how we move forward.” A fight within the Republican conference over spending levels would seriously complicate the appropriations process this year.
It might also complicate the one method by which Republicans could actually see one of their broad policy ideas reach the president’s desk. With last year’s budget, Republicans used a complex process known as reconciliation – which allows the Senate to bypass a filibuster – to repeal significant parts of Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood, forcing Obama to veto the measures.
Jordan floated the possibility of using reconciliation this year to pass welfare reform and put it on Obama’s desk. But without a budget agreement, reconciliation isn’t possible and any chance of getting major conservative legislation on the president’s desk significantly diminishes.
Leaving the retreat in Baltimore last week, both Freedom Caucus members and GOP leadership appeared optimistic they could find success via the agenda they’ve laid out for this year. But that optimism came with a grain of salt.
“We’ve been through this before,” Amash said. “The words that are said need to be met with action. So let’s see what happens over the next year and we’ll be in a better position to assess how we’re doing as a conference."