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What’s The Deal With The Freedom Caucus?

In order to become House speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy had to make concessions to a group of conservative Republicans called the Freedom Caucus. Now, as Congress is poised to deal with major financial issues like hitting the debt ceiling, the caucus has a ton of political sway. So, what is the Freedom Caucus, and what does it want?


Nathaniel Rakich: Washington, DC, there’s a new sheriff in town. No, not me. A gaggle of insurgent Republicans called the House Freedom Caucus. After the dramatic vote for speaker of the House, this group is poised to wield a tremendous amount of power. So, what’s the deal with the Freedom Caucus?

Back in 2010 and 2012, the tea party movement swept a new brand of Republican into Congress: die-hard conservatives dead set against compromising with Democrats. They felt that even most Republicans didn’t fight hard enough for conservative principles, and they quickly became a thorn in the side of leaders in both parties. In 2011, they demanded spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, and in 2013, they shut down the federal government rather than agree to fund the Affordable Care Act.

Eventually, some of these renegade Republicans decided to create a formal group within the House and officially founded the Freedom Caucus in January 2015. And one of their first victories was forcing the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner — the poster child for the Republican Party establishment.

The Freedom Caucus’s obsession with smaller government can border on indifference toward any governing at all. Its members used to prioritize fiscal conservatism, but recently they’ve been criticized for obstructing just for obstructionism’s sake. In Boehner’s words, “They can’t tell you what they’re for. They can tell you everything they’re against.”

And this year, one of the things many of them were against was Kevin McCarthy. At least 14 members of the caucus voted against him for speaker, helping to delay his election until the 15th ballot and fifth day of voting. McCarthy finally won them over, but not before making more concessions than a Regal Cinema. The biggest was reportedly reserving three seats for Freedom Caucus members and their allies on the powerful House Rules Committee — the committee that controls what bills come up for a vote on the House floor. As a result, traditional Republicans won’t have a majority of votes on the committee on their own; they’ll have to get support from either Democrats or, more likely, the Freedom Caucus.

And of course, the caucus holds the balance of power in the full House as well. The Freedom Caucus doesn’t publish a list of members — it likes the element of surprise, I guess — so we don’t know exactly how many members it has, but unofficial counts suggest it could be almost 40. Republicans have only 222 seats in the House, and a majority is 218, so they can’t pass anything on their own unless almost all of the Freedom Caucus is on board. That means any legislation that passes the House for the next two years will probably be super conservative — which will make it a non-starter with the Democratic-controlled Senate.

That’s a recipe for gridlock — which isn’t great considering the government is on track to both hit the debt ceiling and run out of money sometime in 2023. The Freedom Caucus will surely try to use these as bargaining chips to push conservative priorities again, but if it can’t reach a compromise — and remember, these guys aren’t known for their flexibility — it could plunge the country into an economic crisis.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.


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