Ever since Kevin McCarthy withdrew his candidacy for Speaker, the faction in the spotlight has been the House Freedom Caucus. They have variously been billed as the tea party faction, comprising “about 40” “secret” members. As is the norm with the US media and the Republican Party, there is, as Stephen Colbert coined it, some “truthiness” in these statements. But not the whole truth.
The House Freedom Caucus was founded at the beginning of the 114th Congress. Its early history is described in this January diary which also addresses the group’s association with one Sen. Cruz.
It’s an exclusive, invitation-only club which has always declined to show its membership list to the media. However the media have one obvious means of ascertaining who is a member: ask every likely Republican. This actually works because (i) it turns out the members are very proud of their exclusive club, especially the “exclusive” label, and (ii) while all of them are tight-lipped about the group’s membership list, they are nevertheless happy to vouch for their own membership. Thus it was never a difficult task and reporters have had since January to carry it out.
The media is therefore aware that there were 38 members, now reduced to 36 members as of last Thursday - Tom McClintock quit the group in September and Reid Ribble quit after Kevin McCarthy withdrew his candidacy for Speaker. Why the media persist in the pretence that this number is a secret is probably to give false reassurance to the HFC members while injecting a little false drama into their reporting. That’s how they roll.
The other popular claim has even less truthiness. While the HFC comprises the most rigid of tea party extremists, it is not the only tea party faction. There is also the Liberty Caucus, founded in 2011 and still active with 35 members. It’s interesting to note that two of the current organization’s past members are Cathy McMorris Rogers and Jason Chaffetz. (However, I have no information on when they left the group or why.)
Additionally, there is also the Tea Party Caucus founded by Michele Bachmann in 2010. When she was forced to retire at the end of 2014, Tim Huelskamp became the new Chairperson and presides over 44 current members including Majority Whip Steve Scalise and noted space cadets, Steve King and Louie Gohmert. (I’m surprised neither of the latter two are also members of the HFC but then it is an invitation-only only club and, against all evidence to the contrary, they apparently consider themselves to have standards.)
Seven members belong to all three groups while another twenty belong to two of the three groups. All in all, there are 81 individual members involved in one or more of these three caucuses.
Click on any segment of the chart to enlarge the image.
While the House Freedom Caucus is the most vocal and public of the groups, their influence also spreads via overlapping membership to the other two groups which also share most of their extreme agenda. All three groups are heavily influenced by Ted Cruz who is most likely the chief instigator of HFC. The members act as Cruz’s agents provocateur by disrupting and subverting Congressional procedures while furthering an extremist tea party agenda. One has only to listen to his stump speeches to realize at once that the HFC agenda mirrors that of Cruz’s campaign.
The not-so-secret members of HFC have drawn up what they choose to call a questionnaire. While it is in the form of 27 questions, more accurately it’s a 27-point caucus platform and prospective candidates for Speaker are expected to sign off on all 27 commitments before the HFC will consider voting for them. These non-negotiable requirements include such gems as reducing the powers of the Speaker so they can no longer punish lawmakers by stripping them of committee assignments, a measure Boehner has used in an attempt to tame their more extreme members.
But that’s the least of it. The pledge includes extracting promises from the next Speaker that would effectively plunge the entire country into a tailspin. They’d make it impossible for Congress to raise the debt ceiling by tethering any increase to cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Having defaulted on the nation’s debt and sent the world into an instant recession, they would then look to December 11 when the government is due to run out of money. Via their uncompromising opposition to all funding to Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, the Iran agreement and the immigration Executive Order, their actions would inevitably lead to a government shutdown, just two weeks before Christmas Day.
As if that’s not enough, they also want deep cuts to programs they don’t like such as Education, Housing and any kind of support program like food stamps, and they expect to cap that off by impeaching the director of the IRS.
Sound familiar? Recall a certain senator, a wannabe presidential candidate, saying he wanted to shutter the IRS and redeploy its employees to the border? Ted Cruz. The same senator who wants to close the Education Department, “reform” Social Security and, particularly, eradicate Obamacare from the face of the Earth. In their commentary regardin the latest “wingnut group”, Crooks and Liars concluded:
Let's just call this the John Birch Reactionary Society, shall we? And I call bullshit on Ted Cruz not being involved. He's involved in everything.
made the same connection in their article: House Freedom Caucus Document Explains Why the House Is Ungovernable. It’s also common knowledge that Ted Cruz has been spoiling for a second chance to default on the country’s debt and to shut down the government since his stratagem failed in October 2013. Cruz doesn’t forget and doesn’t forgive. Now he has organized HFC minions to assist him.
They are not alone. In their sister caucuses and even among those not in any of the tea party groups, there are sympathizers like Bill Flores of Texas, head of the Republican Study Committee, a sizable bloc of 177 House conservatives. In an interview with the New York Times, Rep. Flores said:
They don’t have the voice as to what comes to the floor, they don’t have a voice as to what amendments get offered and don’t get offered, and they’re frustrated with that. And I can’t blame them. It’s happened to me before, too.
This is not what any would-be Speaker wants to hear. The House Freedom Caucus has severely complicated the numbers game. HFC has 36 members who have agreed to vote as a bloc. House Republicans have 247 members. Without those 36, they have 211 members, 7 short of the 218 majority to guarantee any candidate for Speaker a majority of Republican votes. Their chance of getting Democratic votes is nil; even the most conservative of blue dogs is not that crazy.
That seems simple – and impossible - enough but it fails to take into account the Liberty Caucus and the Tea Party Caucus who want some of that power, who want desperately to be part of the action and who are willing to support the extremist agenda of HFC and Ted Cruz. In all, that’s 81 votes that Cruz could command if he really wants to hurt the House Republicans – and he’s shown no interest in benefiting anyone but himself. With those additional 45 votes, the House Republicans would be cut down to 166 establishment members and what-passes-for moderate members these days. That's 22 less than the Democrats’ 188 seats. It's a substantial difference and not one that John Boehner and his establishment faction want publicized.
What it means is that Nancy Pelosi could pull a bait and switch here if Boehner can be persuaded to hold a secret ballot. That may be Boehner’s only remaining move, the only solution to the current impasse. He has to know that it’s more than 36 unruly members he has to worry about; there are at least 81 realistically, and more if you count in the odd sympathizer from the less wingnutty right. That gives Pelosi a strong hand, one she will know best how to use. Winning the Speakership herself is such a long shot it isn’t worth considering. But Pelosi will have her own list of concessions that will have the advantage of being beneficial to the country, unlike the demands of the House Freedom Caucus.
This will be Boehner’s final showdown at the DC corral. He’s been shadow-boxing Cruz for two years now and will want to go out on a win. He knows he has a powerful ally in Pelosi. It remains to be seen if that proves to be his winning move in a battle the country cannot afford to have him lose.