This is precisely the sort of ominous, we’re-prepared-to-blow-the-joint-up-again talk that has even some die-hard conservatives on edge about the Freedom Caucus. Talking with GOP staffers from both chambers of Congress, a number of caucus-related questions popped up: Having blown up the House leadership last year, what does the group plan to do for an encore? What issues are its members fired up about? Most importantly, just how much mischief do they plan to make as their party labors to coax voters into returning it to the White House?
There’s no question that caucus crusaders remain plenty worked up about myriad issues, from immigration to Planned Parenthood to the ultimate evil of Obamacare. Representative Mark Meadows, the member who filed the motion to vacate the speakership last year, cites tax reform as a top priority, along with finding a way to track foreign visitors who overstay their visas. Caucus chairman Jim Jordan also considers tax reform key, along with health-care reform and welfare reform. These policy areas and many, many more are to be discussed at House Republicans’ annual retreat next week in Baltimore. Not that the Freedom Caucus members expect to get any of their big ideas enacted this year, mind you. They simply aim to put forward bills that, before they get shot down, give voters a sense of how the GOP would shake things up if it were wholly in charge. (Case in point: On Wednesday, House Republicans were celebrating having sent a reconciliation bill to the president’s desk that would repeal large chunks of Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood for a year. They acknowledge it will be vetoed. But they get to brag to constituents about having passed it regardless.)
Moving from policy to process, most Freedom Caucusers expect Ryan to keep his promise of returning the House to “regular order,” meaning committee chairmen and rank-and-file members will have greater opportunities to introduce, debate, and amend legislation. To this end, many members say a key test for the Speaker will be working to ensure that at least some of the 12 appropriations bills to fund the government are allowed to wend their way through the committee process, rather than getting mushed together at the 11th hour into one big omnibus. As Representative Thomas Massie explained his “yardstick to grade” for Ryan at Conversation with Conservatives, “If we are here next year having just passed an omnibus, that is an F-minus. If we pass 12 appropriations bills and stand our ground and force the Senate to face these issues, that’s an A.” (Opinion varies on how many need to be passed this way: Meadows would consider eight of 12 a win. Mulvaney would be happy with three or four.)
Now, these are pretty ambitious aims. Still more so when you consider that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has zero incentive to make his members take any hard votes in a year when he could struggle to hold his majority. One might naturally fret that this primes the House for even more melodrama and dysfunction in the coming months.