Sound and Fury From the Freedom Caucus

Conservatives in the U.S. House of Representatives are gearing up for a new year of making noise—but it’s not clear they’ll get anywhere.

Freedom Caucus member Raul Labrador speaks to reporters. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)

House members came rolling into town for the new session this week, and the merry band of conservatives who made life so exciting for Speaker John Boehner last year wasted no time in warning his replacement, Paul Ryan, that they consider him on probation.

“The honeymoon is over!” declared Representative Raul Labrador, the unofficial spokesman for the House Freedom Caucus, to a roomful of political reporters at the monthly “Conversation with Conservatives” on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Like many in the Freedom Caucus, Labrador is miffed about the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill that Ryan shepherded through the House just before the break. And although members acknowledge that the omnibus wasn’t really Ryan’s fault—most of it was hammered out by Boehner on his way out the door—Labrador nonetheless suggested that if the new speaker isn’t careful, things just might have to get ugly again.

“He needs to start putting up real conservative reform in the House and doing the things that are necessary to show the voters that he is a different speaker than John Boehner, because frankly, everything he has done so far is no different than what John Boehner would have done,” said Labrador. He did, however, graciously allow that Ryan, “has a year to make that up.”

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.

Except it most likely won’t. Thanks to the omnibus, which kicked most of the cliff-hangery financial deadlines way down the road, there simply won’t be that many opportunities for the Freedom Caucus to wreak havoc—a fact that the caucus members themselves acknowledge when pressed. “There is very little leverage that we can bring to bear in order to drive our particular message,” says Mulvaney. “I’m not sure where we’ll be able to drive the discussion for, say, defunding the president’s immigration policies.” There won’t be as much “head-butting,” he predicts, because there won’t be a lot of must-pass votes that they’re in a position to butt heads over.

Meadows too believes the lack of fiscal deadlines will “change the focus” away from showdowns and toward “setting a positive, goal-oriented policy agenda.” Not that he isn’t prepared to fight for his constituents’ priorities, clarifies Meadows. But he expresses optimism that the new speaker’s more inclusive style will make it less necessary to yell. “I can tell you that for me, I know that there has been a reset button and fresh start both ways,” he says, praising Ryan’s aggressive outreach.

The reality of presidential election-year-politics has further lowered the temperature. Nobody on or off the Hill expects Congress to get much of anything done this year, which could give Ryan more leeway to let conference members play around with symbolic votes and messaging bills. Better still, House members understand that they cannot get too wrapped up in policy specifics, because ultimately they aren’t the ones driving the train. “That’s sort of the nature of the beast of a presidential year anyway,” says Mulvaney. “Whoever our candidate turns out to be should start to drive the debate.” It’s all well and good for House conservatives to offer tax ideas, says Mulvaney. “But we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t recognize that our tax policy will turn in large part on the tax policy of the Republican nominee.”

So for all of the anxiety and anticipation and bluster, for the Freedom Caucus, this year could wind up being somewhat Shakespearean, full of sound and fury signifying … not a helluva lot.