Life is about to get way more interesting—and potentially a lot more boring—for the House Freedom Caucus. After a couple of free-wheeling years as Congress’s bratty, bomb-lobbing obstructionists, the conservative diehards will soon face a topsy-turvy political landscape: unified Republican rule led by a president whose anti-establishment, blow-the-system-to-smithereens shtick makes the fractious legislators look positively staid.
No question, a Trump administration holds rich promise for conservatives: rolling back Obamacare, beefing up borders, cutting taxes. But the new president is hardly an orthodox conservative and has also floated agenda items that seem tailor-made to perturb small-government, deficit-cutting types. (Exhibit A: a $1 trillion infrastructure plan—which we’ll come back to in a jiff.)
More broadly, as of January 20, even the rowdiest conservative purists will be under pressure from constituents (and their president) to hunker down and actually get stuff done. “You can’t blame it on somebody else now,” chuckled Representative Tom Cole, an erstwhile critic of the Freedom Caucus.
“This is a brand new world for most of our members,” added Cole, noting that scores of House Republicans were elected post-2008 specifically “to fight President Obama. Not now. Now they have to find a totally new purpose. It can’t be, ‘I’m just against what Obama opposes.’”
No one grasps this altered reality better than Representative Mark Meadows, the newly elected chairman of the Freedom Caucus. “Certainly it’s easier to fight the president when it’s someone from the opposing party,” he allowed.
Likewise, slapping one’s own leadership for seeking consensus with Obama is a vastly different proposition than slapping them for accommodating a President Trump. As Meadows put it, “The fallout can potentially be, ‘Well, Mark, you can’t get along with establishment types and now you can’t get along with those fighting the establishment.’ And if that’s the case, it can have far-reaching implications back home.”
Eager to play nice and score some early wins, conservatives have identified regulatory reform as a promising point of cooperation with the incoming president. (“I know there’s a group working on this inside Trump Tower,” said Cole, predicting it will be an area of “tremendous agreement” partywide. “It’s one of the things that unites instead of divides.”) As you might imagine, Trump’s talk of trashing two regulations for each new one adopted is music to many conservative ears.
Looking to juice the process, just before Congress fled for the holiday break, Meadows’s office compiled a Christmas wish list for the incoming president, consisting of 228 rules and regulations the Freedom Caucus would like revoked ASAP. The list covers everything from trucking regulations to alternative-energy mandates to school lunch requirements. Two top targets Meadows points to: the Overtime Rule, which ups the number of Americans eligible for overtime pay, and the Fiduciary Rule, which expands the categories of financial professionals who are classified as “fiduciaries” and thus bound by stricter standards when advising clients.
Dislike for any particular rule aside, the overarching goal of the rollback is to shift regulatory authority away from federal agencies and back toward Congress, says Meadows. This, in turn, is part of an even broader push by conservatives to curb what they consider an out-of-control executive branch. (There are multiple bills to this end already in the works.) “For us, this is all about trying to establish balance between the legislative and executive branches,” explained Meadows.
Conservatives, indeed, spent much of the Obama era railing against “executive overreach.” Changing their tune because Republicans now hold the White House would be “hypocritical,” said Meadows. “To stay true to conservative principles, we’ve got to fight for that whether it’s President Obama in the White House or President Trump.”
Still, the congressman acknowledged the political challenges.
“Any time you have one party in control of the White House, they’re wanting to keep as much power as they possibly can.”
Then, of course, there’s the unpredictability of the president-elect. Trump came to power touting his Alpha Maleness and a fondness for authoritarian leaders. So while he may prove an enthusiastic de-regulator, it’s tough to know how he’ll respond to any broad-based effort to siphon power away from the branch of government he controls.
Meadows says he’s optimistic, noting that, in his discussions with Team Trump, the idea of reining in federal agencies has been “met with receptivity.” Admittedly, “most of those conversations were before November 8th,” he said. “But generally speaking, they’ve been real willing to look at making the executive branch have the appropriate authority and balance as it relates to Congress.”
Now, wading into the weeds of regulatory policy—or, really, any policy—is hardly what the Freedom Caucus is known for. Meadows wants to change that. Recognizing the group’s need for a new m.o., he has big plans to shift its focus from ideological warfare to policy promotion.
To this end, the caucus is in the midst of interviewing for one—possibly two—“top notch” policy people, Meadows told me. “We want someone who can not only draft policy but also help us understand how to work in a bicameral way” to gain support for issues in the Senate.
Meadows is also tapping a handful of his wonkier members to drive weekly policy discussions. “Every week we’ll come up with a piece of legislation—and it doesn’t have to be Freedom Caucus driven,” he insisted. “My internal goal is to be promoting between 10 and 12 Freedom Caucus initiatives and 8 to 10 pieces of legislation led either by conservative Democrats or by the more moderate members within the GOP conference.”
There are, to be sure, plenty of potential flashpoints on the policy horizon. Budget deficits have been a key concern for the Freedom Caucus, and Meadows acknowledges that the president-elect’s talk of a $1 trillion infrastructure plan poses a challenge. But in such cases, members cannot fall back on “just saying no,” insisted Meadows. Instead, they need to “put on [their] thinking caps” and bust their humps to find “a conservative way to actually pay for the additional infrastructure without just adding to the national debt.” (The congressman is happy to talk specifics with anyone interested.)
Reforming entitlements promises to be another hot issue. On the trail, Trump vowed not to cut benefits or raise the eligibility age for either Medicare or Social Security. Even so, some key members of his Social-Security transition team, along with his newly named budget chief (Freedom Caucus co-founder Mick Mulvaney) are outspoken fans of reduced benefits and/or privatization, indicating that President Trump may be more open than candidate Trump to messing with the system. The Freedom Caucus certainly hopes so, and plans to push early and often for an overhaul. “We will introduce in the first 30 days legislation to at least get the debate started,” said Meadows.
The new chairman laughed when I suggested he’s aiming to create a kinder, gentler Freedom Caucus. His vision for the group is “a shift,” he allowed—and one that is not without risk. For starters, being reasonable and policy oriented and open to compromise is a great way to get ignored in politics. After all, what shot the caucus to fame and influence was its mad-dog style—one that its angry, fed-up supporters embraced as proof of the group’s authenticity.
“Is there potential fallout from some constituents who support us saying, ‘Meadows is soft’?” said the congressman. “Sure.”
But, as he sees it, the risks of not evolving are higher. “People are tired of excuses,” he told me. “It is incumbent upon us to find ways to get things done.”