Episode 4: How the House Freedom Caucus Gains Power in Congress
In its first few years, the House Freedom Caucus has helped take down a Speaker, choose another, and set the course of the health care debate in Congress. Matt Grossmann talks to Ruth Bloch Rubin about new research comparing them to other intra-party factions over a century of Congressional history, finding that they combine the strategies of their predecessors. He also talks to Andrew Clarke about a new study showing that the Freedom Caucus is more electorally dependent on Trump and gains more face time with him. The new research may explain why centrist and liberal groups have not been as effective.
The Niskanen Center’s Political Research Digest features up-and-coming researchers delivering fresh insights on the big trends driving American politics today. Get beyond punditry to data-driven understanding of today’s Washington with host and political scientist Matt Grossmann. Each 15-minute episode covers two new cutting-edge studies and interviews two researchers.
Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest, how intraparty organizations like the House Freedom Caucus wield power in Congress.
For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
In just a few years, one organized faction of Republicans has regularly challenged their congressional leadership, forcing changes to the Obamacare repeal bill and encouraging the early retirement of Speaker John Boehner. How does the House Freedom Caucus gain such influence, even though most of their colleagues don’t share their views or support their tactics?
A new book, Building the Bloc Intraparty Organization in the U.S. Congress, puts the Freedom Caucus in historical context, concluding that they successfully adopted the strict, organizational strategies of centrist groups like the Blue Dog Coalition.
I talked to author Ruth Bloch Rubin of the University of Chicago, about why these groups form and why they succeed…as well as competition from other party factions.
I also talked to Andrew Clarke of Lafayette College about a new study he co-authored with Jeffrey Jenkins in The Forum called, “Who are President Trump’s Allies in the House of Representatives?” It argues that the Freedom Caucus is more electorally dependent on Trump and gets more face time with him.
Political scientists traditionally argue that the party leadership or the party member with the median ideology should be able to control party positions, but the new research finds that the groups at the ideological extremes of the party, far out or toward the other party, can gain power through organization. Ruth Bloch Rubin says this is why intraparty factions form.
You can basically see members who are refusing to change policy from what party leaders wanted either to make it more extreme or to make it moderate. They stick together. Whereas, when it isn’t an organization like this, it is really easy for parties to pick people off so that they can build a coalition without taking these people’s protest.
The Freedom Caucus has combined the most successful strategies of its frontrunners.
Bloch Rubin: In many ways, The House Freedom Caucus is a weird fusing of different kinds of intraparty organizations I look at in the book. You have what you think of as hard-lined intraparty organizations, as organized, people on the flanks of their party, so that the most extreme client that you have who is more moderate or in contrast of intraparty organizations after moderate Republicans or moderate Democrats.
What’s interesting is that hard-line organizations as more have tended to adopt really open membership rules and try to grow the size of their organization quite large so that they can bargain with party leaders at the level of the party front runner. That’s because it’s not really credible for them to vote with Democrats.
What’s interesting about the House Caucus is that they’ve adopted a lot of the organizational strategies and ruled governing based on the base end of hard-line party leaders and their voting centers based on that. So why the Freedom House Caucus takes more backing base, is in part because they take a lot of the heavy institutionalized procedures from centrist groups.
Grossmann: Much of their success comes from the adoption of strict rules that others have yet to emulate.
Bloch Rubin: Pretty strict rules bind the members together, that really helps when they’re dealing with party leaders because they know that that group is going to vote together and that they have to take that group seriously when that group contains a pivotal amount of votes. And the progressive caucus has a acknowledged to deal with them because there is a group like that already floating down the water of the Democratic party and that’s the Blue Dog Coalition.
Grossmann: To reach these conclusions, Bloch Rubin studied caucuses stretching back more than a century in both parties and both chambers, including centrists and extremists.
Bloch Rubin: Initially, there is a lot of continuity. I collected materials from a bunch of different libraries and collections. In contemporary cases, I used both documentary evidence as well, as interviews with members of Congress. As you find out, more importantly, with their centers. I think the benefit of using, in particular, confidentials, is reading letters from groups, a lot of correspondents between members that are confidential so you get to see the effects of organizations tired of voting.
An intraparty group if they have done anything, has already done its work. All of this is happening behind closed doors.
Grossmann: The groups do sometimes learn from their predecessors.
Bloch Rubin: The exciting thing is that it was actually formed by lawmakers who expressed a lot of jealousy of how effective the Democratic study group was working. And so, they really did model their organization after the DS.
Grossmann: But so far, the moderate Republicans, like the Tuesday Group, have not been as successful.
Bloch Rubin: For the Tuesday Group, I think what we’re really seeing, I think the health care vote was an excellent example of this is an intraparty organization. They are unwilling to find the numbers and bargain. We saw multiple members of the Tuesday Group bargaining with party leaders separately without any sort of coherent system.
Grossmann: Historically, the moderates who succeed have partners in the other party.
Bloch Rubin: It’s really difficult to get members from two different parties to work together and bargain with their parties separately. If you’re all following the same rules and procedures, it’s sort of easier to let your group fight with their respective party leaders and then come together on pivitol votes, but one thing that is worth thinking about is whether there are willingness for these interparty organizations to support each other.
So are there things that the Blue Dogs need to begin to make moderate Republicans have an easier time. The problem is, often times these guys are fighting over the same district, and so there are disincentivized to work together.
Grossmann: Bloch Rubin found that interparty organizations are much less prominent in the U.S Senate.
Bloch Rubin: There are fewer intraparty organizations in the Senate than in the House and that’s because individual members are far more likely to be pivotal to the outcome in the Senate than they are in the House.
Grossmann: I spoke to Andrew Clarke about new research he co-authored showing that President Trump doesn’t yet have a clear ideological partner in Congress.
Clarke: And what we found was basically just that any of these three ideological groups, the House Freedom Caucus, the Republican Study Committee and the Moderates, or the Republican Main Street Partnership.
Any of them could be potential ally’s to President Trump, but when you look at some data, both election data and legislative data, we find that President Trump doesn’t really have a clear power center within the Republican Party.
If we kind of squint a bit it may look like the House Freedom Caucus is getting more attention with the president, but it’s tough to know whether that is because they’re sort of really closely aligned or in sort of strong agreement or if they’re causing all sorts of problems for the President.
Grossmann: But the Freedom Caucus does appear to be gaining power through obstruction.
Clarke: Consistent with their reputation as bomb-throwing, the sort of ideologues that are blocking legislation, they do seem to pursue an obstructionist strategy, but it’s important to kind of know that this makes a lot of sense if you think about where they are ideologically. They’re going to agree with the Republican Party on a lot, probably most, of what’s happening. But they view their role making sure the Republican Party stays anchored to a very conservative position.
Grossmann: And Speaker Ryan was well aware of their influence when he signed up.
Clarke: Paul Ryan took over the speaker ship in a pretty tough position. In fact, he ran his potential speaker ship by the House Freedom Caucus before he agreed to accept the position after John Boehner resigned.
Grossmann: So far, Clarke has only limited evidence of their success in the Trump era.
Clarke: It’s truly descriptive and it’s just kind of trying to take a quick look at what might be going on. So we take measure of how often you are voting with the president when he’s out of those votes that he’s taken a position on, but certainly we should be looking at a really narrow subset of votes, many of which are probably amendments down the road.
Grossmann: What looks like caucus influence may just reflect the underlying ideologies of its members.
Clarke: You run the same sort of threat in terms of, are these institutions actually changing behavior in any way? Or are they just sort of a reflection of pre-existing preferences?
So fortunately you’re able to draw in lessons of that larger literature and use some sort of newer methodological approaches like these sorts of differences. In some work, I’ve done some actual experimental analysis of identifying what one of these groups changes the perception of how conservative or liberal they are.
So there are tools at the margin that you can use to try and address this but it is a difficult problem to really touch on. In many cases, I think some of these groups are in fact, just labels that don’t actually change behavior at all. Like the Tea Party Caucus, for example, doesn’t seem to really have changed the behavior of their membership but it did sort of provide a nice moment for people like Michele Bachmann to signal to conservative base.
Grossmann: But Clark agrees with Rubin that the Freedom Caucus stands out because of their strict rules.
Clarke: Unlike some of these other groups that have popped up and sort of faded, like the Tea Party Caucus or the most recent sort of Populist Caucus, and like some of the more organized Centrist Groups like the Blue Dog Coalition, the House Freedom Caucus has made sure that members understand that they are expected to vote as a block when the 80 percent threshold is met.
So I think that they are both learning from sort of, what they proceeded in the mistakes of conservative groups like the Republican Study Committee, and sort of success of groups like the Blue Dog Coalition.
Where I think the Freedom Caucus has probably innovated more than other groups is they’ve really, really, done a great job sort of tying themselves into well funded and highly organized conservative group.
Grossmann: He says centrist groups are trying to match the power but finding it difficult.
Clarke: Looks like some of the centrist groups, like the Republican Main Street Partnership are realizing that they are maybe ill-equipped to fight back against more conservative influences within the party, and so they recently formed a new group…now I guess they’re hoping it should. It’d be interesting to see if they adopt some of the more highly organized institutions and push back against the conservative wing their party.
Grossmann: And the Progressive Caucus on the Democratic side has also failed to develop an influential reputation.
Clarke: The Progressive Caucus is certainly considered to be the left wing of the party. But there’s so much overlap with party leaders that I think they have a harder time signaling that they are a distinct type of partisan compared to a group like that.
Grossmann: Can the congressional leadership or the White House do anything to push back? Clark thinks it might backfire.
Clarke: [inaudible 00:12:54] to sort of overtly punish some of these more organized groups like the Freedom Caucus by pulling funds may backfire because these groups have been able to more heavily depend on these outside groups and pursue a hard-lined conservative strategy.
So I’d say the advice I would have is to try and co-opt some of these groups, maybe put them in better committee assignments, once within the party, so that you’re able to work out intraparty disagreements without pushing them into their own pocket of political influence.
Grossmann: But Bloch Rubin told me Ryan might be able to learn from historical efforts to push back. Clarke says future research might look at the similar organizations developing in state legislatures.
Clarke: There does seem to be some sort of spread of these groups, or least they’re mimicking these groups at the state level. So unlike some of these older groups that have existed in the mid-1900s, we’re starting to see that there is a Freedom Caucus in New Hampshire, there’s a Freedom Caucus in Texas, those groups appear to actually be speaking with each other. There’s a Progressive Caucus popping up in state legislative assemblies, almost always the lower House, and they seem to be employing the same sort of strategy that these national, or federal level factions are employing.
Grossmann: And he says that if the Freedom Caucus continues its dominance in Congress we may have to reconsider our theories of party organization.
Clarke: If you can see the House Freedom Caucus extract concessions on major pieces of policy over the next few years, then we really should reconsider some primary theories of lawmaking in the House because these groups are so far from what we typically think of as pivotal positions. They’re nowhere near the chamber or even the party median that it requires to take a second look at party power in the house.
Grossmann: Thanks for listening. Political Research Digest is available bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossman.
Thanks to Ruth Bloch Rubin and Andrew Clarke for joining me. To learn more you can read the studies at niskanencenter.org. Join us next time to find out how gun control became the motivating issue for gun owners and unthinkable to pass in congress.