House Freedom Caucus Eyes Paul Ryan and Its Bolstered Relevance

Paul Ryan on Tax Reform, Gitmo, 2016 and the Speakership
  • Members claim support at home for shaking things up in D.C.
  • Caucus to demand quick action on long-time conservative goals

Representative Mark Meadows doesn’t brag about his rabble-rousing role in helping oust fellow Republican John Boehner as U.S. House speaker when he meets constituents in his western North Carolina district. He doesn’t need to.

“You don’t have Boehner to deal with any more!” Jim Blyth, a Haywood County realtor with former ties to a local Tea Party group, called out to Meadows before they toured a packaging plant in Waynesville on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. Meadows just smiled.

There’s no longer any serious question that Meadows and other members of the House Freedom Caucus matter in Congress. Caucus member Dave Brat of Virginia won his seat after a stunning 2014 primary election defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the man who would have been in line to succeed Boehner. Instead, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is the new speaker, and Freedom Caucus members are working to hold him to account.

The caucus is preparing a multi-point manifesto demanding action within the first 100 days of 2016 on conservative priorities including replacing Obamacare, overhauling safety-net programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and repealing the estate tax. An early draft of the plan is called “Contract With America II,” homage to Newt Gingrich’s plan that helped sweep Republicans to the House majority in 1994 for the first time in decades.

“You can’t be just against the Obama agenda, or the Clinton agenda,” Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho, another leading Freedom Caucus member, said in an interview.

The lawmakers say they will keep a close watch on whether Ryan, who became speaker on Oct. 29, keeps his promises to return the House to “regular order” and put an end to top-down directives. That means letting committees retake the lead on drafting major legislation and allowing all members to take part in the process.

Highway Bill

In a first test for Ryan, the House considered more than 100 amendments this month before passing its version of a six-year highway program -- a plan the House and Senate still need to agree on before current authority expires Nov. 20. House subcommittee leaders plan so-called listening sessions for fellow Republicans in coming weeks as lawmakers negotiate a government spending plan before a Dec. 11 deadline.

Brat said caucus members are optimistic that Ryan will be in tune with “marketing our conservative ideas.” There’s some irony in that, he suggested in an interview following an appearance before Cosby High School students in Midlothian, in his east-central Virginia district about 15 miles (24 kilometers) west of the state capital Richmond .

“A whole range of negative names for us get parroted -- rock throwers, or whatever,” said Brat, 51, a college economics professor before his upset of Cantor. “These are 40 principled people -- not that that matters in D.C., where that and a buck will get you a coffee, right?”

Adding to the irony is that if the Freedom Caucus gets its way, and the House starts to follow regular legislative order, “our group will actually lose power, relatively speaking,” said Brat. That’s because it has fewer than 40 members among the 246 Republicans in a 435-seat chamber that has one current vacancy -- Boehner’s Ohio district.

‘Political Games’

Not everyone is impressed. Democratic State Representative Joe Sam Queen, who attended a World War II monument re-dedication in Sylva, North Carolina, on Nov. 11, questioned in an interview how Meadows’ Freedom Caucus activities “are helping the people of western North Carolina?”

“Whatever kind of political games he is playing -- even if he did have some involvement in Boehner’s ouster -- how are these power plays in Washington, pitting conservatives against conservatives, helping serve his constituents?” Queen asked rhetorically.

Jackson County, N.C. Commissioner Vicki Greene, also a Democrat, said that Meadows “can keep winning elections in this district as long as wants to keep running” as a result of a 2011 redistricting. The redrawn borders removed much of Asheville, a heavily Democratic city, with Republican-leaning areas, and by doing so arguably changed what used to be a competitive district into a Republican stronghold. “He can keep doing almost anything he wants to do in Washington,” she said of Meadows in an interview.

Freedom Caucus members had threatened to force a U.S. government shutdown on Oct. 1 by opposing a spending bill unless it defunded Planned Parenthood, the reproductive health-care provider. The dispute played a role in Boehner’s decision to leave Congress he after pushed through a spending bill with mostly Democratic votes, bypassing Freedom Caucus opposition.

Caucus members say most of their constituents are cheering them on. “I can tell you that for every negative comment or e-mail that we get about the Freedom Caucus here, we get dozens of positive ones and thanks for taking a stand,” Meadows said.

‘Full Commitment’

With Ryan as speaker, “there may be more limited policy riders that we get in the short term as long as there is a full commitment on his part, and a leading on his part, on where we ultimately want to go,” Meadows said.

On Veterans Day there was no available polling or other proof of his constituents’ views as Meadows traversed his 16-county, mostly rural district, which in 2012 favored Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama 54 percent to 41 percent. But there was plenty of anecdotal evidence during his various stops, which included a tour of a factory near Asheville that makes baby wipes and a keynote address at a Veterans’ Day ceremony.

Blyth, the realtor who toured the packaging plant with Meadows, said in a later interview, “I give him all the credit in the world for what he’s done, and taking all the risks to get things changed up there. We’re very proud of him.”

Defunding Obamacare

Meadows, 56, first won his seat in 2012 and quickly made an impact in Washington. He helped instigate the 16-day partial government shutdown in 2013 by circulating a letter demanding the defunding of Obamacare -- the key issue in the dispute. And while the procedural motion Meadows filed in July to remove Boehner as speaker may not have directly forced him out, it probably contributed to his decision.

Phil Carson, chairman of the Swain County Commissioners, left out a mention of Boehner’s ouster or any other Freedom Caucus activities while introducing Meadows as the keynote speaker at a Veterans Day gathering in Sylva.

Afterward, though, Carson said in an interview that there’s a lot of talk about how Meadows “has been shaking thing up -- and that it’s a good thing.”

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