The Sad Decline of the House Freedom Caucus
The most recent example of the maxim that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is the tragedy that’s befallen the House Freedom Caucus.
Once, the small band of congressional rebels shed light on the growing federal debt and deficit and the sham federal budgeting process. They stood for “open, accountable, and limited” government, “the Constitution and the rule of law,” and liberty-minded policies, as their website states. Their purpose was to “give a voice to countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them.” Their staunch opposition to spending bills was so strident that they were mocked as the “caucus of no,” though ultimately they were able to upend John Boehner’s House speakership.
How the mighty have fallen.
Though HFC members were the original, outsider, populist candidates, the House Freedom Caucus has transmogrified so thoroughly that it bears no resemblance to what it used to be. Once Jeremiahs crying in the desert about fiscal responsibility and presidential overreach, they have become the executive branch’s biggest cheerleaders.
Last week, Congress appropriated $1.38 billion for border security, only a fraction of the border wall spending that President Trump had requested. Trump responded by declaring a national emergency, which he hoped would provide him with a legal fig leaf to dip into a variety of funds and secure the roughly $8 billion in wall money that Congress had denied him.
The House Freedom Caucus came into being precisely because its members felt that Congress’s power of the purse was being diminished due to executive orders and an opaque continuing resolution process. If anyone should have been foursquare against Trump’s national emergency—regardless of what they thought of the border wall itself—it was them.
Yet instead, members of its leadership have trumpeted the president’s talking points.
House Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows and founding member Jim Jordan made the talk show rounds to declare their support for Trump’s executive order on Sunday. When Martha Raddatz on ABC’s “This Week” challenged Jordan and pointed out that limits on executive power were the very raison d’etre for the Freedom Caucus, Jordan dissembled:
This is a serious situation, this is a crisis. Look at the drug problem, the human trafficking problem, the gang violence problem; that’s why we need the border security wall and that’s what the president is committed to making sure happens…we tried to do it the appropriations process way and get building it, we tried to do this last year and our party—our party leaders wouldn’t even go there, Democrats certainly wouldn’t go there. So yes, it’s going to be a slow process, it’s going to go to the courts. We understand that. But better to start that process so that we can ultimately get there than to not start it at all.
The new communications chair of the HFC, Congressman Jody Hice, wrote, “As I have long said, ensuring the safety and security of the American people is a fight worth fighting. While I prefer legislative solutions to executive actions to address the pressing issues of our time, the president has now been forced into declaring a national emergency.”
Hice doesn’t explain how being denied requested funds by Congress and then declaring a state of emergency qualifies as a “forced” decision. Unstated, too, is concern for the dangerous precedent being set here. What is to stop a progressive president from doing exactly the same thing? Why shouldn’t a possible Democratic successor to Trump deem health care, education, and the state of the environment issues worthy of “emergency” funds, too?
Meadows acknowledged that getting House Democrats to support a legislative solution would be preferable. But then he told CBS News’s “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan that “until we do that, why should we allow a Democrat president in the White House to use executive orders and not do the same with a Republican president?”
This is disingenuous on two levels. First, Republicans bitterly opposed President Obama’s use of executive orders to work around Congress on health care and the Iran deal, and repeatedly won substantial majorities in both chambers. That’s exactly how our democratic process is designed to work. When the executive branch oversteps, the other branches and the people themselves act in correction.
The second problem with Meadows’ statement runs deeper: he argues that the ends justifies the means, that an agreeable outcome is worth ditching process for. But weren’t conservatives in Congress elected to stand for limited government and against executive overreach, regardless of whether these are mere “process” issues? It’s easy enough to resist executive overreach when the president is on the other team, but if you don’t apply the same to your own party, how can you say your opposition was ever principled?
Watching conservatives in Congress sell their souls on this issue is particularly disheartening because a border wall will not solve the illegal immigration problem. The vast majority of people here illegally have overstayed their visas, true now for seven consecutive years. The number of illegal border crossings have dropped; last year’s total was less than a quarter of what it was in 2000. To be sure, the U.S. immigration system is rife with problems, but these deserve a legislative fix. They do not qualify for an emergency executive one.
While Trump claims his decision to take executive action is justified because of the flow of illegal drugs across the border, the reality is that over 80 percent of the cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl are seized at ports of entry, not the border. As USA Today explains, “While those numbers deal only with drugs that are caught, border experts say the data accurately reflect the way drug cartels successfully smuggle narcotics into the country.”
Congress has for decades now surrendered its authority to declare war to the president. If it goes along with this national emergency and cedes its power of the purse, it will have finally and totally abrogated its most major powers to the executive. Trump has accomplished what John Boehner could never do. He has caused conservative legislators to betray their principles, and in so doing to become irrelevant.
It would be remiss to discuss this hypocrisy without mentioning that as director of the Office of Management and Budget, founding member of the Freedom Caucus Mick Mulvaney presided over a federal budget deficit increase of 17 percent in 2018 to $779 billion. While he once opposed budgets that broke spending caps (and called Trump’s views on immigration “simplistic”), he’s now the White House chief of staff and given to downplaying the importance of the deficit and defending the president’s border action “with or without Congress.”
On this dismal legislative landscape, there are only a few rays of hope. Seven members of Congress (just seven out of 535) declined to vote for new government spending in 2018. Among them was the libertarian lawmaker Congressman Justin Amash, who appears to be one of very few to recognize the hypocrisy of his Republican colleagues. “Can Congress make a law permitting the president to conduct the entire appropriations process by his declaring an emergency?” he asked in a recent series of tweets. “Of course not. That would impermissibly grant him legislative powers. The same principle applies when addressing a portion of the appropriations process.”
The Freedom Caucus has its origins in the heady days of the Tea Party movement. The group, which didn’t formally convene until 2015, had bucked GOP leadership during fights over Obamacare and government spending just two years earlier. As a result, members Cynthia Lummis, Steve Pearce, and Trent Franks were removed from the whip’s team. Stymied by these firebrands, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) funneled money to primary them, an unparalleled move reflecting the rift within the party. In one such 2014 contest, over $1 million was spent on a primary challenge to Amash by challenger Brian Ellis. (You might recall that was when Congressman Devin Nunes appeared in ads calling the Palestinian-American Amash “al-Qaeda‘s best friend in Congress” because he had voted against the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, among other sins.)
The chasm between the Republican establishment and House conservative members finally came to a head when Republican leadership removed Congressman Mark Meadows from his subcommittee chairmanship after he opposed a vote to give President Obama expanded “fast track” trade powers. Shortly thereafter, Meadows brought a little known procedural motion to the House floor to “vacate the chair” and remove Boehner from the speakership, setting off a series of events that led to the then-speaker’s eventual resignation.
But that was a different president and a different time. Today, the HFC has little problem with massive executive overreach. One is reminded of George Washington’s warning: that “the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally” can lead to a “formal and permanent despotism” as men “seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual.”
Barbara Boland is the former weekend editor of the Washington Examiner. Her work has been featured on Fox News, the Drudge Report, HotAir.com, RealClearDefense, RealClearPolitics, and elsewhere. She’s the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General Patton in World War II. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.