Future of once-powerful congressional group in question as “Trump whisperer” takes his leave
WASHINGTON – Once called the “most powerful man in the House,” North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows is stepping down from his perch atop the conservative U.S. House Freedom Caucus after nearly three years as its chairman.
The move comes as the once-powerful Freedom Caucus has been forced to change its tactics on Capitol Hill. Republicans lost the House majority this year and no longer set the agenda in the lower chamber of Congress. The caucus that spent years pushing GOP leadership to the right is now fighting the Democratic majority and gearing up for 2020.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a veteran Democrat from Washington, D.C., said the group’s power has “diminished markedly.” Now it’s “just another caucus cryin’ in the wind.”
Meadows and his allies however, say the North Carolina Republican and the band of archconservative lawmakers will remain important players in Congress, even though he is no longer their leader and they are now in the minority party.
Asked this week if the group of Republican hardliners is still relevant in a House controlled by Democrats, Meadows said with a smile: “Oh, more relevant than you might imagine.”
A four-term lawmaker from the 11th District in the western tip of the state, Meadows – aka the “Trump Whisperer” – is known for his close ties to the president.
That relationship – along with support from some 40 members of the contumacious caucus – helped him push the GOP further to the right in recent years.
Patrick Sebastian, a GOP operative with Majority Strategies, said the caucus still has “quite a bit of influence in the Republican conference” even though its members are no longer in the majority party. Caucus members, he said, have the ear of the president and continue to spread their message on cable news programs.
The Freedom Caucus came together in 2015 and kept its membership secret out of fear of retaliation from party leaders, according to Matthew Green, a political science professor at Catholic University of America and author of a book about the caucus.
The group has no official website and does not publicize its membership, though it has a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a new podcast.
In 2015, Meadows launched a bid to unseat then-Speaker John Boehner. The following year, Meadows was elected to chair the caucus, a position he leveraged to push for a repeal the Affordable Care Act and to enact tax reform, according to GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the group’s first chairman.
But Meadows’ influence goes beyond legislation, Green said.
He expanded the caucus’ network of connections, especially within the Trump White House, and softened the caucus’ confrontational edge, which paved the way for deals with more moderate Republicans, Green said. When negotiating legislation to repeal the ACA, for example, he worked closely with ex-Rep. Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, former chair of a group of moderate Republicans known as the Tuesday Group.
Caucus members praised his legacy in interviews on Capitol Hill this week.
“Mark has done just an outstanding job leading the Freedom Caucus,” Jordan told Policy Watch. “He’s just a tireless worker and a great leader.”
Republican Paul Gosar, a caucus member from Arizona, told Policy Watch that Meadows brought integrity back to Congress. “I think he’s been a stalwart person for freedom and looking out for the rule of law.”
But Green said Meadows’ legacy is mixed, in part because he was seen as sometimes sacrificing conservative principles on the altar of partisan politics.
The caucus muddled its message earlier this year when it scolded Michigan iconoclast Justin Amash for tweeting that Trump committed impeachable offenses – sending the message that loyalty to the president trumps ideology, Green said. “That’s a problem for a group that developed a reputation as being ideological, first and foremost.”
Amash, who helped found the group in 2015, quit the caucus in June and left the GOP in July.
The caucus’ silence on other issues – such as executive power, freedom of the press and individual liberty – also tarnished its reputation, Green said. “If the president says, ‘I don’t like the press and we should lock up reporters,’ it was hard to find the Freedom Caucus coming out against that – even though [freedom] is a central value to the caucus.”
Meadows, who will step down from the post on Oct. 1 but will reportedly remain on the group’s board, will be succeeded by Rep. Andy Biggs, an Arizona Republican.
Caucus members expect the two-term lawmaker to continue the group’s legacy.
“He’s going to do a great job and continue promoting fiscal responsibility and conservatism,” said GOP Rep. Debbie Lesko, also of Arizona.
Biggs laid out his agenda in a recent op-ed, pledging to “help beat back the Democrats’ efforts to overturn the 2016 election and to institute radical socialized policies across the nation.”
He also wants to focus on spending – an issue about which he has “great concerns.”
In the short term, this means keeping “poison pills” out of a continuing resolution that would keep the government running. He warned against provisions that would use federal dollars to pay for abortion or that would prevent the use of funds to build a fence at the southern border.
In the longer term, he wants to improve transparency in the budget process by merging the Appropriations and Budget Committees, the two panels with jurisdiction over federal spending. “Systemically, we’ve got a problem,” he said in a recent TV interview. “The process is broken.”
The caucus is also laying the groundwork for the 2020 elections, Biggs told Policy Watch, noting that members are engaged in recruiting and supporting conservative candidates. The caucus is affiliated with the House Freedom Fund, a political action committee that backs candidates who support “open, limited, and accountable government.”
“We’re going to continue to be the conscience of conservatives,” he said.
Allison Stevens is a reporter for the States Newsroom Network of which NC Policy Watch is a member.