The Freedom Caucus and the West

The new Tea Party-friendly movement is small but already has had a big impact on Western issues.


You may have heard of the House Freedom Caucus — a group of 40 or so conservative House Republicans who helped oust Speaker John Boehner last month. You may have heard that the group is uncompromising and secretive, or that it’s “taken the (Republican) party hostage.

But what is the Freedom Caucus, exactly? Who’s in it, and what does it have in store for Western issues like immigration and energy? 

First, some backstory. This January, nine rank-and-file Republicans — average Congressmen who aren’t members of the party leadership — grew fed up with Boehner and other House leaders. In their view, the leadership was too close to the center and too willing to compromise with Democrats. Even more frustrating was that because rank-and-file Congressmen are expected to support their leadership on certain kinds of votes, they had little opportunity for recourse. 

So these nine Congressmen including Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, and Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., decided to break rank. They'd form an invitation-only caucus that would vote as a bloc: all or nothing. They would choose their battles carefully. And — this is key — because Republicans hold 247 seats in the House (246 without Boehner) and 218 aye votes are needed to pass a bill, they would make sure the caucus at least 30 members willing to defy the leadership and vote against their own party. So, for example, if a majority of House Republicans wanted to pass a federal budget that included funding for Planned Parenthood, the Freedom Caucus could (and did) threaten to block the vote, even if doing so meant shutting down the government. 

Today, the Freedom Caucus has grown to 36 known members. They include several Westerners, including Ken Buck, R-Colo., Trent Franks, R-Ariz., Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., Steve Pearce, R-NM, and David Schweikert, R-Ariz.. All are affiliated with the Tea Party. There may be several other members, like Darrell Issa, R-Calif., but they’re unconfirmed.

Arizona Republican Congressmen Matt Salmon and Paul Gosar speak in Mesa, Arizona. Both are members of the Freedom Caucus.

Though the caucus is small, it’s already demonstrated its outsized influence on Western issues like immigration policy. After forcing Boehner to resign, for example, the group blocked Boehner’s top-pick replacement, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, because McCarthy wouldn’t meet their demands. Instead, it helped elect Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as the newest Speaker of the House.

Ryan has previously pushed for sweeping immigration reform, and continues to support an approach that would give the children of undocumented workers a path to citizenship. He’d also allow undocumented workers to enter a probationary period and apply to become citizens without deportation — a move that would affect 3.7 million people living in the West and is favored by 72 percent of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Yet Ryan’s moderate views are at odds with those of Freedom Caucus hardliners who prefer to deport undocumented workers, explains Maria Echaveste, a senior fellow at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California Berkeley. Arizona Rep. Salmon, one of the Freedom Caucus’ founders, takes it even further: This summer, he introduced a bill that would mandate a minimum five-year prison term for immigrants who illegally re-enter the U.S. after being deported. 

So before the caucus would let Ryan become Speaker, its members made sure he had no intention of pushing immigration policies they disagreed with. On Oct. 22, Ryan met with the Freedom Caucus. Shortly after, he announced that he would not pursue any immigration legislation for the remainder of President Obama’s tenure, and, thereafter, would only bring up legislation that a majority of House Republicans support.

In an op-ed for USA Today, Ryan says he made the decision because Obama can’t be trusted to uphold Congressionally passed immigration laws. But earlier, he reportedly told colleagues that immigration reform is simply too divisive within his own party. And Freedom Caucus member Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) portrayed it differently still, suggesting that Ryan conceded to the Freedom Caucus on immigration policy to win the support he needed to become Speaker.

Echaveste believes the latter is more likely. “Prior to assuming speakership, Paul Ryan had been fairly thoughtful on the issue of immigration reform,” she says. “It clearly was an issue that some of the Tea Party Freedom Caucus members pushed him on.” (The offices of Gosar and Franks told High Country News that the Congressmen did not play a role in Ryan’s switch, while the offices of other border-state Congressmen either did not respond to calls or emails or refused to comment.) 

Regardless, by booting Boehner and replacing him with Ryan, the Freedom Caucus halted progress on figuring out what to do with the more than 11 million undocumented workers and their children living in the United States. While a 14-month moratorium on immigration reform may make for fewer arguments on Capitol Hill, it won’t do anything to stop migrants fleeing violence and poverty from crossing the border. 

So now that the Freedom Caucus has successfully influenced House leadership and immigration policy, what’s next? Because the caucus includes several members of the House Committee on Natural Resources — including Arizona’s Gosar, Idaho’s Labrador and Wyoming’s Lummis — energy policy may not be far behind. Lummis told E&E News that she's hopeful the group will soon take up federal mineral royalties, abandoned mine money and overseas coal sales — helping to ensure that coal stays king in Wyoming and other Western coal-producing states.

Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News. 

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