The House Freedom Caucus’ reputation for far-right extremism is well deserved, but its principal focus isn’t necessarily on public policy. When its members meet with prospective House Speakers, for example, they’re not looking for substantive concessions so much as they’re seeking procedural changes.
The House Freedom Caucus, in other words, is primarily concerned with process. The kind of changes these lawmakers want is not about what Congress does, but rather, how Congress does it.
And with this in mind, when Paul Ryan sat down with the caucus yesterday to discuss him possibly becoming Speaker, it matters a great deal that the Wisconsin congressman, Politico reported, “agreed with much of what they were saying.”
Restructure the powerful House Republican Steering Committee so it better represents the membership? Broadly speaking, it made sense, Ryan told the two-dozen members gathered in his Capitol office suite – and it could happen quite quickly. He never loved the makeup of the panel, anyway.Ryan, who has headed two committees, also liked their idea of empowering chairmen. He said he would not advance contentious bills without support from a majority of the majority of the House Republican Conference – adhering to the much-talked-about Hastert rule. Ryan said he wouldn’t pursue immigration reform while President Barack Obama is in office, and vowed that any immigration-related legislation would have to adhere to the Hastert rule.
By all appearances, this was an informal discussion, not a detailed negotiation culminating in a binding agreement.
But if Ryan was sincere about going along with the kind of procedural changes Freedom Caucus members want, the result will inevitably be an even more chaotic and less productive Congress.
Consider the “Hastert Rule,” for example. For those who’ve forgotten, under the Hastert Rule – which isn’t an actual, formal rule – a Republican Speaker of the House is only supposed to bring bills to the floor that most of his own caucus supports (measures that enjoy a “majority of the majority”). The idea is, Republicans shouldn’t even consider bills if they’re dependent on Democratic votes to pass – the real power belongs in the hands of the House GOP’s far-right rank and file.
In practice, however, that’s a recipe for disaster. If Boehner stuck to this so-called “rule,” Congress wouldn’t have been able to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, because most House Republicans opposed it. Congress also wouldn’t have been able to pass emergency relief for Hurricane Sandy victims, since a majority of House Republicans opposed that, too.
And more to the point, Boehner has ignored the Hastert Rule to raise the debt ceiling and prevent an economic disaster, and he’s used it – as recently as three weeks ago – to avoid a government shutdown.
Ryan is now signaling to his right-wing allies that the Hastert Rule will be honored to make them happy – which necessarily increases the odds of a GOP-imposed disaster.
What’s more, this goes far beyond just one made-up rule. The Freedom Caucus wants to empower committee chairs over GOP leaders, weaken the Speaker’s ability to enforce party discipline, and allow rank-and-file members to slow down any legislative debate with their floor amendments.
Or put another way, Freedom Caucus members want “reforms” that put more power in their hands and less power in their leaders’ hands.
And as the Washington Post reported two weeks ago, “The problem with that, other Republicans say, is that those demands would make the House even more ungovernable than it already is.”
I suspect Paul Ryan knows that, which makes his assurances to the Freedom Caucus yesterday all the more important (and terrifying).