For about four decades, far-right members of Congress enjoyed a special group, intended to be separate from the GOP mainstream. It was called the Republican Study Committee, and it was home to the House's most rigid ideologues and reactionary voices.
But a problem soon emerged. As we discussed several years ago, the more radicalized House Republicans became, the more the Republican Study Committee included nearly everyone from the GOP conference. The Study Committee became fine for run-of-the-mill far-right members, but some really conservative members wanted an even more exclusive, invitation-only caucus that would exclude those who weren't quite far enough to the right.
The House Freedom Caucus was born.
For much of its existence, the Freedom Caucus was an annoyance to Republican leaders, who bristled as Freedom Caucus members rejected GOP bills they deemed insufficiently radical. For Republicans like former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), lawmakers in the Freedom Caucus deserved to be seen as pariahs.
Political conditions, however, changed quite a bit in the ensuing years. Roll Call reported this week that two of the founding members of the House Freedom Caucus "have risen the ranks to the top of two prominent panels."
On Tuesday, the House Republican Conference is expected to approve recommendations from its Steering Committee that Ohio's Jim Jordan become the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee and that North Carolina's Mark Meadows take his place as ranking member of the Oversight and Reform Committee.
If there's a GOP majority in the U.S. House anytime soon, it stands to reason that Jordan and Meadows would become chairmen of their respective powerful panels.
Stepping back, it's striking not only to see far-right members like these rise in the partisan ranks, but also how much company they have. South Carolina's Mick Mulvaney was a Freedom Caucus member, before Donald Trump put him in charge of overseeing the Office of Management and Budget, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and ultimately, the White House.
Florida's Ron DeSantis was a Freedom Caucus member, before being elected governor. Oklahoma's Jim Bridenstine was also a Freedom Caucus member, before being tapped to lead NASA.
At a certain level, none of this should come as too big of a surprise. One need not have a post-graduate degree in political science to know that far-right parties are going to be led by far-right members.
But as regular readers may recall, it's striking just how frequently we're confronted with these circumstances. Headlines about "____ has moved from the Republican fringe to the Republican mainstream," have become a staple for a reason.
Jeff Sessions was considered “a fringe figure” in GOP politics, but Donald Trump made him the attorney general. During his congressional career, Mike Pence earned a reputation as something of a lawmaker on the radical periphery, with a voting record well to the right of House members such as Michele Bachmann and Louie Gohmert, but Trump chose him to be vice president.
Some figures from Breitbart News “labored on the fringes” right up until they secured jobs in the White House. Stephen Miller “spent years on the political fringe” before he started shaping the sitting president’s agenda. Mainstream Republicans spent years keeping Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress at arms’ length, but he’s now a popular figure in the West Wing.
Trump himself was seen as a fringe political figure, best known for championing a racist conspiracy theory, right up until he was elected president.
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver published an analysis awhile back that explained, “The most conservative Republicans in the House 25 or 30 years ago would be among the most liberal members now.” In other words, if you were following national politics in the 1990s, you could’ve found plenty of members of Congress who would’ve fairly been described as very conservative – but by today’s standards, those identical individuals constitute the GOP’s “moderate” wing.
And that necessarily suggests that those who were dismissed as fringe extremists a generation ago have filled the vacuum and now represent the Republican Party’s conservative wing, which dominates the party at the national level.
Barring a dramatic electoral backlash, this won't change anytime soon.