President Donald Trump took aim at the Freedom Caucus last month after they helped torpedo his ObamaCare replacement bill, claiming they will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they dont get on the team and fast.
But, as Freedom Caucus member Rep. Ken Buckexplains in his new book, Drain the Swamp (Regnery), out Tuesday, the group was founded to give conservative values more leverage in Congress. Here, in an excerpt, Buck explains the groups origins and defends its tactics amidst the GOP backlash.
I was elected to the House of Representatives in January 2015, and shortly after arriving in Washington, the newest GOP members elected me to serve as president of the freshman c lass, which made me their representative to the GOP leadership. At the same time, a group of Republican congressional conservatives set up the Freedom Caucus, and I was among them.
Unlike the Republican Study Committee, which had started as a conservative caucus but was open to all and therefore had been subverted by the Republican leadership (which had encouraged moderates to join), the Freedom Caucus was to be a closed, invitation-only caucus. Republican leadership needed 218 votes to get anything done, half of the House plus one. The aim of our new Freedom Caucus was to get leverage for common-sense solutions and conservative principles. We soon had about 37 members, which was enough to deny then-Speaker John Boehner a majority if everyone voted together. This gave conservatives leverage because Democrats almost always vote as a bloc against anything Republicans want.
The first big test of the Freedom Caucus arrived when Speaker Boehner tried to force us to agree to give President Obama more power (or what had been known as trade promotion authority) to negotiate trade deals with foreign countries. We didnt think that was a good idea.
Now trade promotion authority itself is not a bad thing. Beginning in 1974, Congress had granted special authority to the president to facilitate trade deals in the best interest of America and agreed to expedite the approval of those deals. The idea was to give trading partners reassurance that Congress, and special interests represented in Congress, would not amend trade agreements negotiated by the executive branch. Congress can give guidelines on the front end, but only a yes or no vote on the final agreement.
This fast-track authority was allowed to expire in 2007 when Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate and George W. Bush was the president. Subsequently, the Obama administration began negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement assuming that the executives trade promotion authority would eventually be reinstated. In April 2015, several senators introduced a bill to reinstate and expand that authority. The Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 cleared the Senate in May and arrived in the House to mixed reviews.
I had many concerns, frankly, about granting the president more authority to negotiate anything. President Obama had just negotiated with the worlds largest sponsor of terrorism Iran. He had agreed to give $150 billion to the country responsible for the improvised explosive devices maiming and killing thousands of American soldiers in Iraq. His secret nuclear agreement with Iran had side deals he failed to reveal to Congress; and the agreement itself though a treaty in all but name was not deemed a treaty so that Obama could avoid objections from Congress and the constitutional stipulation that treaties be ratified by the Senate.
Of course, as freshmen, we had all been told that we should never vote against our party on procedural motions.
I was not alone in my concern. Many of us did not believe President Obama had proven himself to be trustworthy. As this trade promotion authority bill came before the House, we balked at giving President Obama or any future president broader powers to make even worse deals. At least 33 other Republicans agreed with me.
What came next was a procedural issue. We vote on rules that allow a bill to come to the floor of the House. The majority party controls the process, if all members vote on party lines. Of course, as freshmen, we had all been told that we should never vote against our party on procedural motions.
Obama had insisted that he would only accept a Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill that included an increase in funding of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, which is usually described as a training program for American workers adversely affected by trade agreements. Really it is a payoff to labor unions. Many Republicans considered the TAA to be nothing more than another opportunity to spend more money.
This particular rule was split into three smaller bills:
1)A TAA bill with Medicare spending cuts;
2)A TAA bill without any Medicare cuts;
3)The TPA legislation itself.
Emma Dumain at Roll Call summed up the purpose of the complex rule: The rule would state that, once passed, the Medicare offset provision also would be considered passed, canceling out the need to hold an actual vote on the Medicare language. In other words, once the rule was passed, the first vote to fund TAA with Medicare spending cuts would be considered passed without members actually voting on it. In this way, no one had to go on record as cutting funding for the elderly even though the reality was that nothing would actually be cut because Congress has ways of shifting money around to cover itself from criticism.
This wasnt simply a procedural motion. Legislative action was inserted into the rule and we were required to vote for a rule that would expand an out-of-control presidents authority and increase funding of the TAA.
I discussed this vote with Republican Congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina and we both refused to go along with the madness. The whole purpose of this vote was to play the bipartisan game of increasing spending and federal power while giving members plausible deniability by disguising what we were actually voting on.
Thirty-four Republicans, mostly Freedom Caucus members, said no. If we stuck together, we had enough votes to bring the GOP total under the 218-vote majority needed to pass the rule.
As the time came to cast our votes, the party whips, members whose job it is to turn out votes, scurried to get the majority they needed. Speaker Boehner realized the vote could be close, and the usual bullying tactics werent working, at least not yet.
Pete Sessions of Texas, chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, and someone I considered a friend, tried to talk me out of opposing the party leadership. Pete was one of the architects of the Republican majority in 2010 and often referred to me as his little brother.
While Pete voted with Boehner to keep his chairmanship on Rules, he treated conservatives fairly and found ways to achieve harmony within the Republican conference.
When Pete came up to me and asked me to vote for the TPA rule, I paused out of respect for him. Finally, I looked at him and said I just couldnt do it. He told me I should always vote my conscience. I appreciated knowing there were still some good people in Congress.
The next person who tried to whip my vote wasnt nearly as pleasant. Boehner himself came striding up the center aisle towards me, grimacing and clearly unhappy with how the vote was going.
Buck! Put your card in and vote yes!
Sorry, sir, Im going to vote against this one.
Im going to vote against this one, I repeated, and reached for my voting card. Boehner stormed off, looking for someone elses vote to change.
As the votes were being cast, it looked pretty certain that we had enough Republicans to block Boehner. But Boehner and Republican leadership did something unprecedented: They started whipping Democrats to vote for the bill, because they knew that many Democrats wanted to pass the TPA and TAA but needed political cover.
The rule passed by a vote of 217 to 212. It was a bipartisan victory to spend billions of dollars while dodging responsibility for that decision.
We all knew there would be consequences for our decision to stand on principle, but the level of vindictive retaliation still surprised me. Three members of the Republican Whip team, who voted against their party, were removed from their positions Trent Franks of Arizona, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, and Steve Pearce of New Mexico.
Lummis knew what was coming and left the whip team voluntarily. Boehner, she told me, clearly couldnt give a rip about Wyoming and its member of Congress, and had no sympathy for a conservative whip that thought members should vote their conscience. But her resignation wasnt good enough for Boehner. The leadership announced that she had been fired, along with Franks and Pearce.
At the next meeting of all House Republicans, Speaker Boehner called members out publicly in front of their peers to berate and humiliate them. Our committee chairs met with us individually, telling us we would lose our committee assignments if we voted against another rule, and that the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) the recipient of millions in members committee dues would never help us again.
Candidly, that second threat was worthless to members of the Freedom Caucus because the NRCC didnt help any of us anyway. You have to be almost 100 percent loyal to Republican leadership and in a competitive seat to receive any financial help from the NRCC. Freedom Caucus members contributed a lot of money to the NRCC, but we received no financial help in return. So losing NRCC support was a symbolic punishment, but losing committee assignments was a real threat.
Congressman Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, for one, was defeated in his 2016 primary in no small part because Boehner ousted him from his seat on the House Agricultural Committee and supported his primary opponent.
Within days of his vote against the rule, Congressman Meadows got a visit from House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah.
Meadows served as Government Operations subcommittee chairman and had been an exemplary chairman to that point, fully engaged with one of the best attendance records on the committee. Chaffetz had two issues with Meadows: voting against the rule and not paying his dues to the NRCC.
Chaffetz told Meadows he had to be a team player. He told him he had to give money across the street, meaning to the NRCC. The fact was that Meadows had a $21,000 check ready to give but had paused when leadership began to run attack ads against his fellow Republicans. He wanted assurances that his own party wouldnt run attack ads against him hardly an unreasonable request. When Chaffetz told him the speaker didnt have any control over the ads, Meadows told him that was nonsense. It was very clear where the message was coming from.
Chaffetz told Meadows he couldnt have him voting against the rule and not giving to the NRCC. So he took Marks chairmanship away.
But this time, the blowback from angry members of Congress and outraged citizens forced leadership to walk that back, and Chaffetz reinstated Meadows.
Then, Nevada Congressman Cresent Hardy, a fellow freshman, asked if he could talk with me. We walked together from the Capitol to the Cannon Building, where we both had offices on the fourth floor.
Ken, he spoke somewhat hesitantly as we approached my office, theres been a group of us whove met and were going to ask for your resignation as class president. We just dont think youre doing a good job.
I tried not to laugh. After all, there was no job description for class president in the House. The position was what anyone chose to make of it. I had been waiting to see what form the consequences of my vote would take, and now I knew. This was about payback for voting against the rule, pure and simple.
OK, you asked, I said with a shrug, and Im not going to resign.
Well, in that case, were going to have a special meeting to recall you, he replied, then paused before adding, and Im thinking of running for the position. I smiled as more of the plan came to light.
OK, if youve got the votes, I responded with a quick nod, then I guess you can do it. He kept talking, seemingly gaining confidence with each revelation.
They knew they didnt have the votes to do anything, so the meeting ended with no change in leadership.
Weve gone to the House parliamentarian and asked him what the procedure is to recall an officer in the class, Hardy said, and weve got the procedure down.
OK. There wasnt much more to say. We parted ways.
An e-mail went out to all the Republican freshman members except to me and the freshmen most supportive of me to inform them of an important meeting to discuss the performance of the class president. The meeting was scheduled by Congresswomen Mimi Walters of California and Elise Stefanik of New York. The morning before the meeting, I called a friend who worked with a conservative activist group. He got the word out. Radio shows, blogs and social media lit up about the move to oust me.
The House leadership was inundated with angry callers, and the leadership must have known that some members were stepping up to defend me as well.
Still, on Thursday morning, we had the freshman meeting, and I wasnt in control of it Walters and Stefanik were. Instead of removing me as they had originally planned, they gave each freshman member a chance to critique my performance.
They knew they didnt have the votes to do anything, so the meeting ended with no change in leadership.
During the meeting we agreed not to speak with the press about what transpired; I abided by that, but I noticed others didnt.
Still, the Beltway bullies had suffered at least a temporary defeat because the American people had spoken.
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