Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Freedom Caucus Will Remain Powerful in 2019, Thanks to Trump

Because the House of Representatives operates by majority rule (unlike the Senate), the loss of the 2018 elections means that House Republicans will need to become accustomed to an immediate evaporation of their institutional power once the new session of Congress begins on January 3. As the New York Times points out today, most Republican members have never experienced life in the minority, and will need to adjust to an abrupt reduction in their procedural importance. "We have come to grips with the shock of the election," explains Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), "but the shock of [not] governing will still be a wake-up call for some people."

One might expect that the House Freedom Caucus would be especially hard-hit by the shift in party control. Though it represented no more than about 20 percent of Republican House members, the Freedom Caucus was able to exert disproportionate leverage in the past by threatening to vote against initiatives backed by the Republican leadership. When combined with the votes of minority Democrats, opposition from the Freedom Caucus would ordinarily be enough to sink legislation on the House floor, and could even be used to force out a sitting speaker. Starting in January, however, the Freedom Caucus will be a minority of a minority, without the ability to strategically harness Democratic votes to bolster its legislative influence over the Republican conference. Its former leader Jim Jordan lost his race for minority leader to Kevin McCarthy by a lopsided vote of 159 to 43, and then failed to win enough party support to become the ranking minority member on the House Judiciary Committee.

Yet the Freedom Caucus will hardly be irrelevant in 2019, because it retains a powerful ally in the White House. Trump may have campaigned as a heterodox populist, but he has mostly governed as a hard-line conservative, and his intermittently rocky relationship with the Republican congressional leadership has made him sympathetic to party insurgents who share the same set of complaints about the slow pace of conservative legislative accomplishments. Members of the Freedom Caucus have further strengthened these bonds by serving as frequent defenders of his administration on cable television and by targeting Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein—an easy way to earn the affection of the president.

The current government shutdown over Trump's border wall demands has Freedom Caucus fingerprints all over it. Jordan and Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows have encouraged Trump's instincts toward political confrontation on the issue, in contrast to Republican leadership figures who have signaled their impatience with the shutdown. Like Trump, the Freedom Caucus cares a lot about maintaining the enthusiastic support of activists and media personalities on the right, and little about expanding its appeal beyond the bounds of the Republican Party's conservative base.

One potential eventual solution to what now looks like an extended shutdown is for Congress to override a presidential veto of a resolution reopening the government. But while most congressional Republicans would prefer not to take the heat for Trump's risky shutdown strategy, it's likely that the Freedom Caucus would stay loyal to Trump and gladly pile public attacks onto fellow Republicans who considered defection. Under such circumstances, it's hard to imagine that enough Republicans would join Democrats to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority in the House. The formal institutional power of the Freedom Caucus may be waning with the end of the Republican majority, but its role as an enforcer of purity within the GOP as a whole will remain fully intact as long as the Caucus stands with Trump, and Trump with it.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Get Ready for a #Hashtag Congress

The deal announced this week between Nancy Pelosi and several holdout Democrats ensures Pelosi's return to the speakership after an eight-year hiatus, in exchange for her pledge to serve no more than two additional terms in the position. Pelosi was already the endorsed choice of the incoming House Democrats to be the next speaker; 203 of 235 caucus members had supported her to continue as party leader in secret balloting conducted in late November. But the unique constitutional requirement that the speaker be selected by a majority vote of the entire House gives even small dissenting factions within the ruling party potential leverage over the speakership, as John Boehner discovered when a few dissatisfied members of the House Freedom Caucus successfully forced him from the position three years ago.

Behind-the-scenes accounts of the internal challenge to Pelosi emphasize the problems that the Democratic rebels faced in uniting behind a common set of objectives, coordinating their tactics with each other, and finding an alternative candidate willing to stand for speaker. With the anti-Pelosi effort soon stalling in the face of these obstacles, a few announced opponents flipped back onto Pelosi's side in exchange for minor concessions, signaling to the rest of the party that this wasn't a bandwagon worth jumping on. It's trendy at the moment to credit Pelosi as an all-time master legislative tactician and vote counter, but in this particular case her powers don't seem to have been put to an especially strong test.

While the renegade faction committed its share of mistakes—the (undoubtedly Pelosi-allied) sources behind the press reports seem especially intent on portraying Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, one of the ringleaders, as an arrogant bumbler—their cause was also hurt by two major changes in the larger political environment during the two years since 63 House Democrats voted against Pelosi for leader in November 2016. The first is a sudden explosion of political engagement among Democratic activists, especially online. The second is a concurrent spike in the salience of gender issues and the descriptive representation of women in Democratic politics.

Both of these trends are best understood as responses to the ascendance of Donald Trump to the presidency rather than to any developments in Congress. But Pelosi became their beneficiary nonetheless. Over the past two years, millions of Democratic citizens have started to pay close attention to the daily news from Washington—even following events in real time on Twitter and Facebook—and demanding a greater voice for liberal women in American government and society. All of a sudden, it's a good time to be a woman seeking power in the Democratic Party. Pelosi has been the leader of the House Democrats for 15 years, but only in the last few weeks has she become a liberal icon such that her confrontation with Trump at the White House over the border wall inspired online memes and the coat she was wearing sold out of stock overnight—prompting a reissue by the manufacturer.

As Jonathan Bernstein observes, "the rebels seriously misunderstood the political situation . . . it sure seemed like there was real grassroots support for Pelosi, possibly organized by the same people who have energized the resistance and who drummed up turnout in the midterms." Pelosi supporters on social media began to use the hashtag #FiveWhiteGuys to refer to her challengers within the party, even though Kathleen Rice of New York was one of Pelosi's leading opponents and Marcia Fudge of Ohio came the closest to running against Pelosi for speaker (in today's liberal online rhetoric, the label "white guy" carries with it an implicit self-explanatory dismissiveness). But defense of the Democratic leader spread from the virtual realm into the real world as well; Moulton was confronted at a public event in his district over his role in the anti-Pelosi maneuverings, and a female state legislator began to talk about running against him for renomination in 2020.

The 62 members of the incoming Democratic freshman class also provide a clue about the prevailing sentiments among the party at the grassroots level, to which they are presumably attuned. A number of these newly-elected members distanced themselves from Pelosi during the campaign for electoral reasons, even pledging in some cases not to support her for speaker. But few of them wanted to have anything to do with the organized dump-Pelosi movement, preferring to keep any opposition as quiet as possible once the 2018 election was over; only five signed the public letter opposing Pelosi spearheaded by Moulton.

The unprecedented interest of Democratic activists in what some observers might have assumed to be an inside-Washington debate over congressional leadership succession raises the question of whether social media users and other politically passionate citizens will continue to be closely attentive to congressional affairs once Pelosi claims the speaker's gavel on January 3, and whether such attention will affect the behavior of Democratic members of Congress in consequential ways. In the past, conservative media sources like talk radio have often been credited with provoking tidal waves of phone calls or letters to Capitol Hill offices that have been successful at times in influencing the votes of their recipients. It's increasingly possible that the viral post or hashtag will become the modern liberal equivalent, threatening Democratic officeholders with the outrage of the logged-in activist community if they don't support one or another favored party leader, legislative item, or presidential impeachment article.

And, if the voluble and assertive Twitter feed of soon-to-be Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is any indication, in the next session of Congress more and more debate between members themselves will move from C-SPAN to cyberspace. After all, that's where the audience is.