The House Freedom Caucus styles itself as the principled champion of limited government and the rule of law. More often, its members are partisan gunslingers, attack dogs during President Barack Obama’s administration and lap dogs for President Donald Trump.
That’s personified by the two leaders of this right-wing contingent of about three dozen House Republicans: Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina.
If negotiations fail this week to head off a government shutdown, Jordan and Meadows will be in the spotlight. They enjoy throwing grenades. Former House Speaker John Boehner called his fellow Ohioan, Jordan, a “legislative terrorist.” They’ll brush aside the Republican congressional leadership, but Trump could call them off.
Both men have embraced Trump’s most extreme positions. They’ve demanded the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions for insufficient ardor in Trump’s defense against the Justice Department probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. “Manufactured hysteria,” they’ve called it.
The Freedom Caucus leaders are a byproduct of a divide in the American conservative movement that’s been widening for four decades. One side is embodied by Jack Kemp, who represented western New York in Congress during the 1970s and 1980s and served as U.S. housing secretary under President George H.W. Bush. His was a conservativism of openness, inclusion and the opportunity society. The other takes inspiration from former Senator Jesse Helms, a 30-year North Carolina lawmaker until 2003 whose politics relied on stoking animosities and fear. Legislatively, the two camps voted similarly. But their messages and approach to politics were radically different, with one focused on hope and the other on resentment.
Jordan and Meadows fall into the Helms camp. (Neither responded to calls or emails seeking comment for this column.)
Their influence is mostly negative. A fellow Republican congressman, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, said the Freedom Caucus leaders can effectively undercut the House leadership but “just can’t get to yes.”
They couldn’t be more different personally. Meadows, a three-term congressman from the western corner of his state, is affable and outgoing. Jordan, a former wrestling champion, is wound tight, always confrontational in shirt sleeves.
Meadows played a leading role in driving Boehner into retirement. Today, Boehner’s successor, Speaker Paul Ryan, hears Freedom Caucus footsteps.
Jordan habitually exploits the oversight and investigative powers of the House to pursue phony scandals. He’s been especially bellicose about the examination of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the case of the four Americans killed by terrorists in 2012 at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Congressional Republicans have held more hearings on Benghazi than on the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when 2,996 people died.
At an all-day hearing to badger Clinton on Oct. 22, 2015, she turned the tables. When a yelling Jordan recycled some conspiracy theory, an amused-looking Clinton shot back: “I wrote a whole chapter about this is my book, ‘Hard Choices.’ I’d be glad to send it to you, Congressman.”
He was even more intense in accusing the Internal Revenue Service of illegally targeting conservative political groups. He led an effort to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, who wasn’t even at the agency when the alleged offenses took place. If he’d succeeded, it would have been the first impeachment of an executive branch appointee since the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant.
It was all bogus. The Treasury Department’s Inspector General concluded that IRS mistakes were bureaucratic, not political; liberal groups were targeted too.
As my Bloomberg View colleague Francis Wilkinson wrote in November, Koskinen left voluntarily on Nov. 9, 2017, with his impeccable integrity intact. Jordan has lacked the grace to apologize; he even criticized the National Academy of Public Administration for honoring Koskinen’s public service.
Meadows has a history of bigoted remarks. He was an enthusiastic backer of the malevolent far-right fantasy that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. He once suggested that somebody should send the Hawaii-born Democrat “back home to Kenya.” During a hearing on the Affordable Care Act, Meadows objected to mandating maternity coverage, noting, correctly, that it wasn’t something he could utilize.
The Freedom Caucus sometimes does act on principle, opposing expanded government and big spending programs. But Jordan and Meadows both supported the Republican budget resolution that is paving the way for massive deficits.
Jordan and Meadows are the public face of the Freedom Caucus. If their aversion to compromise helps provoke a government shutdown, there’s a good chance that they’ll emerge as the face of all House Republicans.
With the GOP facing a tough struggle to retain control of the House in the November midterm elections, that would be good news for Democrats.
Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.