The seminal event in the crackup of the Republican Party is not the rise of Donald Trump as their presidential nominee, contrary to popular opinion. It was the overthrow of John Boehner as Speaker of the House. That showed the power of the forty-odd members of the House Freedom Caucus, and their incompatibility with the GOP establishment and the compromises required by divided government (or for that matter, math).
The change in leadership at the top has not bridged this divide. Despite months of happy talk, the Freedom Caucus rejected Paul Ryan’s budget resolution, likely leaving the Republicans with no budget this year, after they made returning to regular order a campaign promise in 2014. The lack of a budget is just a sidelight to the continuing irreconcilable differences between conservative factions. Trump will not be able to fix this either; only a purge of one side of the party or the other would.
The Freedom Caucus essentially wants to control government from a base of 40 members of the House, with only a few allies in the Senate and no president willing to agree to their demands. They want to defund Planned Parenthood, balance the budget through massive spending cuts, dismantle government healthcare programs, and overturn every executive order of the past eight years, regardless of not having the two-thirds support in Congress that would be required currently to override Obama vetoes and make that happen.
Conservatives had to beg Ryan to take the Speaker’s job. His prescient leeriness stemmed from seeing Boehner put in the impossible spot of rounding up votes for routine government functions. And absolutely nothing changed when he received the gavel.
For months, Ryan has attempted to broker a deal on a budget resolution, which sets topline numbers for the appropriations committees to use to fund government operations. A bipartisan deal at the end of last year set those numbers in stone, at $1.07 trillion for the next fiscal year. But the Freedom Caucus wants to cut that by $30 billion, back to the level mandated by sequestration, the automatic spending cuts implemented in 2011.
Ryan and his colleagues tried to offer the Freedom Caucus incentives to come aboard. He promised $100 billion in future cuts over the next 10 years, if they’d just sign onto the topline $1.07 trillion number. He offered votes on cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program and taking away tax credits for undocumented immigrants with U.S. citizens as children. And he threatened to cancel the appropriations process without a budget resolution, meaning no opportunity for the kinds of ideological policy riders the Freedom Caucus cherishes as a way to get their priorities into law.
Nevertheless, the caucus formally announced its opposition, unable to stomach the nominal $30 billion spending increase (all of which was offset by cuts elsewhere). Members dismissed the additional votes as meaningless, because the Senate was unlikely to take them up.
Consider that Ryan is the architect of perhaps the most sweeping conservative budget in history, one that would balance the budget in a decade, mostly by pulling the safety net out from low-income Americans. In the past, he has proposed ending Medicare as we know it, cutting Social Security benefits and simultaneously cutting taxes on the wealthy, necessitating even more budget trims. And now this guy is a big-spending liberal!
Because Democrats don’t typically agree to budget resolutions from the other side, losing a 40-member bloc is enough to ensure that the Republican budget won’t have enough votes. That means it’s likely the government will be funded with a continuing resolution at current levels for the near future. And Democrats will have to supply most of the votes for it.
Democrats, indeed, have largely been in charge of budgeting for the past year because of this dysfunction. Freedom Caucus members have tried to claim that they are listening to the public will as expressed by Trump’s primary successes — “the establishment has been rejected in every one of our states,” Rep. Raul Labrador said recently — but this has been going on since before Trump ever announced his candidacy.
Indeed, this implacability is more reminiscent of how Ted Cruz has operated in the Senate, with his demands to shut down the government over Obamacare in 2013. Cruz actually sees that event as his defining moment, even though it accomplished nothing. And his acolytes in the House are following this script. We’re seeing the Cruz-ification of the Republican Party, not the Trump-ification.
It’s worth noting that senators despise Cruz for what they consider doomed, self-serving gambits. But the institutional structure of the modern GOP values such tactics over conciliation. That’s a recipe for disaster, and heralds this split within the party more than anything else.
The kicker to all this came this Tuesday, in deposed Speaker John Boehner’s backyard. His replacement in that congressional seat will be Warren Davidson, a businessman who was actively supported by the Freedom Caucus. It’s part of a strategy of theirs to win open-seat races in conservative districts across the country, slowly building their membership. “We’re doing everything we can to win,” said Freedom Caucus chair Jim Jordan. And they did.
It’s hard to see how this will stop. If Paul Ryan cannot mediate this intra-party dispute, who can? If they can’t agree on something as simple as a topline budget number, what can they agree on? And if Freedom Caucus-aligned candidates have a leg up in head-to-head races, what stops a much more deeply conservative Republican Party from growing, and a backlash — even a fissure — from its establishment wing?
Trump’s cult of personality may come and go. But the Freedom Caucus phenomenon seems much more consequential. And it’s hard to figure out how Republicans will manage the fallout.