On shaky ground with conservatives, House Speaker John Boehner decided last month to leave Congress rather than have his support tested in a battle for the chamber’s gavel. Boehner’s Number 2, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, failed to secure enough votes from the House Republican Conference to succeed him as planned..
What Washington saw in the past month — the toppling of a speaker of the House and the rejection of the “next-in-line” — was unprecedented, and the disruptive efforts of the House Freedom Caucus made it happen. But these were not the first shots in the fight to hold Republican leaders accountable after they lost their way.
In June 2014, then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost the Republican primary to a little-known economics professor by the name of Dave Brat. Cantor outspent Brat $5.5 million to $200,000, and the Washington political establishment thought that he was well on his way to an easy primary win. But Cantor had become arrogant and disconnected from his constituents. Ultimately, that proved to be his fatal flaw.
Brat is now a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about 40 members who are dedicated to limited government, fiscal restraint and personal freedom. A decade ago, a pro-freedom conservative would have been lucky to find a handful of likeminded members on the Hill, which, at the time, included Ron Paul, John Shadegg and Jeb Hensarling.
Although the ranks of the principled conservatives have grown, the ascent of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan to speaker shows that more conservative reinforcements are needed in Washington.
The frustration from grass-roots conservatives — in the form of a strong resistance to Ryan’s rise to speaker — is understandable. After all, there are several blemishes on his fiscal record, including his votes for Medicare expansion, No Child Left Behind, the Wall Street bailout and the budget he helped craft that blew through spending caps established in the Budget Control Act.
Adding to this is that the grass roots see a Republican leadership that often negotiates with itself and is too quick cave to the president’s demands once a perceived crisis reaches a boiling point. This is governing by crisis. Because of his record, many suspect that Ryan won’t be any different from Boehner.
Unfortunately, some pundits have directed their frustration with Ryan and House leadership at the House Freedom Caucus, the very group of conservatives who took out a speaker and stopped his chief lieutenant from succeeding him.
What has been lost in the fray is that this particular fight, however, was about the process, not about personalities. The main goals of the House Freedom Caucus in this particular fight were a return to regular order, the decentralization of power and an end to governing by crisis.
Based on public statements from these conservative members, it appears that they were successful in getting these concessions from Ryan, as well as ensuring that the sword of Damocles — the motion to vacate the chair — remains intact.
Now that Ryan has won the speakership, conservatives must remember what Ronald Reagan said about negotiating with the Soviets; namely, trust but verify. The situation may not be ideal, but the main tool to disrupt the status quo and hold Ryan accountable should he go back on his word is still very much alive.
What we need to keep in mind is that there are many other battles looming. If the Washington establishment has its way, the ranks of conservatives will decline next year. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce — one of the most vocal apologists for corporate cronyism in Washington — has pledged to spend $100 million in the 2016 elections, which it will undoubtedly use on potentially vulnerable House conservatives in Republican primaries.
Defending the members of the House Freedom Caucus is not only a worthwhile effort, but it is absolutely vital that we work hard to elect more principled conservatives to its ranks. This group is the only real ally the grass roots has in the lower chamber in the fight for limited government and fiscal sanity.
Adam Brandon is the President and CEO of FreedomWorks.