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The Freedom Caucus' shutdown threat recalls tactics of past House rebels

Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., speaks at a news conference with members of the House Freedom Caucus outside the U.S. Capitol on July 25.
Anna Moneymaker
Getty Images
Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., speaks at a news conference with members of the House Freedom Caucus outside the U.S. Capitol on July 25.

While much of the nation tries to enjoy the last days of summer vacation, and Congress is taking its annual August recess, some members are already hard at work. They may not be physically present in the Capitol, or even in Washington, but their minds are on the mission they will undertake right after Labor Day.

Their goals are ambitious. So they want to make sure they have maximum leverage over the process when Congress makes its big budget and spending decisions at the end of the federal fiscal year.

And they are making no secret of how far they are willing to go. They see this next month as their window of opportunity to alter the policies and priorities of the federal establishment.

From their perspective, they have yet to deliver on the promises they made to the people who voted for them in 2022. They are especially focused on those who voted for them in the primaries first and then again in November, when their party won a narrow majority of the seats in the House (while falling short of control in the Senate).

Those all-important primaries were Republican primaries, of course, because we are talking here about members of the House Freedom Caucus – a group of hardcore conservatives within the chamber's majority. Members of the caucus led the resistance to the election of Speaker Kevin McCarthy in January, which took 15 ballots to accomplish.

They have furiously protested the debt ceiling deal that kept the U.S. from defaulting on debt back in May. McCarthy had reached that deal with President Biden, and it passed the House with the votes of most members of both parties — but not those of the House Freedom Caucus.

Caucus members were frustrated that the committee placements and rules changes they negotiated back in January when McCarthy became speaker did not seem to restrain him when it came to the debt-limit deal.

Now, caucus members want to declare a new day for the 118th Congress. They think they can force McCarthy to toe their line, because if he does not he will be subject to an effort to replace him. And they want September to be the month they shift the focus of Congress to their own aggressive agenda of opposing, investigating and even impeaching President Biden or members of his administration.

Starting with the stopgap

As a starting point, they are refusing to vote for a stopgap bill to keep the federal government operating past Sept. 30.

The stopgap, known as a continuing resolution, is a common fallback when the fiscal year ends and Congress has not finished all 12 of the regular spending bills that must pass both chambers. Without it, parts of the federal government shut down. At a July news conference, Rep. Bob Good of Virginia said McCarthy should seize the moment.

"We should not fear a government shutdown," Good said on the steps of the Capitol. "Most of the American people won't even miss it if the government is shut down temporarily."

Good, who opposed McCarthy's election as speaker, saw the choice in monumental terms for McCarthy and the country:

This month, the caucus members have been rallying around one of their own, third-term Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, who on Aug. 16 told a radio host in his home state he would "use every tool I have at my disposal to stop [McCarthy's temporary spending measure] and frankly to fight any efforts to continue to fund this government without radical reform for border security, at the Department of Justice and at the Department of Defense, at a minimum."

Roy and other members of the caucus have objected to Justice's prosecution of two criminal cases against former President Donald Trump and to the Pentagon's adoption of diversity programs and sensitivity training for military personnel.

But Roy, whose district lies south of Austin in rural Texas, also made clear his central objection is to the performance of Biden's Department of Homeland Security. He has called on Republicans to "put our entire careers" on the line to "stop funding that smirking son of a b**** Alejandro Mayorkas," referring to the current secretary of Homeland Security, with whom Roy has clashed in congressional oversight hearings.

Anyone who watched the 15 ballots it took to elect McCarthy speaker can visualize Roy, a towering presence in those long debates in the wee hours. But what is happening now is more than just rhetoric or intraparty intrigue. Government shutdowns have real effects on public employees and the public interest. The 2019 shutdown triggered by then-President Trump's demands for more border wall funding lasted five weeks.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (right) talks to fellow Republicans then-Rep.-elect Chip Roy of Texas (center) and Rep.-elect Jim Jordan of Ohio in the House Chamber during the second day of elections for speaker of the House on Jan. 4.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images
Getty Images
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (right) talks to fellow Republicans then-Rep.-elect Chip Roy of Texas (center) and Rep.-elect Jim Jordan of Ohio in the House Chamber during the second day of elections for speaker of the House on Jan. 4.

Government shutdowns have never been popular with the public, at least in terms of opinion polling. But they are perfectly acceptable to the kind of partisans who often vote in GOP primaries.

So the prospect of a shutdown this fall is being taken seriously by serious people who know the system and its vulnerabilities. This week a former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, told CQ Roll Call that "the odds are increasing every day that there will be a shutdown."

Cantor should know. Before he became an investment banker, he was in the House leadership with former Speaker John Boehner, who struggled with "Tea Party" hardliners in the fall of 2013. In that case, the sticking point was funding for Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act).

The blockade led to a shutdown of 16 days, one of the longest ever at that time. Negotiating an end to it was complicated by the involvement of first-term GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who personally rallied House members against him. Roy served as chief of staff to Cruz before getting elected to the House.

Boehner has since referred to Cruz as "the devil in the flesh." In the fall of 2015, once again clashing over the budget, Boehner threw in the towel. He resigned as speaker in mid-session, an ignominious end to a career that had brought him the Big Gavel when the GOP captured 63 previously Democratic seats in the 2010 midterms (the ones Obama called "a shellacking").

Boehner was replaced by Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, who had been chairman of Ways and Means and the GOP's 2012 nominee for vice president. But Ryan too struggled to deal with the Freedom Caucus. Like Boehner, Ryan simply lacked the votes to prevail on the House floor without the caucus' support. Ryan retired voluntarily in 2019 after three years and three months as speaker.

Lacking members with the longer memories

More than two-thirds of the House Freedom Caucus today arrived in the House after the Obama presidency. But for those with longer memories of the partisan wars on Capitol Hill, the words "shutdown" and "impeachment" are closely associated with the last two GOP regimes that controlled the House.

Those Republican majorities, first elected in 1994 and 2010, are now remembered largely for their shutdowns (2005 and 2006 and 2013) and for impeaching Bill Clinton in 1998.

It must be noted that use of a government shutdown to pressure a Democratic president was a new tactic. Congress had always had the "power of the purse," as the Constitution requires legislation to move money out of the Treasury. But the world wars and Depression of the first half of the 1900s built a presumption that Congress would work with whoever was in the White House to maintain continuity of government. And presidents in both parties found ways to work with Capitol Hill, even when one or both chambers were controlled by the other party.

Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks to the press on Capitol Hill in March 1995 about the upcoming vote in the Senate on the Balanced Budget Amendment.
Renaud Giroux / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks to the press on Capitol Hill in March 1995 about the upcoming vote in the Senate on the Balanced Budget Amendment.

That came to an end with the election of 1994, a blowout win for Republicans that gave them control of the House for the first time in 40 years. It also changed the mood of Washington after two years of full Democratic control under first-term Democratic President Bill Clinton.

That win was engineered in the House by the party's No. 2 man, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who would be elected speaker in January 1995 and last almost four years in the job. Gingrich's unified approach to the fall campaign got GOP incumbents and challengers nationwide to sign a pledge ("The Contract with America") to prioritize and vote on 10 specific issues. That amplified the party message and elevated its primary messenger.

The heady GOP expectations of that moment did not come to fruition in the short term. One reason was that the Gingrich team's first two years were marked by two government shutdowns and other dramatic confrontations that failed to derail Clinton's re-election in 1996.

Once in office, Gingrich made it clear he would use tools no speaker had used before. He was the first speaker to make a cudgel of the debt limit — which must be raised periodically so the Treasury can issue new debt while paying off bonds and other U.S. obligations that come due. Gingrich wanted concessions in exchange for raising the debt limit, and the showdown threatened default and chaos in financial markets

Gingrich left the speakership late in 1998 after his party lost seats in that fall's midterms amid the controversy surrounding its effort to impeach Clinton.

In 2006, the GOP lost control of both chambers. But when Republicans stormed back into the House majority on the energy of the Tea Party in 2010, it was at first even more confident than the Gingrich crew. They believed the answer to resistance was to plow ahead and reject calls to slow down or compromise the big goals — such as balancing the federal budget.

And that is the vision that the House Freedom Caucus of today wants to recapture, starting in September.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.