The Mysteries of the House Freedom Caucus

8 minute read

For most of the last week, nobody seemed to know whether or not Marjorie Taylor Greene was a member of the House Freedom Caucus—including Marjorie Taylor Greene.

A meeting had apparently been held; a secret vote had been taken. Yet nothing had been announced, and the controversial Georgia congresswoman insisted nothing had been conveyed to her. The long-simmering feud between Greene and a fellow Freedom Caucus stalwart, Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, had recently erupted into public name-calling, with Greene calling Boebert a “little b–ch“ on the House floor. Now it had become Schrodinger’s Catfight.

If the situation seems odd, it was par for the course for the Freedom Caucus, Congress’s most enigmatic organization. Though the rabble-rousing right-wing group has a chairman, holds meetings, issues statements, and takes positions, it has no public membership roster or bylaws, and its proceedings are seldom publicly disclosed.

“The reasons we do what we do are private, the meetings are private, the members are private,” Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, a caucus member, tells me. “Once we take a position individually or as a caucus, we’re not scared to take it, and we’re united in trying to save this country.” He declined to say how he had voted in the June 23 meeting at which Greene was apparently ousted.

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Greene, too, has sought to downplay her ejection, telling reporters she’s focused on representing her district and doesn’t “have time for the drama club.” But as Republicans continue to struggle to manage the slender House majority that represents their toehold of power in Congress, the episode was a revealing one about both Greene, who has become a key ally of Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and the anti-establishment right with which she’s diverged.

Read More: On the Campaign Trail With Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Though many associate the Freedom Caucus with the legislative paroxysms of the Tea Party era, the group was not founded until 2015, long after the 2011 debt crisis and 2013 government shutdown. The caucus made its mark shortly after its founding that October, when it was instrumental in forcing out then-Speaker John Boehner and installing Paul Ryan in his place.

Its secrecy stems from this history: not knowing precisely who was plotting against him made it harder for Boehner—and, later, Ryan—to stamp out threats. “Their organizing principle is making themselves relevant by being willing to stab leadership in the back at any moment,” says Brendan Buck, a former aide to Boehner and Ryan. “They need everyone to be with them so they can act as a group. If somebody is suspected of going and telling the Speaker whatever they’re doing, it ruins their game a bit.”

Today, about 45 Republican congressmembers are known to be members of the invitation-only caucus, but they might not be exactly who you think. Notably, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, though often associated with the caucus, is not a member, his office confirms. Nonetheless, Gaetz teamed up with many caucus members to oppose McCarthy as speaker in January and does little to beat back the perception that he is allied with the group. On Friday, Gaetz appeared at a press conference staged by the caucus, calling himself a “Freedom Caucus admirer.”

What exactly the caucus stands for can also be hard to define. At first, it focused on forcing Republican leaders to take a more aggressive approach to spending and debt. But in the Trump era, the caucus distinguished itself primarily through its unwavering support of the then-president. “When I was there it was really the Trump protection society,” says former Rep. Denver Riggleman, who was a member of the group during his one term in Congress beginning in 2019. Riggleman joined the caucus in order to convince Republican primary voters he was conservative enough for them, but soon became disenchanted with its orientation. The group’s moniker, he says, is ironic considering the conformity it requires. “They all have to vote in tandem, and if somebody goes too far out there calling people names, they kick them out,” Riggleman says. “They call it the Freedom Caucus, but it’s really the Borg.”

The Greene controversy illustrates the group’s struggle to define itself with Trump out of office. Greene quickly allied herself with the rabble-rousing caucus when she got to Washington in 2021. She, Gaetz, and Boebert were especially tight, forming the core of a “MAGA Squad” of pro-Trump ultraconservatives. But the friendship degenerated as Greene and McCarthy began to form a mutually beneficial alliance over the past year. In March 2022, Politico reported, Greene and Boebert got in a screaming match at a Freedom Caucus board meeting, with Greene indignant that Boebert had not defended her for appearing at a conference sponsored by the white nationalist Nick Fuentes. The two also reportedly differed over Greene’s opposition to funding for Ukraine.

Read More: How the ‘MAGA Squad’ Is Building Power to Control the Next Congress.

After Republicans won the House in November, McCarthy struggled to win the speakership, with Gaetz and many Freedom Caucus members withholding their votes over the course of a messy series of 15 floor votes. Emerging as a key McCarthy supporter, Greene relentlessly attacked her erstwhile allies, accusing them of putting obstruction ahead of results. On Jan. 3., the first day of the new Congress, Greene confronted Boebert in a ladies’ room in the Capitol. ”You were OK taking millions of dollars from McCarthy but you refuse to vote for him for Speaker, Lauren?” she demanded, according to the Daily Beast. “Don’t be ugly,” Boebert reportedly responded, storming out.

McCarthy, and by extension Greene, won in the end. But many caucus members felt bruised by Greene’s bullying tactics, including the way she seemed to weaponize her access to Trump. At one point, she extended her iPhone to caucus member Matt Rosendale, who waved it away; the screen, clearly visible to photographers, showed it was Trump calling. The Trump snub has reportedly become a political problem for Rosendale, who is considering a Senate run in his home state of Montana.

Read More: McCarthy Finally Elected House Speaker After Giving Away ‘Kitchen Sink.’

Greene has continued to support McCarthy as the Freedom Caucus has struggled to define its purpose with Republicans in the majority. Is it primarily to oppose McCarthy and Republican leadership, as it has historically done? Or should the group recast itself as team players while Republicans stake out their opposition to President Biden and the Democrats? The group had a meltdown last month after McCarthy successfully negotiated with Biden a deal to raise the debt ceiling, which passed with more Democratic than Republican votes and was seen by many as intolerably compromising. After the deal passed, hardliners staged a protest that consumed the House for days last month.

As all this was playing out, Boebert used a procedural move called a privileged resolution to prioritize her resolution to impeach Biden. This incensed Greene, who introduced articles of impeachment on the day Biden was inaugurated and has been patiently waiting her turn for a spotlight to press the issue. On June 21, when Boebert approached her on the floor of the House, Greene lashed out in full view of the C-SPAN cameras, within earshot of reporters and other lawmakers. She accused Boebert of copying her on impeachment, which Boebert denied. “I’ve donated to you, I’ve defended you. But you’ve been nothing but a little b–ch to me,” Greene reportedly said. “And you copied my articles of impeachment after I asked you to cosponsor them.”

That was the last straw for the rest of the Freedom Caucus. An “unscheduled meeting’ was called on June 23, congressional sources say, though the subject matter was not specified and many members did not attend. Greene insisted nothing had been communicated to her for weeks after the apparent vote to oust her. But other members suspected she was avoiding calls and texts seeking to inform her of the outcome. “I’m interested in getting accomplishments done, not doing things just to disrupt and fight leadership,” Greene told reporters on Wednesday. “And that’s a major difference.”

Both sides now appear to be trying to move on. But few expect Greene’s influence to be diminished by her ejection—if anything, the opposite seems more likely. On Friday, a group of Freedom Caucus members held a press conference to tout changes the group had secured to the annual defense-spending authorization bill, including provisions to prohibit military expenditures for abortions, transgender medical procedures, and diversity training. Greene was not among them. As the military-funding measure now makes its way through the Senate, she’ll be somewhere far more significant: McCarthy named her to be one of the House’s chief negotiators on the bill.

It was a fitting illustration of the wager Greene has made, exchanging anti-establishment clout for inside power. “She’s bigger than the entire Freedom Caucus combined when it comes to influence,” says Riggleman, the former member, “which should scare the s–t out of the American people.”

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