How the House Freedom Caucus shapeshifted into an identity crisis

Some of the people closest to the group’s complicated origin story warn that if it doesn’t return to its roots, moving away from firebrands is more likely to cause a stir than sponsor a bill, its influence risks waning just as the GOP reclaims the majority.

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The Freedom Caucus launched in 2015 with a vow to promote “open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety and prosperity of all Americans.” Members had to be willing to oppose a House rule, the most blatant form of opposing party leaders when they felt conservative principles were being ignored. But they were also expected to back leadership on stopgap spending bills to prevent government shutdowns.

The group regularly tormented former Speaker John Boehner, ultimately giving him the biggest shove into retirement — a feat the current chair considers one of its defining accomplishments. Boehner’s successor as speaker, Paul Ryan, had his own share of frustrations with the Freedom Caucus before calling it quits.

The current frontrunner for speaker in 2023, McCarthy, has taken daggers from the group himself and become more responsive to its demands as a result.

But it’s unclear what’s in store for the House minority leader from the Freedom Caucus if he lands the gavel next year. No one is sure what to expect — not even some of its own members.


Some of its old-school founding members would prefer the group pick policy battles to push the GOP further right and consider strategic alliances with party leaders who’d prefer to train their fire on Joe Biden — rather than revert to Boehner- or even Trump-era form.

“We were supposed to be thoughtful conservative renegades: cooperating with leadership when that best served conservative goals, and opposing leadership when that was necessary toward the same end,” said former Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a Freedom Caucus founding member who later served as Trump’s acting chief of staff and budget director.

“We were not designed to be just obstructionists,” added Mulvaney, now a CBS News contributor. “We were not designed to be an extreme outrage machine.”

Within the House GOP, other Freedom Caucus critics already have their minds made up about the group’s future.

“Their identity really kind of got shook up in the Trump years,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), who’s not a member, said in a recent interview. “The party is different.”

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