What does the Freedom Caucus want, and can they get it?
Lauren Boebert speaks at a podium labeled 'House Freedom Caucus'. Behind this photo are images of ice sheets breaking in the arctic, Plan B in a vending machine, and a soldier waving a Ukrainian flag while standing on a tank.

Bree Linville; Saul Loeb/ Pool/ Alexey Furman/ Joseph Prezioso/ Getty Images

360°

The Freedom Caucus wish list: From healthcare to the war in Ukraine, can they get what they want?

The group’s agenda isn’t always in line with Congress’ mainstream Republicans.

Contributors

What are 360s? Grid’s answer to stories that deserve a fuller view.

Overview

LENSES

Members of the Freedom Caucus — the far-right House Republicans setting themselves up as a de facto third party — won’t get what they want from this Congress; there just aren’t enough of them. But the policy debates and political messaging they are a part of are key parts of the historical record to understand before the 2024 election season begins in earnest — as well as the coming debates over government spending.

Some members of the Freedom Caucus saw their first act in the current Congress as extracting concessions from Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in return for votes to confirm him as speaker. But even if they have power to obstruct Congress, the approximately three dozen members don’t have enough votes alone to enact their own legislative priorities. Still, they remain influential, and McCarthy has embraced some of its most polarizing figures, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.

And in the past, the ideas from what’s seen as the fringiest parts of the conservative movement — formerly the Tea Party members — have come to define the Republican Party as a whole.

The current class of House Republicans may be laying a foundation for 2024, when Democrats face a treacherous Senate map and President Joe Biden faces reelection, and for policymaking in 2025.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Freedom Caucus has, at times, put itself forth as a distinct part not just of Congress but of the Republican Party. They have specific policy priorities that are distinct from the broader Republican Party. Members of the caucus have already signaled they are willing to use their power as a large caucus within a narrow majority to get what they want. Based on a close reading of public statements and policy positions, this is what the Freedom Caucus wants.


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Health Lens

At the far right of the GOP agenda on abortion and pandemic response

The Freedom Caucus was founded in 2015 at the height of Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and its members have often staked out far-right positions on healthcare, including abortion and pandemic response. Hostility to Obamacare was so severe among the group’s members in 2017 that then-President Donald Trump denounced the caucus for not accepting a repeal bill put forward by House Republicans to replace the Affordable Care Act because they felt it did not go far enough.

While Obamacare no longer seems to preoccupy Republicans, the Freedom Caucus’ positions on health spending have essentially become mainstream views in the party. Proposals to restructure Medicaid — an avenue of Obamacare’s expansion — along with Social Security and Medicare are now floating in the House, a JAMA Forum report noted in December. Those look unlikely to get much traction in the Democratic-led Senate, but may figure into Republican demands in a faceoff over the U.S. debt limit that now looks inevitable this summer.

Abortion is the biggest health issue ahead for the Freedom Caucus, with anti-abortion politics looking like less of an election winner for the Republican Party. Members, including chair Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, sponsored a House bill last year that would have outlawed abortion nationwide six weeks after conception, and a caucus member was the lead sponsor of a nationwide abortion ban from the moment of conception.

However, with the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision removing abortion rights playing a starring role in Republican losses at the polls in November, the party may look to pull back. In the first weeks of the new Republican House, the party passed two abortion bills — but neither was a ban. One condemned violence at anti-abortion pregnancy sites and the other aimed at late-term abortions.

Also on deck are hearings on the pandemic, with Freedom Caucus members notably hostile to vaccination and other public health measures enacted during the crisis (with the former responsible for saving an estimated 3.2 million U.S. lives, and counting). At the right-wing Heritage Foundation in December, Freedom Caucus members hosted public health critics such as Trump covid adviser Scott Atlas — who had favored widespread infections as a response to the virus — on a panel. There, caucus member Rep. Chip Roy of Texas said, “While some are suggesting a so-called covid amnesty, we are instead asking for accountability for the lies and the injustice,” in remarks critical of masks, school closings, and vaccination requirements for healthcare workers and soldiers. Counties that voted for Trump have experienced much higher death rates during the pandemic, with vaccine misinformation a large factor, according to Kaiser Health Foundation polling.

More pandemic hearings are expected from deputy caucus chair Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who said he will investigate the National Institutes of Health’s funding of coronavirus-surveillance efforts in China, which Republicans have sought to link to the origin of the novel coronavirus. These charges have figured in the demonization of now-retired National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases chief Anthony Fauci, who has said he is happy to testify again on the topic.

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Ukraine Lens

Stop Vladimir Putin — but don’t use U.S. funds to do it

The Freedom Caucus has no formal position on Ukraine, but it’s not hard to divine where its members stand, thanks to a steady stream of comments since the war began. The caucus arguments, in a nutshell: less U.S. money (some say no money at all) for the Ukrainian resistance, more accountability for any U.S. funds that are pledged and more work to pursue a negotiated settlement.

Perry, the Freedom Caucus chair, laid down a marker for the group’s approach in the early days of the war, in a piece under the heading: “More Needed from POTUS to Thwart Red Menace.”

Perry took some shots at the Biden administration (among other things, suggesting U.S. weakness had encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion), but much of what he wrote sounded like White House talking points: He called Putin “a thug, a murderer, and a tyrant,” argued that Ukraine “has the right to defend itself” and said “harsh words … and half-measures” wouldn’t be enough to reverse Putin’s aggression.

Biden and his NATO allies wouldn’t have argued with any of that.

But Perry’s overall prescription was limited to measures that would be cost-free for Washington. He said the U.S. should sell weapons to the Ukrainians rather than gift them, impose heavier sanctions against Russia and urge Germany to pressure Putin — and that these actions could persuade Putin to negotiate. And while Perry argued the U.S. had to “present clear, consistent, and convincing consequences to bullies,” he added this phrase: “without committing American lives or bankrupting our Treasury to do it.”

This has been the mantra of the Freedom Caucus when it comes to Ukraine: Press both sides for a deal, and — most importantly — stop writing checks and sending weapons. It’s an approach that follows in the footsteps of Trump, who often derided U.S. allies for not doing more to pay for their own defense.

Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) tweeted in September that Biden “needs to understand that we are the USA not the US-ATM.” Greene tweeted a month later that the only U.S. involvement should be “engagement to get Russia & Ukraine to the negotiating table” and that “I have voted NO to every ounce” of U.S. aid to Ukraine.

A slowing of U.S. aid for Ukraine could have devastating effects for the resistance. U.S. deliveries of aid and weaponry have consistently helped tip the battlefield balance, and American generosity has helped pressure other nations to make shipments of their own. Dialing back could turn the tide of the war in the Russians’ favor.

But Perry and his caucus face two fundamental problems when it comes to influencing U.S. policy on the war.

First, Perry’s own prescriptions in that “Red Menace” editorial haven’t aged well. The idea that the Ukrainians could have afforded to buy NATO weapons is nonsensical; the West has indeed imposed heavier sanctions against Russia, but these haven’t persuaded Moscow to negotiate or scale back its war aims. As for countering that “thug” in Moscow, U.S. and NATO weaponry have been essential; whereas one could argue that Perry’s “cost-free” approach to the war would have resulted in a Russian victory by now.

The Freedom Caucus’ other Ukraine problem involves its own party. Most Republicans in Congress have remained firmly hawkish on the war; if anything, the GOP has criticized the Biden administration for not sending enough aid to Ukraine or moving all those weapons too slowly. On Sunday, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the new chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, called for the U.S. to send tanks to Ukraine.

A divide may yet open on the issue; newly minted House Speaker McCarthy supports a harder line on aid for Ukraine. As Grid reported in November, McCarthy made waves when he said — just prior to the midterm elections — that a GOP House would look skeptically at future aid installments: “Ukraine is important, but at the same time it can’t be the only thing they do and it can’t be a blank check.”

But nearly a year into the war, aid to the Ukrainians — amounting to some $100 billion to date — has been a rare point of bipartisan agreement in Washington. And polls have shown that a strong majority of Americans agree that the U.S. should continue to provide support to Ukraine.

Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, believes the Freedom Caucus positions on Ukraine are shortsighted.

“I think that there’s a very small but vocal segment of the Republican Party who take these more isolationist … views on U.S. engagement in the world,” Coffey told the Hill. “We have to be a little more sophisticated in our approach to foreign policy.”

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Climate Lens

Against climate change regulations, but few ways to follow through on it

After Trump was elected in 2016, the Freedom Caucus released a wish list of more than 200 regulations and other government actions it wanted removed, rescinded or otherwise abandoned. First under the State Department heading was a demand that the U.S. “Cancel U.S. Commitments to the Paris Agreement on Greenhouse Gas Emissions.”

Trump followed the advice, though Biden signed an order to rejoin the Paris Agreement on his first day in office. Still, it demonstrates the caucus’ general attitude toward climate change and any federal move to address it. Also on that 2016 wish list were removal of essentially all appliance efficiency standards, elimination of the special envoy for climate change (a role now held by John Kerry), ending or revising environmental reviews from various departments, and loosening restrictions on oil and gas drilling both on and offshore.

There is no indication that these sorts of climate-related demands from the group have shifted over the last six years. New Freedom Caucus leader Perry has a long history of climate change denial, including such tired tropes as “the climate’s changing, without a doubt” while casting plenty of doubt on the human influence on those changes. (Spoiler: It’s all us.) Perry has also tried to limit the military’s ability to study and incorporate climate-related vulnerability in its planning, attempted to block bipartisan disaster relief funding by claiming (wrongly) that the links between climate change and those disasters have been “debunked,” and other similar moves.

These are, generally speaking, positions held by the entire Freedom Caucus. Rep. Bob Good of Virginia cited McCarthy’s failure to stop the climate provisions of the bipartisan infrastructure bill as reason for his opposition in the speaker fight. Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina has, absurdly, decried the “massive environmental damage” involved with shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The League of Conservation Voters, which tracks congressional voting records on environmental issues, gives Jordan a lifetime score of 3 percent, where zero would mean a perfect anti-environment record.

It seems clear that this group would like nothing more than to hamstring any government efforts to limit emissions and adapt to the changing climate. Caucus members don’t, however, have all that many ways to make these goals happen. The main possibility lies in the House’s power of the purse, and specifically in McCarthy’s concession to put a cap on discretionary spending. One expert told the environmental publication Grist that Republicans may well use that power to “gut” spending on a variety of issues, energy and climate included.

Beyond that, the caucus’ efforts to stymie climate action are more likely to manifest as a lack of action. After the last Congress’ historic moves on climate change, including both the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the strictly partisan Inflation Reduction Act, the next two years are likely to involve essentially no forward momentum on the issue — a state of affairs that much of the Republican majority likely favors about as much as the Freedom Caucus members.

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Education Lens

Education as an avenue for culture wars

During the covid-19 pandemic, schools became the epicenter of the modern-day culture war. What started as debates over when and how to safely reopen schools and whether to require masks in the classroom eventually turned into larger conversations over the actual material taught in classrooms, issues that members of the Freedom Caucus took quick positions on and rallied behind. The biggest one? Critical race theory.

The term critical race theory, or CRT, became a flashpoint for Republicans arguing against certain materials being taught in schools, after the country was forced to grapple with a racial reckoning in the summer of 2020.

In October 2021, Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus at the time, said CRT “tries to indoctrinate our children that America is fundamentally a racist country.”

Although CRT was developed several decades ago by legal scholars, it took on a new life over the past couple of years when Republicans looked to ban it from school curricula. But others, including the Legal Defense Fund (LDF), argue this kind of restriction is a limitation on free speech.

“Ultimately, these laws are blanket bans on racial discourse and attempt to deny our nation’s shameful legacy of racial oppression,” according to the LDF.

In 2021, the Freedom Caucus took on CRT as part of its agenda — officially stating it would not support any spending package that funded CRT, writing: " … the House Freedom Caucus took an official position to oppose any funding bill that does not defund Critical Race Theory (CRT) based trainings for federal employees,” adding that “CRT training is out of step with the law and our values.”

As part of the push against CRT, members of the Freedom Caucus have also used the opportunity to endorse “parental choice” in education — support for less federal intervention and strong support for “school choice” — in line with traditional Republican views. But it’s unclear what might become a priority for the Freedom Caucus at the national level for education in this upcoming Congress.

Freedom Caucus member Good proposed legislation in 2022 titled “The Empowering Parents Act,” which “ensures parents can sue if school districts force teachers or students to accommodate CRT curriculum, compel students to observe obscene or sexual material without parental consent, use pronoun changes without parental consent, violate student privacy without parental consent, or neglect to report sexual assault or harassment on school property,” according to a statement from Good’s office.

As part of the push for less federal intervention in education, there have even been Republican proposals to ban the Department of Education outright. In 2021, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, who is not a member of the House Freedom Caucus, introduced legislation that proposed abolishing the department. Freedom Caucus member Boebert tweeted support for the legislation, writing: “From the early days of my campaign I said the Department of Education should be abolished.”

The debate over CRT continues to play out in the states. Just this week, the Florida College System presidents “publicly supported Gov. Ron DeSantis’ vision of higher education, one free from indoctrination, an environment open to the pursuit of truth and the cultivation of intellectual autonomy for all students,” according to a statement. DeSantis is one of the founding members of the Freedom Caucus.

“Today’s bold statement by the Florida College System presidents shows their commitment to providing students with higher education opportunities that are free from indoctrination and woke ideology,” said Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz Jr., according to a statement from Jan. 18.

Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.

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