by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Reihan Salam doesn’t always agree with the U.S. House Freedom Caucus. In the case of the American Health Care Act, though, he’s offering the conservative group kudos.
As far as [House Speaker Paul] Ryan and his allies are concerned, the HFC is a gang of reckless rebels who’ve jeopardized Republicans’ best chance to undo Obamacare and to establish a better, more sustainable health system. And it’s not hard to see why Ryan wants to lay all the blame for the AHCA debacle at the feet of the House’s hard-liners. There is no question that the HFC has tended toward unreasonableness, most notably when the caucus very nearly forced the federal government to breach the debt ceiling, a prospect that terrified a large majority of House Republicans and the country at large. Over the past few weeks, however, the HFC has actually acted quite reasonably. When Mark Meadows, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, told reporters on Thursday night that he was “desperately trying to get to ‘Yes,’ ” he was telling the truth. Ryan and the rest of the House GOP leadership have been trying and failing to strong-arm the HFC and other Republicans into swallowing shabbily crafted legislation that no one really understands. As strange as it might seem, it is the Freedom Caucus that has been fighting for a more deliberative, thoughtful approach that might yield a more coherent set of reforms.
How exactly did we get here? In October 2015, shortly after members of the HFC forced then-Speaker John Boehner into an early retirement, Ryan managed to win over the Freedom Caucus by promising to honor the “Hastert Rule,” in which legislation would move forward only if it commanded the support of a majority of the members of the majority party. Ryan also vowed to open up the legislative process so the House Republican leadership would have less power while committees and individual members would have more. …
… When Donald Trump was elected president and Republicans won a razor-thin majority in the Senate, it was only natural that the Freedom Caucus expected a seat at the table. That’s not what happened. If the HFC had one non-negotiable demand, it was that Obamacare would be repealed root and branch, or at least as thoroughly as possible under the rules of budget reconciliation. The idea was that Republicans would repeal Obamacare first and then worry about replacing it later, a strategy known as “repeal and delay” or “repeal and start over.” Inevitably, many moderate Republicans had cold feet about repeal and delay, recognizing that it would likely lead to a meltdown of the individual insurance market. President Trump expressed doubts about the strategy as well, which sent Ryan scrambling to cobble together a reconciliation bill that would endeavor to replace Obamacare.
What Ryan failed to appreciate is that his mad dash to draft a replacement would end up alienating Freedom Caucus members who wanted to play an active role in shaping it. Repeal and delay was compelling to those on the Republican right who wanted to have a more open, inclusive process in which all elements of the GOP would take part in crafting successful legislation. Did it make sense to believe you could repeal Obamacare and then take your sweet time with a slow-moving, deliberative process designed to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable positions of moderate Republicans and the members of the HFC? Maybe not. But Ryan didn’t really make that case. Instead, he pivoted right back to the highly centralized, secretive process that drove the Freedom Caucus crazy in the first place.
The result has been disastrous, and predictably so.