The Slatest

Don’t Expect the Freedom Caucus to Stand up to Trump

Outgoing Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Jim Jordan in 2015.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It is a simple point that bears repeating: The top priority for members of Congress is getting re-elected, and movements that change their re-election calculus are what they pay attention to. This mantra was emphasized in “Indivisible,” the guidebook written by Democratic ex-Hill staffers for resisting the Trump administration and Republican Congress. “To be clear, this does not mean that your MoC is cynical and unprincipled,” the authors write. “The vast majority of people in Congress believe in their ideals, and care deeply about representing their constituents and having a positive impact. But they also know that if they want to make change, they need to stay in office.”

Tea Partiers haven’t gone anywhere; they just have a new name: Trump supporters. Their purpose has gone from opposing President Obama to supporting Trump, and their targets are the same: Republican squishes who flirt with defying them in their deep-red districts, thus inviting a primary challenge.

This makes life uncomfortable for members of the House Freedom Caucus, many of whom came into office railing against President Obama’s spending and the perceived mass expansion of the national debt. But many of the voters they were responding to didn’t arrive at their opposition of Obama through careful readings of Hayek and Friedman; they just didn’t like Obama and had a host of peculiar reasons for that. Now they like Trump and just want Republicans in Congress to let him spend money, which means the members’ strict conservative, limited-government, low-spending principles may have to be retired until there’s another Democratic president.

Two good pieces published Wednesday demonstrate the conservatives’ dilemma. Politico describes how some conservatives ideologically disposed to criticizing Trump’s more expensive, unpaid-for proposals are keeping their mouths shut because they’re scared of the usual suspects: Breitbart, Sean Hannity, and all the vitriolic callers, emailers, and tweeters they inspire. The piece has led to some mockery of these Republicans for being too scared to suffer nasty phone calls, emails, and tweets, but that’s not the point. It’s that nasty conservative press augurs nasty primary challenges. Deep-red-district Republicans who were under extreme pressure not to vote for even the most banal proposal from the Obama administration will now be under the same pressure, from mostly the same people, to vote for much larger expenditures if the president-elect so desires them.

The big expenditure coming down the pike is some sort of infrastructure proposal, the outlines of which are hazy but could cost taxpayers somewhere in the hundreds of billions to a trillion dollars. Is the House Freedom Caucus going to demand that such a bill be fully paid for, as they would have under Obama? Tim Alberta, in an excellent, comprehensive National Review piece on conservatism’s fate under Trump, reports that the rethink’s already underway:

According to several members, there has been informal talk of accepting a bill that’s only 50 percent paid for, with the rest of the borrowing being offset down the road by “economic growth.” It’s an arrangement Republicans would never have endorsed under a President Hillary Clinton, and a slippery slope to go down with Trump.

(Vast chasms between revenues and outlays can be filled with the pixie dust of dynamic scoring if there’s the will; some of the more uproarious reading in the coming years will be found in the numerical tables of economic assumptions included in scoring reports.)

What are these members going to do? Recent history serves as a guide. Many Freedom Caucus members were privately uncomfortable with Trump’s unorthodoxies during the campaign but kept their mouths shut because their constituents liked it. Safe! It’s a good guess that practice continues through the first 100 days.