On the surface, Kevin McCarthy looks like a shoe-in to become the next Speaker of the House. He won an internal vote of the conference 188-31, over right-winger Andy Biggs of Arizona, to retain the party’s top leadership post. If Republicans just stick together during a House floor vote in January, and McCarthy will get the gavel.
But that’s a big if.
In the red-ripple election of 2022, Republicans regained control of Congress by just a handful of seats — meaning that the same internal GOP divisions that bedeviled the reign of former Republican Speaker John Boeher could soon come back into play. They could even deny McCarthy his long-coveted speakership.
The Freedom Caucus is a small group of 30-odd hardline right wingers inside the Republican House conference. Wielding legislative power in Washington requires being able to pass routine, party-line votes. But the Freedom Caucus is infamous for withholding its support on such pro-forma measures, and grinding GOP governance to a halt.
Biggs is now bragging that as many as 20 of colleagues will join him in opposing McCarthy’s speakership; if that bears out the floor vote, the Freedom Caucus could upend the cart before the business of the Republican-led 118th Congress even begins. There’s no obvious fallback candidate to unify the conference. And the scramble to restore basic order inside the GOP would portend two years of chaos and disfunction in Washington — that’s likely to threaten the U.S. economy and the daily functioning of government services on which we all depend.
Formally established in 2015, and long quarterbacked by Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the Freedom Caucus’ brinksmanship helped turn the late Obama era into a cascading series of self-inflicted crises, including a government shutdown and the near-default on the full-faith-and-credit of the U.S. government over a refusal to increase the debt ceiling. In addition to sparking financial turmoil, the Freedom Caucus succeeded in forcing the Big-Business friendly Boehner to surrender the Speakers’ gavel — installing Paul Ryan in his place.
When Obama was in power, the Freedom Caucus trumpeted its ideological purity — demanding financial restraint, curbs on executive overreach, and a return to “regular order” in Congress. But in the Trump era, top members of the caucus lost the courage of those supposed convictions. Avowed deficit hawks voted for tax cuts for the megarich that exploded the debt, and Freedom Caucus members tripped over themselves themselves to serve as lackeys and fixers for Dear Leader Trump. Jordan loomed large as the GOP’s top inquisitor in Congress, while Freedom Caucus members Mick Mulvaney and Mark Meadows stepped into key posts inside Trump’s audacious executive branch.
To gauge how the Freedom Caucus might, again, rear its head, Rolling Stone reached out to a founding member, Matt Salmon, who served as a representative from Arizona in separate stints from 1995 to 2001 and from 2013 to 2017. Salmon left public office just as the Trump administration began; Rep. Biggs — now McCarthy’s top antagonist — was Salmon’s handpicked successor in Congress.
In his interview, Salmon reflected on the history of the Freedom Caucus, its abandonment of principle in support of Trump, and the likely revival of its obstructionist playbook in the Biden era. “I hope they’re smart about it, and pick their battles wisely,” Salmon says. “Because if they’re not careful, they’re gonna end up becoming the villains of the country — instead of the heroes.”
Before we jump in on the troubles faced by Kevin McCarthy, take me back to the founding of the Freedom Caucus.
There were 11 of us who were the founders, but at the nucleus of the thing, it was Jim Jordan. It was Mick Mulvaney. It was Raúl Labrador, and me.
What was the genesis of the group?
All of us promised [our constituents] that if we were in power, we would repeal Obamacare. And it just wasn’t coming up for a vote — we couldn’t get anything done. And on a lot of votes, like the debt-ceiling increases, instead of relying on the Republican conference, Bohener would count on Democrat votes [to reach a majority]. It got to be frustrating that Boehner was coloring outside the lines. After one particular vote, Jim Jordan and Mick Mulvaney came up to me and said, “Matt, you’ve been here before. We really need to come up with an idea on how we can stop this stuff.” And I said, “Well, we’re gonna have to form a caucus” — as a separate group. We invited some of the other folks to the table, and that’s how the Freedom Caucus was born.
In the Obama years, people called you the “shutdown caucus.” There was a lot of brinksmanship — with the full-faith-and-credit of the United States on the line.
The only leverage we had was to threaten, on must-pass legislation, that we’d hold out. That was the only way we could get people to listen to us.
Was there ever discomfort within the caucus about those games of chicken?
When we wanted to go after Boehner, there were people that were woozy about that. When we actually asked him to step down, there were three of us that went in to meet with John Boehner and basically say, “We’re tired of your leadership, and we’re ready for you to move on. And we’re going to do what it takes to take you out.” That was Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows and me that went in to meet with him. So yeah, there was a lot of brinksmanship. But that’s because we weren’t passing the appropriation bills anymore, everything was done by continuing resolution, or omnibus. And, and the leadership would basically just go in a room and come out with the numbers, and jam it down everybody’s throat. There was not a participatory participatory process. There wasn’t transparency.
Did you feel like your efforts succeeded? Obviously you ousted Boehner, but beyond that?
Our biggest concern — far and away above everything else — was deficit spending. It was it was continuously raising the debt ceiling, continuously adding to the federal debt.
How do you rate the success on that?
What really broke my heart was that when Trump became president, the Freedom Caucus, basically gave him a blank checkbook. They backed away from the whole deficit thing. They all did an about-face. They stopped being the guardian of the Treasury. The other thing we were vocal about was executive orders — you know, violating Article One of the Constitution — with the executive branch creating laws or appropriating money. But then when Trump became president, nary a peep out of the same folks about executive orders that clearly crossed the line as well. When presidents do things that you believe are unconstitutional, you can’t just speak up if it’s a member of the opposite party. You have to be consistent.
I wasn’t there at the time. And it was kind of a mixed blessing, because it would have been very hard for me to keep my mouth shut — about the deficit spending and all of the money that was wasted during COVID on on welfare programs. It frustrated the hell out of me to see how people that made the deficit and the debt federal debt their top issues give the President a complete pass. A lot of the issues that we cared about went by the wayside [under Trump]. And the Freedom Caucus just became the cheering section for the President — no matter what he did.
What do you attribute that to?
I have no idea. The Freedom Caucus should have been a lot more effective.
Did your good-governance agenda fare any better?
The House is supposed to be the place where people go and represent their neighbors. It’s not about some, good-old-boys club that’s just calling all the shots and keeping each other in power, so you can have the gavel. One of our biggest issues was “regular order,” where you actually go through all the appropriation committee bills, where every representative has a say in how the money’s spent. When I was in Congress in the ‘90s, we passed all the appropriation bills. We balanced the budget for the first time in decades, and we did it three years in a row. Things would be a lot better if you got back to regular order.
It just replaces the system of you-scratch-my-back, I’ll-scratch-yours. And we’ll do it behind closed doors. And then we’ll throw an omnibus bill on your desk three hours before we have to vote, nobody has a chance to read it, because it’s way too voluminous. Right? That crap has got to go.
But regular order didn’t return under the Ryan leadership you guys fought to get?
It did not. No. They haven’t done regular order since the ‘90s.
Looking forward to the next congress, we now have a situation where there’s going to be a very slender Republican majority. Your friend, and congressional successor, Rep. Andy Biggs mounted a leadership challenge to McCarthy. He didn’t get enough votes to win, but if his bloc of 31 were to stay united against McCarthy, they could deny him the Speakership. What can you tell me about that?
Andy? He’s a great guy. What they’re trying to do, more than anything, is to get commitments and concessions out of McCarthy. Because in the past, the Freedom Caucus has been discounted and put on the sidelines. As a result of some of this [maneuvering], you’ll probably see Jim Jordan become the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. You’ll probably see Freedom Caucus members on far more A-level committees, and more positions of influence. You’ll see Freedom Caucus members with a seat at the table — which is really what they’re what they’re trying to accomplish. To make sure that you just don’t have the leadership going into a closed room, and deciding what the priorities are going to be.
What scuttlebutt are you hearing about McCarthy?
Republicans are gonna have a bare majority; it’s going to be really, really tight. There’s going to be over 30 members of the Freedom Caucus, and so they’re gonna have a significant influence. I hope they’re smart about it, and pick their battles wisely. Because, if they’re not careful, they’re gonna end up becoming the villains, you know, of the country instead of the heroes.
Does McCarthy have the political chops for this job?
He’s a he’s a survivor. That’s clear. And he’s somebody that understands he’s going to need to work with the political realities that exist. And the political realities that exist are that there is a Freedom Caucus; they have significant power; and he better bring them into the tent instead of keep him out — because if he keeps em out, he’s not gonna get anything done. And then he’s gonna end up having to negotiate just about everything with the Democrats.
McCarthy is acting like a hardcore partisan — boycotting Nancy Pelosi’s speech when she stepped down from leadership for example. There’s not a lot of signals that he’s open to forging bipartisan deals.
Has to do that. The reason that that Boehner left in the first place was he was facing the floor vote [for Speaker]. And the floor vote is different than the conference vote. If Republicans don’t [unify and] vote for him on the floor, then he doesn’t become Speaker.
To clarify that difference for our readers, one can win a House leadership post with a bare majority of the Republican members. But becoming Speaker requires a party-line vote to reach a majority of Congress, usually 218 votes. Just a handful of defections could block McCarthy’s bid for the gavel.
And just trying to browbeat everybody and say, “You’re gonna do what I tell you to do” — that’s not gonna work. He’s gonna have to coalesce the powers that be in his conference to even be elected in January. Kevin knows that.
Is McCarthy is particularly skilled in the sense of figuring out what the competing interests of his conference are, and divining that path forward?
He’s never actually been in that situation. Right? Because he’s never been the top leader. He’s been the top minority leader. But that’s a lot different. When you have to be the Speaker of the House, there’s no way to predict how it’s going to be until it starts to play out.
What does McCarthy bring to the table that the Freedom Caucus likes?
He has an incredibly good cast of characters. I have nothing but respect for [Whip] Steve Scalise. The folks in the Freedom Caucus feel a particularly particular affinity with him — and Tom Emmer [now the third-ranking Republican]. So with that team working together, he should do everything he can to involve them in the process of reaching out. They can help him be successful.
Do you expect that we’re going to see showdowns over government funding and the debt ceiling? Is that going to be deja vu all over again?
Yeah. I do expect you will. But I expect that there are concessions. There were points, when we were doing what you call “brinksmanship” — there were things that we would have tolerated had minor points come our way.
You’re saying that if somebody had thrown you a bone back then, you might have been amenable to compromise? And they were just not wanting to play ball with you at all?
They were unwilling to play ball. And there are people in Kevin’s conference that hate the Freedom Caucus — with a passion — and they want to play the game of petty vindictiveness. “Screw ‘em. Don’t give them a seat at the table.” He’s got to reject that. I think that Kevin has seen [the consequences] far too often — I mean walk down memory lane. Newt Gingrich was forced out of office. John Boehner was forced out of office. Kevin has studied the mistakes that others have made. I think he’s a smart guy. If he is magnanimous and gives them a seat at the table and is willing to work with them, I don’t think you’ll see the brinksmanship. I think he can head it off at the pass.
One of the things that I’m struck by is that there’s no obvious fallback candidate. If McCarthy fails, here’s no Paul Ryan as backup.
There’s no consensus candidate out in the wings.
Do you think McCarthy has this in the bag?
His biggest test is gonna be the first day of Congress and getting the votes. So what I expect he’s going to do over the next month is basically listen to members concerns, and that includes the Freedom Caucus. They’re a big block. They can they can they can totally undo him — or they can be his biggest champion.
But I don’t think what he would have to compromise or giveaway would be all that painful to him. I think there can be a win/win. I think if he appeals everybody’s better nature, givest them a seat at the table, puts some of the Freedom Caucus members at the seat of power — making Jim Jordan, the Judiciary Chairman, and throwing some bones — He’s gonna go a long way toward making a good and successful Speaker.