What is the House Freedom Caucus, and what do they want?

When Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)—the unequivocal front-runner to succeed Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) as Speaker of the House—announced he was withdrawing from the race, many immediately blamed the House Freedom Caucus (HFC), a group of roughly 40 conservative lawmakers in the chamber. To win the Republican nomination for Speaker today, McCarthy needed 124 Republican votes—a majority within his party. To be elected by the full House at the end of October, however, he would have needed 218 votes—a majority of the full chamber, and votes that traditionally come only from fellow majority party members. He was almost certain to meet the first threshold, but could lose the support of only 29 Republicans to meet the second. Without the support of some of the HFC members, then, McCarthy would have been unable to get to that 218 mark.

Who are these HFC members? While the caucus has purposely chosen to keep its formal roster a secret, journalistic accounts put the number at roughly 40. Based on a measure that includes information from both voting records and campaign donor information, these HFC members are more conservative than their average House GOP peers; their scorecard ratings from Heritage Action for America—the advocacy arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation—also place the HFC members in the strongly conservative camp. Notably, however, the districts from which they come, while solidly Republican, are only slightly more conservative than the typical GOP district. The average HFC district voted 14 percentage points more Republican than the country as a whole in 2012, as compared 11 percentage points in other districts won by the GOP that year. HFC members are also less experienced than their Republican colleagues. The average HFC member is in his third term, as compared to an average 4.6 terms for the overall House Republican caucus.

Yesterday, the HFC announced that they would be supporting Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) during today’s intra-party vote, and that their support for a consensus Republican candidate in the full chamber would require concessions from the leadership team. But what exactly would those concessions look like? Historically, House majority parties have resolved internal divisions over Speaker nominees by selecting a consensus candidate, and then accommodating dissident factions with other leadership posts. This time, however, it’s not clear that the HFC would have been satisfied with either of the candidates who had announced they were running to replace McCarthy as Majority Leader, for example. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) is already a member of the leadership against which the HFC has repeatedly railed, and Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) earned the HFC’s ire for pushing a budget that increased defense spending without offsets this spring. Indeed, this logic may help explain reports that last week, Speaker Boehner attempted to recruit Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) to enter the Majority Leader race.

HFC members have also demanded a return to “regular order” as a condition of their support for a consensus Speaker candidate.  Meeting those demands, however, is likely easier said than done. Opening the amending process, for example, would allow more amendments not just from Republicans, but also from Democrats—and, as Speaker Boehner’s experience with appropriations bills this summer revealed, that can cause more problems than it solves. Other proposed changes, such as having committees select their own chairmen, would represent a major departure from the centralization of power in the hands of the House leadership that began in the 1970s and accelerated after Republicans took control of the chamber in 1995. As this largely unprecedented saga continues, then, we may well see new and different tools and tactics emerge as Republicans work to build a winning coalition for the next Speaker of the House.