The House Freedom Caucus (HFC) has spent the last year making waves as it pushed the Republican Party further to the right. Now, the group’s rising prominence could pose a problem for reproductive rights advocates.
Chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the HFC was founded in January 2015 by a group of nine right-wing lawmakers to give “a voice to countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them.” The HFC has since developed a reputation for their hardline conservative stances and willingness to hold true to them no matter the costs—even if it means shutting down the federal government.
Although the HFC does not officially disclose its members, an October analysis of the caucus conducted by the Pew Research Center found 36 HFC legislators through public statements and contact with their offices. Pew noted that the group’s makeup reflects little diversity, with just one woman, Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and “one ethnic or racial minority,” Raúl Labrador (R-IA), whom Pew classifies as Hispanic, on its rolls. Pew also reported that its confirmed members are among the most conservative lawmakers in Congress.
Explaining how the group has become so powerful, particularly within the Republican Party, Pew highlighted its discipline as a voting bloc determined to counter legislation with which its members disagree.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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“Currently, Republicans have 247 seats in the House to 188 for the Democrats, which would seem to be a comfortable majority,” Pew wrote. “But if the 36 (or more) Freedom Caucus members vote as a bloc against the GOP leadership’s wishes, their effective strength falls to 211 or fewer—that is, less than the majority needed to elect a new speaker, pass bills and conduct most other business.”
That means the caucus presents a major threat to Republican legislation its members may perceive as not conservative enough.
Given the caucus members’ willingness to go after their own, it’s no surprise that other Republicans have developed a disdain for the group.
Speaking with Roll Call‘s 218 blog after HFC waged a February battle over a border security bill, a senior GOP aide claimed the group was “the craziest of the crazy” and cared more about obstructionism than accomplishing real goals. “They’re not legislators, they’re just assholes,” said the aide. “These guys have such a minority mindset that the prospect of getting something done just scares them away, or pisses them off.”
Even some original members of the HFC itself have fallen away as its efforts became increasingly extreme.
In September, the House Freedom Caucus and its members vowed to oppose any and all budget measures that did not explicitly defund Planned Parenthood, citing the series of deceptively edited and discredited videos released by the anti-choice organization the Center for Medical Progress.
“Given the appalling revelations surrounding Planned Parenthood, we cannot in good moral conscience vote to send taxpayer money to this organization while still fulfilling our duty to represent our constituents. We must therefore oppose any spending measure that contains funding for Planned Parenthood,” said the group in a statement on the matter.
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) subsequently resigned from the HFC, citing its “counterproductive” strategy to force a government shutdown in order to defund Planned Parenthood.
“Last week, the House Freedom Caucus formally vowed to shut down the government over funding Planned Parenthood,” McClintock wrote in a letter announcing his departure from the group. “I have never served with a group of patriots more devoted to our country and dedicated to restoring American founding principles. However, I feel that the HFC’s many missteps have made it counterproductive to its stated goals and I no longer wish to be associated with it.”
Now heading into the 2016 election season, the HFC is again threatening to make waves.
According to a November report from Bloomberg, several members of the group have been preparing their “Contract With America II,” a set of legislative priorities “that would call for House votes in the first 100 days of 2016 on replacing Obamacare, overhauling entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and repealing the estate tax.” The plan is said to include a promise to defund Planned Parenthood.
They’ve also moved to take on a greater role in helping get politicians elected who could join their ranks, launching the House Freedom Fund in anticipation of a major fundraising push ahead of the elections, according to the Washington Post.
The political action committee (PAC) already has a reported $23,000 on hand to throw into races, and members of the HFC are discussing the influence they may wield with it.
“We fully expect to start our own separate fundraising, our own separate vetting for candidates, and you’ll see us trying to get good conservatives elected in open races,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), a caucus co-founder according to the Post. “We recognize the fact that we have a brand, and we’re going to try to use that to further our mission,” he continued.
The group’s potential to grow could spell trouble for reproductive choice advocates. In addition to HFC’s steadfast opposition to funding Planned Parenthood, the caucus and its members have consistently used their offices to push anti-choice legislation and rhetoric.
In April, the group helped lead the charge to dissolve a Washington, D.C., law protecting employees from being fired for their reproductive health-care choices such as abortion and contraceptive use, alleging that it impeded on the religious liberties of anti-choice advocates in the city.
“The House Freedom Caucus urges Republican leadership to allow the House to consider … a resolution to disapprove of the District of Columbia Council’s recently-passed Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act of 2014 (RHNDA), as soon as possible this week before the law goes into effect,” the group said in a statement urging lawmakers to act against the law.
“RHNDA would discriminate against D.C. residents with pro-life views. RHNDA could force D.C. employers to cover abortions in their health plans and require pro-life organizations to hire abortion advocates.”
And the records of HFC’s confirmed members are yet another cause for alarm. According to conservative site the Daily Signal, all members of the House Freedom Caucus received an above-average score for Republicans from Heritage Action, a conservative PAC that rates candidates based on their support for repealing Obamacare, pushing abortion restrictions, and a host of other right-wing talking points.
The group’s leader, Rep. Jordan, has been a staunch anti-choice proponent during his time in the House. Voting with the anti-choice National Right to Life Committee in all 35 scored pieces of key legislation, Jordan has earned himself top honors from anti-choice organizations across his home state. On his website, he boasts that he is “the only legislator in state history to win both the Defender of Life award from Ohio Right to Life and the Pro-Life Legislator of the Year award from the United Conservatives of Ohio.”
In 2013, Jordan sponsored the failed Life at Conception Act, a “personhood” bill that would have granted embryos, eggs, fetuses, and clones constitutional rights. The extreme legislation could have banned all abortions without exception, as well as many forms of birth control such as IUDs, the pill, and emergency contraception.
Jordan also sponsored the Ultrasound Informed Consent Act, a forced ultrasound bill that would have required all doctors to perform ultrasounds and “provide a simultaneous explanation of what the ultrasound is depicting” in graphic detail, displaying the images to a pregnant woman before giving them an abortion.
Other notable members of the HFC include birther conspiracy theorist Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), who voted in May for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Act, which would have banned abortions after 20 weeks. Yoho previously compared fetuses to endangered species in order to justify the bill.
“How can we as a nation have laws that protect the sea turtle or bald eagle, but yet refuse to protect the same of our own species?” asked Yoho, arguing in favor of the medically unsound measure on the House floor.
HFC member Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), who famously cited an article from satirical site the Onion to claim that Planned Parenthood was doing “abortion by the wholesale,” made waves in September for objecting to the topic of Pope Paul Francis’ address to Congress alongside fellow HFC member Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), in part for the pope’s stance on abortion.
“What I’m a little concerned about is that the pope seems to distract at times from some of the most important issues of faith—which is life—and he talks about issues like climate change,” said Fleming. Claiming the pope had “made some statements that would suggest that there may be certain level of acceptance of abortion,” he called on the religious leader to “re-emphasize the importance of protecting life and preventing abortion.”
Gosar has been no stranger to anti-choice advocacy himself, earning a “100 percent pro-life voting record on all right-to-life issues that have reached the House floor” and an accompanying endorsement from the National Right to Life Committee. In a statement accepting the anti-choice group’s endorsement, Gosar claimed that protecting fetuses is “our country’s next big battle for civil rights.”
Given the House Freedom Caucus’ endless crusade to restrict and ban abortion, its members’ rising prominence could spell trouble as it continues to throw its weight around Congress and the 2016 election season.
After Republican lawmakers finally put forth a $1.1 trillion spending deal this week to avoid a shutdown of the federal government, the HFC again threatened to withhold its support for the bill unless it was modified to include more extreme abortion restrictions.
The group’s requested riders include three abortion measures authored by the Pro-Life Caucus, the Hill reported, including an effort to allow states to decide whether Medicaid should cover abortion providers and increased protections for medical professionals and organizations who refuse to cover abortion care.
After the House Freedom Caucus’ provisions were ultimately rejected, many of the group’s members threatened to withhold their votes for the larger bill. Although the bill is still expected to clear the House thanks to bipartisan support, the group’s threats nevertheless underscore the dangers it presents as it attempts to push its party even further to the right.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the fact that Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) objected to the topic of the Pope’s remarks, but did not boycott his speech.