Increasingly frustrated with the size and direction of the Republican Study Committee, a handful of House Republicans have recently found respite in a smaller, private club founded by one of Congress's leading young conservatives.
The House Liberty Caucus, chaired by Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, quietly launched last year with five or six lawmakers attending a hastily choreographed meeting. Now the group holds a biweekly, invite-only luncheon that draws some two dozen lawmakers and is rapidly becoming an ideological home base for those "core" House conservatives who say the RSC's swelling membership is diluting its ideological intensity.
Amash insisted that his group is not a "foil" to the RSC, which for decades has been conservatism's rallying point group on Capitol Hill. Rather, Amash said, the Liberty Caucus is "a smaller group of people who are well acquainted and can hang out with each other and focus on specific issues like economic freedom, individual liberty, and following the Constitution."
The biweekly gathering, held in whatever meeting room is available in the Capitol complex, is a simple affair. Lawmakers pick from platters of bread and deli meat, cheese, and olives, and wash down their meals with cold cans of Cherry Coke, the group's soda of choice. With the exception of Amash's employees, staff members are not permitted, giving the gathering an intimate—and even secretive—feel.
"The RSC today covers a fairly broad philosophical swath of the party. It's no longer just the hard-core right-wingers," Rep. Mick Mulvaney said, adding: "If you want to pay dues, you can get in."
Amash's invitation list can change from meeting to meeting, depending on the topic, and at times has included Democrats who agree on domestic-surveillance issues. But the group is driven primarily by Amash and his closest friends in Congress, including Reps. Raul Labrador of Idaho, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, and Thomas Massie of Kentucky. Other regular attendees include Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Tom Graves of Georgia, along with Jim Jordan of Ohio, who is widely viewed as the leader of these 20 or so "core" House conservatives.
The ascent of Amash's right-wing group has not occurred in a vacuum. Rather, it roughly coincides with a power shift on Capitol Hill that saw momentum swing back toward the establishment after the government shutdown in October and Paul Ryan's budget compromise in December. Some RSC members, upset that the organization did not aggressively combat these forces, say its massive membership has turned the group into the proverbial big ship that turns slowly.
"There are a lot of conservative Republicans who feel the RSC has gotten too big," Amash said, when asked to explain the appeal of his group. "Most of us, if not all of us, are RSC members as well. But when working with like-minded people, you need something a little more nimble that doesn't dilute its positions because of the size of the group."
This criticism is nothing new. Many RSC members, including some former chairmen, have long expressed concerns about its membership—which now stands at 179 of 233 House Republicans. If three-quarters of the GOP Conference belongs to the RSC, they argue, the group cannot possibly practice the ideological purity on which its reputation was established.
"The RSC today covers a fairly broad philosophical swath of the party. It's no longer just the hard-core right-wingers," Mulvaney said, adding: "If you want to pay dues, you can get in."
Indeed, any Republican lawmaker may join the RSC by shelling out $5,000 from his or her office accounts. That the group lacks any ideological threshold or litmus test for membership has long been a dilemma for its founders, but, increasingly, the younger members closer to the grassroots movement are voicing their displeasure.
"There is a concern about the RSC being a group everybody has to belong to so they can go back home and tell their constituents that they're conservative," said Labrador, who was elected in the tea-party wave of 2010. He added, "Every single member of my class was told they needed to join the RSC to show their conservative bonafides back home."
Despite their criticisms, members have been quick to emphasize their approval of RSC Chairman Steve Scalise, whom they say has an unenviable task in leading the largest RSC in the group's 40-year history.
Still, it's apparent that some members have grown restless with the RSC's alleged lack of aggressiveness. Scalise, who has chaired the group since last January, has made a concerted effort to restore its profile as a "member-driven organization" that welcomes wide-ranging dialogue in hopes of producing organic policy solutions the caucus can rally around. But in attempting to facilitate a dialogue between nearly 180 members, some say, the group has forfeited its traditional roles of strategic planning and legislative activism.
"The question is, what is the RSC supposed to do?" said Mulvaney, who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Scalise. "I think the RSC is going through an existential type of conversation without even realizing it. Is it going to be a conservative debate club? Or is it an activist organization?"
The verdict, it seems, is already in. Several members likened the RSC to a think tank. Mulvaney said the group is a "conservative debate club." And Labrador, in a separate interview, concluded of the RSC: "It's a debate society."
That's a far cry from how lawmakers characterize their new Liberty Caucus. Several described Amash's group as "intense," partially because the members are friendly enough with one another that they pull no punches. As opposed to RSC meetings that are often consumed by individual member initiatives and requests for legislative cosponsors, Liberty Caucus gatherings are geared toward tackling specific policy dilemmas and deliberating on how conservatives can best address them.
That said, some members argued that it's simply not fair to compare the groups. "They're two different animals," said Jordan, who chaired the RSC during the previous Congress and sits on its steering committee. "The RSC is what it is. The decision was made a long time ago that this thing would become a larger organization, and that's fine."
He added, "But the Liberty Caucus is—it's just different."
So different, in fact, that several RSC members are considering leaving the group altogether next year and pouring their energy into growing the Liberty Caucus. Amash, for his part, acknowledged that he hopes to expand his group's membership "at a natural pace" and eventually collect dues to hire staffers.
Still, most of those involved flatly rejected the notion of a dichotomy where they must choose between groups.
"RSC members frequently engage in a dialogue as members of smaller task forces, working groups, and caucuses," said RSC spokesman Stephen Bell. "In fact, some of our best ideas, like the American Health Care Reform Act, are crafted by smaller groups working together toward a common goal."
Graves, a Liberty Caucus attendee who lost the RSC chairman's race to Scalise in 2012, agreed. "It's natural for like-minded members to get together, but I don't see them as competing interests," he said.
The vast majority of Liberty Caucus members supported Graves in that RSC race, and some have privately questioned whether the group would have taken a more aggressive tack had he won. Ironically, though, it was Graves who supported Ryan's budget deal in December—while Scalise voted against it.
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This article appears in the January 16, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.