Conservatives Form Their Own Caucus Because the RSC Isn’t ‘Hard-Core’ Enough

The most conservative House Republicans quietly build an invitation-only group, seeing the Republican Study Committee as devolving into a debate society.

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., participates in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing about. the War Powers Act on May, 25, 2011 in Washington, DC. The committee was hearing testimony on the War Powers Act and the U.S. involvement with operations in Libya.
National Journal
Tim Alberta
Jan. 15, 2014, 1:26 a.m.

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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