Commentary: Expect to hear more from GOP's Freedom Caucus

Health Care Republicans
Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.), the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, reacts to a reporter's question on March 23.

The thwarting of President Trump's to repeal the Affordable Care Act was not the Freedom Caucus' first taste of success: It has been hijacking the GOP's plans in Congress for years.

The same group led the government shutdown in 2013, nearly initiated two more government shutdowns, forced the U.S. Treasury to conduct "extraordinary measures" to avoid defaulting on the national debt, and took down House Speaker John Boehner.

And we haven't heard the last of them. Expect the controversial group to be at the forefront of negotiations to pass a new budget, as a fresh government shutdown looms on April 28. Trump's expansive budget, infrastructure, and tax plans are all at the mercy of these budget hawks. The drama between the intractable caucus and the reckless president promises spectacles surpassing any episode of Celebrity Apprentice.

This rogue group of about 35 Republican House members that is redefining how Congress operates was founded in 2015, but has been informally active since 2011. It has been dismissed as naïve, irrelevant, and politically unsophisticated, and conflated with the Tea Party Caucus. Its members have been derided as unthinking followers of Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas). Some GOP leaders have even described the caucus as "lemmings with suicide vests."

However, the Freedom Caucus is none of those things. Most importantly it is not politically naïve. The caucus repeatedly humiliated Boehner before overthrowing him in a stunningly successful legislative gambit.

While certainly conservative, ideology is not what makes the Freedom Caucus special. The group is distinctive because of its members' willingness to risk their offices, political relationships, and even the basic functioning of the federal government to stay true to their values.

The core leaders of the group describe themselves as principled constitutionalists who refuse to be corrupted by Washington. They see themselves as Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, principled lawmakers who refuse to play the corrupt game of politics.

When I met with the caucus' current leader, Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.), in January, he handed me his voting card. He assured me that even though it bore his picture, the card - and by extension his vote - belonged to the 750,000 North Carolinians he represents. As he took the card back, Meadows noted, "There comes a point in time in every decision where you say, 'OK, do I just grin and bear it, or do I fight back?'"

The health-care showdown was not the first time Meadows has fought back. After only eight months in office, he energized his allies to demand that Congress "de-fund the implementation" of the Affordable Care Act. Boehner thought the group would back down. Instead, Meadows initiated the third-longest government shutdown in history - one that only ended when Boehner conceded defeat and sought help from the Democrats.

The caucus has easily weathered leadership attempts to bring them in line. Its members have been denied positions in important committees and banned from official congressional trips. The leadership even stripped Meadows of a subcommittee chairmanship.

However, these efforts at discipline have backfired, angering the members and hardening their resolve. When Meadows lost his chairmanship, the committee refused to replace him, and leadership had to re-install him. Such futile attempts at punishment have taught the Freedom Caucus that they can succeed in bucking the leadership's wishes.

There is something strangely modern about the Freedom Caucus' straightforwardness. In an age obsessed with authenticity, voters appreciate the group's honesty and willingness to follow through on campaign promises.

Everyone who cares about Congress should take note. Last week the Freedom Caucus hijacked our legislative branch and trumped the Republican Party. It wasn't the first time, and it won't be the last.

Bradley Harris, a master's of public policy candidate at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, is from Penn Valley. bradley.harris@duke.edu