The House Freedom Caucus is largely right about debt and deficits. Some members might be astonishingly hypocritical given that they didn’t have much of a problem with Donald Trump’s spending when he was president. But they are right that the budget deal struck between President Mike Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is a middle finger to the forces that orchestrated the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
The main stated reason McCarthy had to leave (despite the objections of 96 percent of the Republican conference) was that McCarthy agreed to a budget deal that depended on Democratic votes and exceeded previously agreed upon spending limits. The Johnson-Schumer deal, which if enacted would avert an imminent government shutdown, does much the same thing.
Outraged, House Freedom Caucus condemned the treatment: “Republicans promised millions of voters that we would fight to change the status quo and it is time to deliver.” The agreement, they declared, is a “fiscal calamity.”
And they are right.
But all that is beside the point. I firmly believe in the power of arguments in a democracy, but the simple fact is that arguments within Congress matter less than the raw numbers behind who makes them.
When Franklin Roosevelt took office, Democrats had a huge majority in the House, 313 seats to the Republican Party’s 117. In the Senate, Democrats held 59 seats, the Republican Party 36. In the next Congress, Democrats controlled 70 seats in the Senate and 322 in Congress home. History gives FDR most of the credit (or, in my ideological backwater, the blame) for the New Deal. But the simple fact is that little of this would have been possible without these supermajorities in Congress, which included many pro-New Deal Republicans. When you can afford to lose a dozen senators from your own party and almost 100 House representatives over a given bill, it’s relatively easy to get away with it. This is how our system works.
Apparently, the House Freedom Caucus doesn’t understand this, even though many of its members love to sing the praises of the Founders and the constitutional framework they gave us.
Not only does the Republican Party not control the Senate or the White House, but it barely controls the House of Representatives. When Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson leaves Congress later this month, Republicans will have only a two-seat majority (and really, only a one-seat majority because Rep. Steve Scalise will be out of Washington until next month due to to medical treatment). And contrary to what members of the House Freedom Caucus shout on cable television, you can’t dictate political outcomes just because you’re angry or because you’re right.
Arguments still matter, but the argument Republicans need to win is at the polls. Never mind that members of the House Freedom Caucus are in safe seats and won their elections. They need Republicans in competitive seats to win, and a lot of them. This is because millions of Americans elected Democrats to also oppose Republican policies. The idea that a weak House Speaker with a small, sharply divided majority can simply dominate the Senate and the White House is childish nonsense.
But childish nonsense is all the rage on the right these days. In fact, many of the same Republicans who demand results that Johnson cannot achieve spend much of their time behaving in ways that make it harder for them to win elections in competitive districts. Johnson himself did the same in 2020, when he pushed for an unconstitutional and objectively dishonest effort on behalf of Trump’s plan to overturn the election. Such efforts cost the GOP winnable races in 2022. Johnson’s reward? They made him an orator.
Republicans would be foolish to unseat Johnson over this deal, which doesn’t mean they won’t. Replacing a speaker for not being able to do things it can’t do is like replacing your dog for refusing to play the piano well. Your next dog will also have difficulty with “chopsticks.”
Republican agitators have always loved to denounce the perfidy of “RINOs” (Republicans in name only) who do not vote for hardline conservative policies. RINO is today an even sillier epithet because it means a Republican insufficiently loyal to Donald Trump.
Either way, if the GOP really wants to accomplish even a fraction of the things they say they want, they’ll need a lot more RINOs to win the election. And that will require Republicans to end their childishness.