ATLANTA — A gang of staunch conservatives could be bringing delay tactics and policy confrontations with Republican leadership to a state legislature near you.
The House Freedom Caucus launched a state-based network on Tuesday with the introduction of the Georgia legislative Freedom Caucus, modeled after the pressure-focused congressional group of Republicans that helped to oust former Republican House Speaker John Boehner in 2015.
Georgia’s is the first state-based Freedom Caucus formally recognized by the original congressional crew, but similar caucuses could soon be recognized or created in dozens of states. In a show of force, founding members of the Georgia Freedom Caucus were joined by state lawmakers from more than a dozen other states, including Wyoming, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Indiana, South Dakota, Nevada, and Texas, in the Georgia state Capitol on Tuesday.
“The message that we hope that the other members of our party take from this is that we are going to continue to be steadfast and vital to the principles of limited government, and conservative principles,” said state Rep. Philip Singleton, vice chairman of the Georgia Freedom Caucus. “We are here to help the party grow, to help the party unite behind the principles that we aspire to. And we intend to make sure that that accountability exists.”
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Georgia state Sen. Greg Dolezal, chairman of the bicameral Georgia Freedom Caucus, indicated that immediate legislative priorities for the caucus include bills to lower taxes and combat "dangerous ideology" in public schools. But he stressed that stopping legislation from passing could be just as much, if not more, of a focus.
“We are going to make sure that we're also working with our colleagues to stop legislation to increase the size and scope of government that reduces the liberties among the citizens of Georgia, and push back against any federal overreach,” Dolezal said.
By creating a state-based network, organizers hope to insert structure and strategy into factions of conservative state lawmakers so they can generate leverage in favor of more conservative policies. The network will provide a Freedom Caucus director to provide bill analysis and vote recommendations to part-time lawmakers, who are often strapped for resources.
“Not all of them have staff to do this,” Andy Roth, president of the State Freedom Caucus Network, said in an interview. “If they do have staff, a lot of times, that staff serves at the pleasure of leadership. So, leadership's interests may not be aligned with the members' interests.”
In signature Freedom Caucus fashion, the network may also teach caucus members about its legislative rules and what procedural tools can be used as levers to exert pressure on Democrats and on their own party leaders. In Congress, the Freedom Caucus has made delay tactics such as requesting a recorded vote on supposedly noncontroversial bills traditionally passed by voice vote and making motions to adjourn the House a defining feature of the 117th Congress.
“We're finding as we're talking to these folks and looking at the rules, is that they're deliberately not informed of what their procedural rights are,” said Justin Ouimette, executive director of the House Freedom Caucus in Washington. “It becomes self-limiting if you don't know everything that you can do to win a legislative fight or alter the terrain that it's being fought upon because leadership has things set up the way they want to benefit their interests.”
Coronavirus restrictions and voting procedure changes, among other issues, put the spotlight on the importance of organizing conservative lawmakers in 2020. This year, policies such as vaccine mandates and Democratic proposals to impose federal standards on voting laws have kept federalism issues front and center, propelling the state Freedom Caucus network forward.
“If we're going to save this nation, I think Congress has a role to play. But by far, the dominant role will be from the states and state leaders,” Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, the outgoing chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said in a phone interview.
Biggs, who sees the growing national network as a highlight of his time as Freedom Caucus chairman, also hopes that the network can serve as a means of communication between and among the state legislatures and Congress. The vision is for conservatives to keep each other informed about issues gaining traction among their base and to adopt strategies that have been effective elsewhere.
Some legislative Freedom Caucuses are in the beginning stages of trying to get established. Other legislative Freedom Caucuses in Texas, Idaho, and New Hampshire formed years ago out of natural inspiration from the congressional version but are eager for the collaboration and resources that come with formalizing a relationship with the House Freedom Caucus.
“We had to find out a lot of what didn't work before we found what did work,” said Mikael Garcia, executive director of the Texas Freedom Caucus, which formed in 2017.
The group, which has nine sitting members listed on its website, made waves that year by forcing delays past a midnight legislative session deadline that killed more than 100 bills. The members knew that killing a key funding bill would prompt a special session, during which time they were able to bring up other conservative legislation that would not have been considered before the end of the regular session.
Garcia said that “learning cold the parliamentary rules” has been critical to his own group’s success, “not just because we know them so well, but also because nobody else knows them at all.”
Georgia’s Freedom Caucus, like its congressional counterpart, is not releasing a list of its members, partly to protect members from retribution from leadership.
“Our membership is much deeper and wider than expected,” Singleton said. “We're much stronger if our full strength is not known.”
More than 200 operatives and lawmakers from more than 20 states gathered for a dinner Tuesday night to celebrate the launch of the network, hosted by the Conservative Partnership Institute, which is supporting the State Freedom Caucus Network.
Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus and senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute, delivered a keynote speech at the dinner just hours before the House voted to hold him in criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a select committee investigation into the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
“As we are here, there are a group of Freedom Caucus members on the House floor, debating and fighting for a friend of theirs because of what they see happening to him,” Meadows told the room.
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He warned the state lawmakers, though, that it will not always be pretty. He recalled commentary that his career was over after making an obscure motion to vacate the chair in 2015. That move, however, contributed to Speaker Boehner resigning from Congress later that year. The House Freedom Caucus turned into a force in less than a year.
“When you decide to do your Freedom Caucus, they're gonna pat you on the hat and say, ‘That's great for you. You'll never amount to anything,’” Meadows said. But then: “They realize that you have enough leverage to stop what they're trying to get done, and you actually get invited to the table."