How 20 McCarthy Holdouts Charted The Path For State-Level Conservatives Across The Country
The relatively small intra-party voting block achieved major congressional reforms and gave GOP state house lawmakers a leg to stand on.
By James Silberman – January 23, 2023
7 MIN READ
In successfully decentralizing rules changes and achieving the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, Freedom Caucus member committee assignments, floor vote guarantees, and a seeming sea change in the way House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is leading the Republican Conference, the concessions won by the 20 Republicans standing athwart McCarthy’s speaker bid for 14 votes is one of the most effective conservative congressional wins in recent history.
Over the opposition of most of the GOP pundit class and the deranged threats of congressional establishment shills calling them “terrorists” and threatening them with committee assignment revocations, this relatively small intra-party voting block achieved major congressional reforms and charted the path forward for conservatives in state houses across the country.
Coalescing in the States
Oklahoma State Sen. Warren Hamilton and Idaho State Sen. Scott Herndon said in interviews that the speaker battle has put leadership moderates on notice. “The message that was sent across the country is that you’ve got a lot of guys out there like [Oklahoma Congressman] Josh Brecheen who know that our system is not supposed to be one man running the House and 434 figureheads,” Hamilton said.
Herndon explained that the success of the 20 holdouts should inspire grassroots conservative momentum: “I do expect Freedom Caucus growth around the country, and as the state-level Freedom Caucus Network expands, we’re going to see that it can be effective as a balance against the establishment.”
One addition to the network has already been established since the beginning of the speaker fight. On Jan. 3, as the House battle was raging, a coalition of 14 Montana state legislators announced the formation of the Montana Freedom Caucus. Commenting on the new group, Montana State Sen.Theresa Manzella posted, “Did you watch the House Freedom Caucus block the election of the left-leaning speaker today? Small in number, but strong and strategic. We hope to be as effective at the state level!”
Montana is the 10th caucus within the State Freedom Caucus Network, which launched in 2021 to provide organization and strategy to conservative state legislators. Groups of legislators in Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Arizona, Illinois, Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia, and Pennsylvania have also joined the network.
Herndon, a member of the Idaho Freedom Caucus, credited the group for much improved conservative governance in the Gem State:
Previous to the caucus, the majority caucus would dictate policy. Republicans control 83 percent of the legislature. But with a tent so large, the caucus was not very conservative, and a lot of conservative policies didn’t pass. The power of a Freedom Caucus is our ability to coordinate our positions on issues we care about and commit to vote as a block so that we can have significant impact on the Republican caucus and gain more conservative policy wins.
For his part, Brecheen — one of five freshmen among the 20 holdouts — said he intended their stand to initiate widespread change both locally and federally rather than stand alone as a fleeting victory.
“By using leverage and getting these sorts of concessions, we hope we’ve created a model for decentralizing power that can be replicated,” Brecheen said. “We had the opportunity, through that block, to obtain concessions, and I do hope that that also happens at the state level.”
Overcoming Tyrannical Leadership
In more ways than one, the manner in which state and federal legislation is passed into law bears little resemblance to what the casual political observer might believe. The biggest distinction between perception and reality in this area is the fact that unless a representative or senator is a leader in their chamber, they often have little influence over what becomes law.
Legislators can file a bill, collect coauthors, and speak at a rally of thousands of people, but the decision of whether the bill will pass often comes down to one man (or a handful) who determines what committee the bill will be assigned to and who sits on the committee. Because of this concentration of power in leadership, members more or less do what leaders say for the sake of their political aspirations. They kiss the ring in the hope that they might one day wear it.
Perhaps the best federal examples of insider politics are the frequent omnibus appropriations bills authored by a handful of leaders and rushed to the floor of both chambers before rank-and-file members can read the thousands of pages of reckless, and often immoral, spending. Due to U.S. House rules during the 117th Congress, representatives were not even able to offer amendments to the December omnibus.
As demonstrated by every edition of Sen. Rand Paul’s annual Festivus Report, appropriations bills passed in this manner: 1) accelerate out-of-control spending as countless individual proposals that could never pass on their own are passed while hidden under the cover of thousands of pages and a rushed process, and 2) increase kickbacks for leadership’s corporate friends. Omnibus bills are a particularly acute microcosm of how Congress and many state legislatures operate.
In Oklahoma, a resident met with a Republican state senator concerning a 2020 bill to abolish abortion in the state. The senator expressed sympathy for the constituent’s cause but ultimately responded, “What am I supposed to do? Challenge the throne?”
“The throne” in the Oklahoma Senate had made clear to members that the Abolition of Abortion in Oklahoma Act (SB13) was not going to pass. The year prior, Sen. Joseph Silk, the bill’s author, was removed as vice-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and had all of his unrelated bills stonewalled by leadership. An example was made of Silk, and the other senators received the message that the throne was not to be challenged on the matter.
The antidote to this broken system where (usually moderate) leadership pulls all the strings is the creation and expansion of conservative caucuses that negotiate and vote as a block, as the 20 holdouts did. Ordinarily, leadership might respond to a group of 20 holdouts by offering a concession or promise of promotion to targeted individuals among the holdouts until enough of them are picked off one by one.
But, as Herndon explained, if a group large enough to make a difference in close votes joins together and refuses to give in until their collective list of ideological demands is met, they wield real power within a legislature.
An Idea-Driven Movement or a Power-Driven Party?
The political system makes participation in a party necessary to influence laws, but a party that exists for its own power’s sake while paying lip service to the ideas that are supposed to guide it is not a party that anyone who cares about the issues that matter should support. Coalitions of principled legislators need to coalesce and be the conscience of the Republican Party.
Whether it be in a Freedom Caucus or other similar variant, lawmakers who are in politics to truly make a difference toward abolishing abortion, balancing the budget, unleashing the economy, stopping weaponized bureaucracies, breaking the government’s education near-monopoly, lowering health care costs, combatting the LGBT agenda’s various insanities and coercion, and achieving other vital policy outcomes should formally coalesce within the Republican Party — negotiating as a block, voting as a block, and breaking the uniparty cartel’s vice grip on American politics.
James Silberman is the communications director for Free the States, an abolitionist lobbying organization working to reform the Christian response to abortion, supporting bills of total and immediate abolition. James is also a host on The Liberator Podcast, where he discusses the principles and applications of immediate abolitionism as opposed to pro-life incrementalism.