The House Freedom Caucus is largely right about debt and deficits. Some members might be staggering hypocrites given that they had little problem with Donald Trump’s spending when he was president. But they’re right that the budget deal worked out between Speaker 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 primary stated reason McCarthy had to go—over the objections of 96 percent of the GOP conference—was that McCarthy agreed to a budget deal that relied on Democratic votes and exceeded spending caps agreed to earlier. The Johnson-Schumer deal, which would prevent a looming government shutdown if enacted, pretty much does the same thing.
Outraged, the House Freedom Caucus condemned the deal: “Republicans promised millions of voters that we would fight to change the status quo and it is long past time to deliver.” The deal, they declared, is a “fiscal calamity.”
And they’re right.
But all of that is beside the point. I’m a big believer 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 is making the arguments.
When Franklin Roosevelt entered office, Democrats had a huge majority in the House, 313 seats to the GOP’s 117. In the Senate, Democrats held 59 seats, the GOP 36. In the next Congress, Democrats controlled 70 seats in the Senate and 322 in the House. History gives FDR the lion’s share of the credit—or in my ideological backwater, the blame—for the New Deal. But the simple fact is that little of it would have been possible without these supermajorities in Congress, which included many Republicans who were pro-New Deal. When you can afford to lose a dozen senators of your own party and nearly 100 representatives in the House on a given piece of legislation, it’s relatively easy to get your way. That’s just how our system works.
Apparently, the House Freedom Caucus doesn’t get 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 GOP not control the Senate or the White House, they barely control the House. When Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson leaves Congress later this month, the Republicans will have only a two-seat majority (and really, just a one-seat majority because Rep. Steve Scalise will be away from Washington until next month because of medical treatment). And contrary to what House Freedom Caucus members shout on cable TV, you can’t dictate policy outcomes just because you’re angry—or right.
Arguments still matter, but the argument Republicans need to win is at the ballot box. It doesn’t matter that House Freedom Caucus members are in safe seats and won their elections. They need Republicans in competitive seats to win, and lots of them. That’s because millions of Americans elected Democrats to oppose Republican policies, too. The idea that a weak House speaker with a tiny and sharply divided majority can simply overpower the Senate and the White House is childish nonsense.
But childish nonsense is all the rage on the right these days. Indeed, many of the same Republicans who demand results Johnson is powerless to achieve spend much of their time behaving in ways that make it harder for Republicans to win elections in competitive districts. Johnson himself did the same thing in 2020, when he pushed an unconstitutional and factually dishonest effort on behalf of Trump’s scheme to overturn the election. Such efforts cost the GOP winnable races in 2022. Johnson’s reward? They made him speaker.
Republicans would be fools to oust Johnson for this deal—which doesn’t mean they won’t. Replacing a speaker for not being able to do things he cannot do is like replacing your dog for refusing to play the piano well. Your next dog will struggle at “Chopsticks,” too.
Republican firebrands have always loved to denounce the perfidy of “RINOs”—Republicans In Name Only—who don’t vote for hardline conservative policies. RINO is an even dumber epithet today because it now means a Republican insufficiently loyal to Donald Trump.
Either way, if the GOP wants to actually achieve a fraction of the things they claim to want, they’ll need a lot more RINOs to win elections. And that will require that Republicans end their childishness.