Feeling a Part of the Process, Freedom Caucus Eyes ‘Gut Check’ for Paul Ryan on Spending Bills

After experiencing the first week of Speaker Paul Ryan’s House, conservatives say they feel right at home.

A week into Ryan’s tenure, members of the House Freedom Caucus are crediting the speaker for delivering on his promise to open up the legislative process, and delegate authority to rank-and-file members.

And though the outcomes of the new process did not go how conservatives wanted — the House passed a transportation bill that isn’t fully funded, and permits the revival of the Export-Import Bank — Freedom Caucus members insist that more open debate will allow for their ideas to eventually win out.

“I thought the process was extraordinarily fair and really, really healthy,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a Freedom Caucus member, in an interview with The Daily Signal.

“It was even enjoyable to go to work this week, because at least we are giving voice to the people back home. [The highway bill] is a bill that’s been cooked up the last several months, if not longer, so it’s hard to imagine how Paul [Ryan] inserting himself would make it different. What little improvement we saw was a direct result of Paul’s speakership.”

That appreciation was seconded by Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., another Freedom Caucus member. “It was exactly what we were looking for,” Salmon told The Daily Signal. “We were hoping for the process to be opened up and it was.”

Mulvaney, R-S.C., probably more than anyone, got the full taste of Ryan’s open House.

Of the 126 amendments that lawmakers voted on this week related to the Highway Trust Fund, five of them were measures authored by Mulvaney — all meant to weaken the Export-Import Bank if reopened.

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Each of the amendments failed to pass, but Mulvaney isn’t fretting — at least, he said, there was an opportunity to make a pitch for his ideas.

“I have no complaints whatsoever,” Mulvaney said. “It was clear the will of the body was to revive the Ex-Im Bank. We got to have 80 minutes of debate on the floor about what’s wrong with the bank, and why we think it should have been killed. That point would have never been made if not for those amendments. My folks back home don’t like the bank very much. The grassroots don’t like it at all. I was able to put some voice to their concerns. We lost, but we’re not going to win every time, nor should you probably.”

Still, the amendment process on the highway bill was not completely open. Instead of allowing any amendment to be brought to the floor, House leaders, as has been typical, relied on the powerful Rules Committee to approve groups of amendments to be debated and voted on.

“It’s a lot better than [John] Boehner’s system, but recent consideration of the highway bill fell far short of an open process,” said Justin Amash, R-Mich., a Freedom Caucus member. “Almost without exception, the amendments placed in order made the bill less conservative, did practically nothing, or had no chance of passing.”

While the Freedom Caucus enjoyed its first taste of life under Ryan, R-Wis., its members also want more than a honeymoon.

After all, some lawmakers remember how former Speaker John Boehner made similar promises — and even delivered on them, for a short time — allowing the House to vote on 100 amendments during the passing of an omnibus spending bill in 2011.

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But conservatives later reviled Boehner, R-Ohio, for moving to tightly control the legislative process.

With that in mind, Freedom Caucus members will watch closely how Ryan handles an upcoming debate over spending bills to fund the government.

Former House Speaker John Boehner worked with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell,  Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in crafting a budget deal. (Photo: Michael Reynolds/EPA/Newscom)

Just before his Oct. 30 departure, Boehner helped negotiate a budget deal with President Barack Obama that set spending levels above the caps negotiated in 2011.

Congress must still adopt spending bills by Dec. 11 that dictate where the money is spent.

With the deadline quickly approaching, conventional wisdom says that lawmakers will pursue a sweeping, all-encompassing omnibus spending measure that combines all the appropriations for the various agencies into one bill.

Individual spending bills have been difficult to pass in recent years; the House has approved six of 12 so far this year. Some House lawmakers, including Freedom Caucus members, want to restart the normal appropriations process to individually pass the six remaining spending bills.

No matter what the method ends up being, conservatives are vowing to include policy riders, including a measure to defund Planned Parenthood, to the spending bills.

“We will approach the process very aggressively,” Salmon said. “Our focus will be to hold it up with every rider you can imagine. If we are not willing to use the power of the purse as the founding founders intended, what are we here for?”

Freedom Caucus members say Ryan is already starting the debate — and they like the way he’s framing it.

At a Republican conference meeting on Thursday, Ryan told members that it will be entirely up to them to determine the way forward. He later told reporters, “Every member will have a chance to review each bill and give their input on their priorities.”

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“I get the very distinct impression Paul believes as much as I do in the primacy of the power of the purse,” Mulvaney said.

“He made it very clear that this is our job—he will run the conference, and messaging, and be the boss, but the ideas are coming from the members.”

In addition to trying to defund Planned Parenthood, conservatives will also look to move on other goals, such as reigning in the IRS and repealing environmental regulations.

Yet Freedom Caucus members, aware of their limitations, are also urging caution.

“We cannot necessarily block the will of House,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., in an interview with The Daily Signal. “That’s not our job. It’s to persuade our colleagues to do the right thing.”

Indeed, in Ryan’s House, Freedom Caucus members just want a seat at the table. And while they are optimistic for now, they will wait to declare judgement on his service.

“The proof will still be in the pudding,” Mulvaney said. “For him, that means [how does he handle] the first issue that comes up entirely on his watch. It could be the appropriations bills, it could be the omnibus coming in December. Whatever is Paul’s, and uniquely Paul’s, needs to be better than what it would be if Boehner were speaker. That would be the very first gut check on how his speakership is going.”

This story was updated to include new quotes from Rep. Justin Amash.

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