By Jordan M. Ragusa
Congress seems hopelessly divided between two warring parties. From a spending impasse that caused a government shutdown to a tax reform bill that didn’t receive a single Democratic vote, our nation’s legislature appears to be mired in partisan conflict.
Academics have dedicated considerable time to the nature of these divisions, focusing on partisan conflict over policy outcomes (here and here), non-ideological teamsmanship (here), learned partisan norms (here), and strategic behavior in a competitive electoral environment (here and here).
But what about divisions within the parties? Far less time has been dedicated to this topic.
Despite the relative lack of attention, there’s nothing unusual about intraparty member organizations. In the contemporary Congress, various such groups exist. On the Democratic side, there are Blue Dog Democrats, consisting of moderate-to-conservative members, and the Progressive Caucus, representing the party’s liberal faction. On the Republican side, you have the Republican Study Committee, representing mainstream conservatives, and the Main Street Partnership, consisting of the party’s moderates.
Yet one intraparty organization takes center stage: the Freedom Caucus. In fact, a recent meeting of my LegBranch.com colleagues took up the pivotal role of the Freedom Caucus. Formed in 2015, the Freedom Caucus consists of hardline conservatives who support limited government, individual liberty, and the rule of law. Among its accomplishments, the Freedom Caucus is best known for pushing then-Speaker of the House John Boehner into early retirement. In the current 115th Congress, the Freedom Caucus is credited with pulling the GOP Obamacare repeal effort further to the right and it appears poised to do the same on the pending immigration reform effort.
Do intraparty organizations like the Freedom Caucus matter?
At first blush, this seems like an absurd question. Of course the Freedom Caucus matters! But whether and how intraparty organizations matter is not obvious.
On what it means to “matter,” congressional scholars want to know whether these organizations have an effect on the behavior of their members. And on this question, we must confront a thorny issue: how to disentangle ideology from group membership. It’s a classic question regarding whether parties matter. Although it may seem odd to suggest that parties don’t affect member behavior, some political scientists have made this very claim… and for good reason. Krehbiel’s aptly titled “Where’s the Party?” (1993, pg. 238) summed it up best:
...do individual legislators vote with fellow party members in spite of their disagreement about the policy in question, or do they vote with fellow party members because of their agreement about the policy in question? (1993, pg. 238, italics in original)
Simply put, a lawmaker’s ideology may simultaneously explain what party they join and their legislative behavior. If so, parties would be inconsequential.
Yet a range of studies have come to challenge this conclusion. With respect to parties in Congress, we now know they have a host of tools—some subtle but nonetheless consequential—that shape the behavior of their rank-and-file. A key piece of evidence comes via members that switch parties. Because these “switchers” have the same ideology and represent the same district/state, it is possible to examine their legislative behavior in a pre/post fashion and isolate the effect of their new party. In multiple studies, see here and here, switchers are found to make consequential shifts in their roll-call behavior in the direction of their new co-partisans.
A recent paper of mine, co-authored with Anthony Gaspar, explored the same set of issues focused instead on intraparty organizations, in particular the Tea Party Caucus. We wanted to know whether intraparty organizations have “party like” effects on the behavior of their members. Like the debate on whether parties exert an independent effect on members, it is possible that conservative lawmakers join party factions like the Tea Party and Freedom Caucuses and vote in the same way owing to their pre-existing ideological agreement.
Like when lawmakers change parties, the results of our study indicate that joining the Tea Party Caucus caused a significant shift to the right in members’ roll-call record in the 112th Congress. Although conservatives were certainly more likely to join the Tea Party Caucus in the first place, the evidence indicates they became even more conservative after joining. An additional analysis reveals that members of the Tea Party Caucus did not “bounce back” in the 113th Congress, as lawmakers tend to do when they shift too far to the extremes in a prior Congress.
In short, yes, intraparty organizations, like the Freedom Caucus, matter. In fact, the data indicate they have “party like” effects on the behavior of their members. Which brings up the second question: How intraparty organizations matter.
How do intraparty organizations like the Freedom Caucus matter?
As a theoretical matter, my paper argues that intraparty organizations conduct many of the same functions as parties in Congress. For starters, these organizations hold regular meetings, exchange, and develop legislative strategies. Like parties, congressional member organizations have leaders that create an agenda and coordinate the organizations’ actions. If you’re interested, Matt Glassman has a deep dive on congressional member organizations.
Although it is true intraparty organizations lack some tools wielded by the actual parties, members have reasons to support the caucus’s agenda nonetheless. On the one hand, the Caucus’s position may serve as a useful heuristic in the absence of perfect information about some legislative matter. Because members have limited time, staff, and are inundated with information, they often look for “shortcuts” when making a decision. On the other hand, intraparty organizations can compete with their parent party for control over the agenda, where concerted policy coordination might pull legislation further to the left or right. No doubt we have seen evidence of this effect succeed with the Freedom Caucus.
Another explanation for how these organizations affect the behavior of their members in a “party like” manner stems from a more subtle process of member socialization. Although uncommon in the parties-in-Congress literature, which is dominated by rational choice explanations of legislative behavior, a few authors have cited socialization as an important factor in legislative politics. Some have even suggested that parties intentionally socialize members, and that these learned partisan norms help explain interparty conflict. Given the Freedom Caucus’s reputation as a coalition of hardline and uncompromising conservatives, perhaps lawmakers simply adopt those behavioral norms as a condition of membership.
All in all, intraparty organizations, like the Freedom Caucus, are no doubt a consequential, yet under studied, aspect of contemporary legislative politics. Whether they represent what’s “wrong” with Congress is a separate issue. On this question, I’d echo Philip Wallach’s point that the answer depends on your baseline beliefs about what a healthy legislature should look like.
Jordan M. Ragusa is an associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston, where he directs the college's American Politics Research Team and is a research fellow in the Center for Public Choice and Market Process.