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Wherefore the Freedom Caucus?

Summary:
In a column for Reason Magazine yesterday, Matt Welch asks “What’s the point of a ‘limited government’ bloc that doesn’t limit government?” Indeed, in the Trump era some of the President’s most strident defenders can be found amongst the ranks of the Freedom Caucus, and, as my colleague Chris Edwards points out, they seem every bit as comfortable with big deficits as the other fiscal-conservatives-cum-spendthrifts in the GOP. But, to my knowledge, nobody has yet performed a systematic analysis of the Freedom Caucus’ voting behavior vis-a-vis other Republicans in the House. Do they, as a caucus, even vote cohesively? If so, are they at all differentiable from generic Republican House members? I set out to test this using the NOMINATE methodology to assign an “ideal-point” estimate for

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In a column for Reason Magazine yesterday, Matt Welch asks “What’s the point of a ‘limited government’ bloc that doesn’t limit government?” Indeed, in the Trump era some of the President’s most strident defenders can be found amongst the ranks of the Freedom Caucus, and, as my colleague Chris Edwards points out, they seem every bit as comfortable with big deficits as the other fiscal-conservatives-cum-spendthrifts in the GOP.

But, to my knowledge, nobody has yet performed a systematic analysis of the Freedom Caucus’ voting behavior vis-a-vis other Republicans in the House. Do they, as a caucus, even vote cohesively? If so, are they at all differentiable from generic Republican House members? I set out to test this using the NOMINATE methodology to assign an “ideal-point” estimate for each member of the House during the modern era of Republican dominance (2011-2018). For a quick explainer on NOMINATE, see this page. The basic upshot is that it will differentiate members of Congress according to their voting patterns, along two dimensions, with the x-dimension being dimension of primary importance and capturing inter-party variation. Democrats tend to have negative scores on the x-dimension, and Republicans tend to have positive scores. The y-dimension captures intra-party variation. The sign is arbitrary, but the inter-point distance is meaningful. I’ve labeled everyone who appears on the “membership” list on the Freedom Caucus wikipedia page. 

First, let’s look at all final passage votes over this period, regardless of substantive topic (this excludes votes such as amendments and procedural votes).

Wherefore the Freedom Caucus?

Freedom Caucus members are clearly differentiable from generic Republicans, and predominantly occupy the upper-right quadrant. 

Now, let’s generate ideal point estimates over subsets of all substantive rollcalls (amendments, procedure, etc.) pertaining to certain select topics:

Wherefore the Freedom Caucus?Wherefore the Freedom Caucus?

Wherefore the Freedom Caucus?Wherefore the Freedom Caucus?

Across each of these rollcall subsets, Freedom Caucus members are differentiable from other House Republicans, and consistently occupy the upper-right quadrant (note: comparing the substantive implications of these two dimensions across subsets is difficult. Nonetheless, Freedom Caucus members are distinct in some sense).

 It’s worth noting that on procedural votes, House leadership exercises more effective discipline on its members. This is consistent with the political science literature (Cox and Poole 2002). For example, look at the pattern on motions to recommit:

 Wherefore the Freedom Caucus?

While the substantive implications of the above graphs aren’t clear as of yet, I don’t think we can so easily dismiss the Freedom Caucus as generic Republicans. 

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