What can we expect from Pa.'s new House Freedom Caucus?

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Perry made waves in Harrisburg with the announcement of a state House version of the Congressional House Freedom Caucus, but the announcement left significant questions unanswered.

State Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-Dillsburg, will chair the new group of conservative lawmakers but its goals — and even a full picture of the caucus' membership — remain elusive. Keefer herself did not respond to requests for comment, and neither did several other purported members.

Chris Borick, a Muhlenberg College professor of political science, said the history of the Congressional House Freedom Caucus lends some insight into what Pennsylvania can expect from its local incarnation. This new caucus, he said, will likely attempt to drive the Republican party further right and is indicative of the broader populist movement led by people like former President Donald Trump.

"Like in Washington, where the Freedom Caucus has tried to drive Republican priorities and rhetoric, you're seeing this becoming an institutionalized part of the broader populist movement in the Republican party," Borick said. "They're looking to bolster the movement both in and out of government."

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Pennsylvania is one of eight states that's a part of the State House Freedom Caucus Network, established last year and run by former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Meadows himself served as chair of the caucus in Congress.

U.S. Congressman Scott Perry, center right, is greeted by Jim Phipps, center left, of York Township, during the York County Republicans watch party at Wisehaven Event Center in Windsor Township, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

Perry, who now chairs the House Freedom Caucus in Washington, was in frequent contact with Meadows in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, including passing along a discredited conspiracy theory that alleged an Italian defense contractor had flipped votes from former President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden.

The Department of Justice called that theory "patently absurd," according to Axios.

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Since its formation in 2015, the national caucus has been known for its opposition to certain Republican leaders it deemed not conservative enough. For example, its members opposed then-House Speaker John Boehner, who resigned in October 2015. In 2017, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan withdrew a bill that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) because he lacked the support of Republicans who felt it did not go far enough in undermining President Barack Obama's agenda.

That's what those in the minority do, Borick said.

"One of the standard things you do if you're not in the majority, you look for ways to slow down any legislative initiatives that are coming from the majority," he said. "I doubt compromise would be a front and center goal for a caucus like this, given their priorities and their approach to politics."

Rep. Dawn Keefer discusses concerns as York County Commissioners meet with state lawmakers and poll workers to discuss last weeks election as well as  address necessary improvements needed for future elections, at the York County Administrative Center in York City, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Perry made that clear at his Nov. 28 news conference, calling Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro "the most radical leftist and most partisan governor probably of our lifetime" and describing anyone who refused to vote for Republicans a "leftist."

That rhetoric, Borick said, is a stretch.

"I think Shapiro's going to look both in the Senate and in the House, where he has a very slim majority, to find a bipartisan coalition," he said. "I think Shapiro's going to disappoint progressives as much as he disappoints the Freedom Caucus members in terms of his approach."

Political analyst G. Terry Madonna agreed.

"Shapiro, I would describe as moderate left," he said. "Obviously, he's pro-choice on abortion and he's made a big deal about that, but he's also reaching out to Republicans on things like growth, he's not going to end fracking."

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Appearing beside Perry at the news conference, Keefer declined to say how many had been invited to the caucus. In a press release, she said the group will "stand united to protect personal freedoms, the right to pursue economic aspirations without undue government influence and the right to live and raise a family without big brother of government usurping individual liberties."

Specific policy objectives remain elusive.

Another York County Republican, state Rep. Mike Jones, of York Township, confirmed via email to The York Dispatch that he was a charter member of the new caucus. But he did not respond to follow-up questions about the group's goals.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Mike Jones during the York County Republicans watch party at Wisehaven Event Center in Windsor Township, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

The current state House speaker, Lancaster County Republican state Rep. Bryan Cutler, said via a spokesperson that he is not a member of the new caucus. When asked via email, House GOP spokesperson Kaetlin Morrison declined to identify who was part of the caucus.

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Madonna said it's too soon to know what the caucus' impact will be — particularly since Democrats hold a fragile majority in the chamber, with three special elections coming next year.

"Come the New Year, we're just going to have to wait and see until somebody gets to the magic 102 [number of state House seats]," Madonna said.

The Pennsylvania GOP legislative leaders, from left, Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, Appropriations Committee Chair Stan Saylor and House Speaker Bryan Cutler speak before the start of an afternoon session at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, July 7, 2022. (Mark Pynes/The Patriot-News via AP)

The Freedom Caucus announced it has 23 charter members, approximately a quarter of Republicans in the House. The analysts said that's probably not enough to force specific policies through the chamber — but it may be enough to change priorities or to delay certain discussions.

"It does say that three quarters of Republicans aren't in that caucus," Borick said, "and obviously no Democrats."

Ultimately, however, Borick noted the caucus likely would not affect the governor-elect's strategy that much.

"I don't think he was probably expecting much from them," Borick said. "From a legislative perspective, they weren't going to be with him, and they just made that official."

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.