New caucus raises plenty of questions

York Dispatch editorial board
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

Facing minority status in the Pennsylvania State House, Republican lawmakers now have a minority within their minority: Their very own Freedom Caucus.

The state caucus is modeled on the congressional group of the same name, which is made up of the farthest of far-right conservatives. The congressional version is chaired by U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Carroll Township, who announced the state caucus at a late-November Harrisburg news conference.

Congressional Republicans are evidently franchising the Freedom Caucus model: Pennsylvania is the eighth state to join the caucus club.

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It just goes to show you can’t keep a bad idea down. The House Freedom Caucus, which was founded in 2015, has little to point to in the way of achievements, other than hounding its own leaders.

Former Speaker John Boehner fell victim to the group’s opposition in 2015 and would-be Speaker Kevin McCarthy is currently fighting off a laughable series of demands from the caucus as a condition of its support.

Meanwhile, the creation of a Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus raises a number of questions:

Who are its members?

Like the U.S. House contingent, state leaders are being tight-lipped about the caucus’s membership, which they say numbers about two dozen, or roughly a quarter of statehouse Republicans.

State Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-Dillsburg, will chair the caucus along with Union County Rep. David Rowe. A second York County Republican, state Rep. Mike Jones of York Township, confirmed to the Dispatch that he, too, has joined. But the list of members to the invitation-only caucus ends there.

For a group that was formed because, according to Perry, “People don’t vote for Republicans to come to the state capitol and work out deals in (the) back room with leftist Democrats,” the lack of transparency seems, at best, hypocritical.

What are its goals?

In a press release, Keefer 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.”

Those hardly sound like niche positions that require a secretive special caucus to advance.

Besides, given Perry’s comments and the congressional caucus’s record of standing in the way of, rather than facilitating, legislation, it’s hard to get hopes up that the state Freedom Caucus won’t chart a similar course.

In fact, Chris Borick, a Muhlenberg College professor of political science, told the Dispatch that minority groups like the Freedom Caucus often exist to throw sand in the majority’s legislative gears.

“I doubt compromise would be a front-and-center goal for a caucus like this,” he said, “given their priorities and their approach to politics.”

Harrisburg is already beset with partisan infighting. Another self-interested faction hardly seems the recipe for improvement.

Does Pennsylvania really need a Freedom Caucus?

To the extent that it will be a largely anonymous bloc pushing hyper-conservative positions under cover of vague maxims like “protecting personal freedoms,” the appeal would seem limited to right-wing culture warriors.

In fact, Perry perhaps unknowingly captured the caucus’s mindset at the news conference.

“These folks are here to fight for something,” he said of the caucus members. “Fight for something that their constituents sent them here to do.” 

That “something,” however, went undefined.

Chalk it up as yet another question left unanswered as Pennsylvania’s Freedom Caucus begins whatever steps it will take with whomever its members are to achieve whatever its goals may be.

It’s all very … questionable.

Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflected that Rep. Scott Perry lives in Carroll Township, York County.