State

Firebrand Roots Contrast Legislative Hopes as the Texas Freedom Caucus Enters Third Session

It was May 12, 2017, and bills were dying on the Texas House floor faster than soldiers at Stalingrad.

Except it was neither bullets nor explosions doing the damage — rather, a strategically and mercilessly used parliamentary procedure that killed an entire slate of bills before a looming deadline. A legislative massacre, just days before Mother’s Day, as it were.

The maneuver was a grand display of deliberate obstruction — as much part of the process as sending bills through committee — as many conservatives will say “killing bad bills is more important than passing good ones.” The undertaking was a message aimed squarely at then-Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio).

And the incensed band of rebels from which the shot came was the burgeoning Texas Freedom Caucus (TFC) — plus Rep. Scott Sandford (R-McKinney).

The band of 12 conservative lawmakers had formed only months before with the mission “to amplify the voice of liberty-minded grassroots.”

Those founding members were Reps. Kyle Biedermann (R-Fredericksburg), Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park), Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), Mike Lang (R-Granbury), Jeff Leach (R-Plano), Matt Rinaldi (R-Irving), Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler), Matt Shaheen (R-Plano), Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), Valoree Swanson (R-Spring), Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington), and Bill Zedler (R-Arlington).

Four are no longer in the House: Lang, Rinaldi, Stickland, and Zedler. Three others still hold their offices but have since left the caucus: Biedermann, Leach, and Tinderholt.

With a few additions elected since — Reps. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville), Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands), and Cody Vasut (R-Angleton) — the headcount now stands at eight.

Despite membership shifts, the TFC heads into its third legislative session. But discontent swells within some ranks of its base.

Firebrand Beginnings Born of Frustration

The caucus was launched in the dawn of the 85th Legislature. Krause told The Texan he credits its formation to Schaefer who had the idea after the 2015 session. After supporting Rep. Scott Turner (R-Frisco) against Straus in the speaker’s race, the group decided a cohesive front operating outside of leadership could help push for grassroots priorities.

Original members of the Texas Freedom Caucus founded in 2017.

Upset with Straus’ leadership and proclivity for snubbing their legislation out of hand, the ensemble banded together to mount opposition. Notably, the Republican Straus had originally secured the speakership with a majority-Democrat backing. But in 2017, he was elected unanimously with no opponent.

The Freedom Caucus’ apex that session, the Mother’s Day Massacre, consisted of two maneuvers.

The first was the prevention of sunset safety net legislation from passing. That effort succeeded and triggered a special session during which the governor and lieutenant governor advocated a very conservative agenda. The results were a mixed bag, but the caucus, and many conservatives across the state, saw it as a win.

The second came after Straus and his lieutenant, then-Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), refused to move members’ legislation. The retaliation came in the form of “chubbing” the Local and Consent Calendar — a tactic designed to run out a bill’s 10-minute clock after which it is removed from the day’s agenda.

“It wasn’t about causing trouble. It was about using specific tactics to create leverage that would enable our GOP priorities to pass,” former Rep. Matt Rinaldi told The Texan.

He stipulated the attempt couldn’t have succeeded without an ally, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, in the Senate.

Krause added, “From the perspective of dealing with leadership, it was tough. Yet we were still effective at getting through the sanctuary city amendment and various pro-life amendments, but it was really only from the outside looking in.”

In an interview with The Texan, Shaheen also pointed to a rules change which required a speaker candidate to garner two-thirds support from Republican members to secure the nomination — aimed directly at Straus’ original ascension.

At the conclusion of their inaugural session, Leach left, citing a desire to focus on the House GOP caucus as a whole.

Straus later announced he would leave office, a move many caucus members celebrated and took measured responsibility for.

Riding high from their initial success, the caucus and all Texas Republicans transitioned toward an approaching knock-down, drag-out election battle led by a 6-foot-4 El Paso Congressman with a penchant for Whataburger and kickflips.

Members of the Texas Freedom Caucus being recognized at the 2018 Republican Party of Texas. (Photo courtesy of the Texas Freedom Caucus)

The Kumbaya Session

Having just lost nine state House seats, including Rinaldi’s; two state Senate seats; and nearly the first statewide office in 25 years, Texas Republicans were shellshocked heading into the 2019 session. 

A renewed focus on “bread and butter issues” became the cause du jour, and property tax and school finance reform were chief among those.

Bonnen had secured the speakership with an initial list of 109 supporters — including 10 of the 11 TFC members — that eventually became a unanimous vote on the session’s opening day.

With the caucus’ bogeyman gone and a more conservative speaker now grasping the gavel, spirits were high.

Middleton, who cited the “conservative grit” of the TFC as what prompted him to join, said members had a refreshed optimism about their legislation being given a real shot.

As a freshman, Middleton was able to get the taxpayer-funded lobbying ban to the floor for a vote, which ultimately failed to pass.

One half of the 86th Session’s marquee accomplishment was property tax reform, reducing the cap on increases for cities, counties, and school districts. The caucus celebrated its passage — and played a behind-the-scenes role in its final form.

Middleton said the caucus lobbied to cut the school district cap from 5 percent in half to the final 2.5 percent. Krause also pointed to the sales tax swap, proposed by the “Big Three” during the property tax fight which ultimately died under its own weight, as something the group worked behind the scenes to kill.

Shaheen further stated, “Every session, the Freedom Caucus becomes more and more effective. The 2019 session, we were able to have influence over legislation.”

Another push by the caucus came with Krause’s “Save Chick-fil-A” bill. While his original bill died in the House, it was revived in the Senate and signed into law by Governor Abbott. Another came with a campus free speech bill which Cain sponsored.

Despite those successes, portions of the grassroots were upset with the whole GOP for, among other things, failing to deliver on significant pieces of pro-life legislation such as the Abolition of Abortion, Heartbeat Bill, or Preborn Nondiscrimination Act.

Each of those bills was carried by members of the caucus — but the blame fell to them, too.

Krause said the TFC shared that disappointment. “We felt that the best approach was to work within the system with people who wanted to work with us to get that done, and that also means we have to take some of the blame and criticism for things not getting done.”

At the session’s close, group members held 10 of the top 15 most conservative spots on Rice University’s post-session rankings. Soon-to-be member, Toth, held another spot, as did Stickland who left the caucus midway through the session.

From the outside looking in, however, Rinaldi saw the 86th Legislature as a missed opportunity for GOP priorities. 

“[Speaker] Bonnen used a different tactic than Straus by including conservatives in the process more to try to keep them quiet,” said Rinaldi, “which didn’t become evident to most until late in the session.”

“I think most in the Freedom Caucus were caught by surprise, and didn’t use the [2017 tactics] because they were hoping Bonnen was more conservative than he turned out to be,” Rinaldi continued.

The late realization coupled with the lieutenant governor jumping on-board with the “purple agenda,” Rinaldi posited, left the caucus without the “endgame for success” of two years prior.

The Interim Nobody Saw Coming

Almost in an instant, the interim turned from lull to frenzy when Bonnen’s quid pro quo offer to a grassroots leader was exposed in a recording. The fallout amounted to a divided House GOP — and a divided Freedom Caucus.

Three members called for his resignation; six pushed Bonnen to forsake reelection; and one, Krause, remained impartial due to his post on the committee evaluating the allegations.

But after the Bonnen episode, the group moved toward preparing for the 87th Legislative Session. 

They launched a new project, the Texas Wastebook, to investigate examples of “waste, fraud, and abuse” within the state budget. Already, the project has identified $8 million of excessive employee hazard pay from the Texas Department of Transportation during the pandemic.

Coronavirus, and the emergency powers it exposed, became another focus. Caucus members criticized the extent to which Abbott has exercised executive authority.

The group also hit on property taxes and police defunding significantly.

At the close of the interim, Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) mounted his successful bid for the speakership. Each member of the TFC signed Phelan’s initial support list.

Shaheen explained his optimism, telling The Texan, “A good speaker is one that lets the members drive the process and lets each member represent their district.”

The TFC’s ranks dwindled slightly as Biedermann and Tinderholt left, with Biedermann specifically citing the group’s internal list of approved speaker candidates as part of his reasoning.

A New Session Brings New Promise

The caucus recently unveiled its legislative priorities that includes the Heartbeat Bill, constitutional carry, and taxpayer-funded lobbying ban.

The Texas House Freedom Caucus at a press conference. From left to right: Reps. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano), Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), Mayes Middleton (Speaking, R-Wallisville), Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands), Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler), Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park), Cody Vasut (R-Angleton). (The Texan/Daniel Friend)

It also features new initiatives like a prohibition on minor hormone therapy and restriction of the state’s emergency powers.

Middleton, now the caucus chair, said he doesn’t expect everything to matriculate but remains optimistic.

Shaheen added, “Our constitution is very conservative in nature — it’s meant to make it very hard to pass bills.”

Rinaldi, on the other hand, thinks the caucus must channel its former outside-the-box tactics to pass priorities this session along with other conservatives in the House.

Krause sees opportunity with those fellow conservatives to succeed where they failed two years ago.

“It’s important to listen to the criticism and learn from it for the next opportunity,” said Krause. “But now if you see a dearth in GOP priorities getting done, I think you’re going to again see that contingent within the Freedom Caucus, and those outside of it, get more vocal and push back where we can.”

Vasut, who is succeeding Bonnen, opted to join the group in his first session.

“I’m passionate about liberty and limited government, and so, joining the Freedom Caucus is a natural step for me to represent my district,” Vasut said. “My constituents value the [Republican Party of Texas] legislative priorities and the things the Freedom Caucus stands for.”

He added, “The more that I learn about how the House operates, the more respect I have for Dennis Bonnen because Dennis empowered members to represent their districts.” He further stipulated that he thinks Phelan will be friendly to GOP priorities.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) declined the invite to the TFC. Slaton told The Texan in a statement, “I have made it clear to every member I’ve talked to that my priority this session is delivering conservative results.”

“I will work with any member, regardless of what group they are in, to advance Conservative Policies. Most of the Freedom Caucus have made it clear they want to work together, several have made it clear they do not,” he concluded.

Another conservative freshman, Rep. Jeff Cason (R-Bedford), also declined to join.

Slaton caused a stir amid the rules fight during which he introduced two amendments that would have barred Democrats from chairing some or all committees. The proposals highlighted discord within the TFC, as some members sided with the freshman while others, like Cain, remained adamantly opposed.

With new opportunities ahead, the caucus looks to balance playing ball to accomplish their goals with assuaging growing discontent.

“Our priorities are the grassroots’ priorities,” concluded Middleton. “We’re here to do everything we can to implement what they want to see happen.”

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