Can caucuses save Congress?
© Getty Images

Will the Rugby Caucus save Congress? Probably not, but it is one of a number of so-called “Congressional Member Organizations” or CMOs (aka Caucuses) that are changing the way Congress operates in a largely unnoticed and understudied way. Moreover, some new political science research demonstrates caucuses are an antidote to today’s partisan fever. Lobbyists, legislative leaders, and rank-in-file members of the House and Senate all need to better understand the growing role these entities play and how they can both assist and frustrate the lawmaking process.

Last year, I wrote a piece for the Congress Blog about party factions, like the Freedom Caucus and Progressive Caucus. These ideological groups create small sub-brands within respective congressional parties, and big challenges for their legislative leaders.

Yet there is a broader set of “caucuses” that also deserve attention. While a small number of CMOs are partisan-based, most are not. Instead the vast majority are bipartisan and focus on specific issues or member interests, ranging from agriculture to asthma, mental health to maternity care, Cambodia to cannabis, homelessness to housing and much more. It is a veritable public policy smorgasbord with an “all you can eat” menu of potential topics.

The growth in the number of House and Senate caucuses represents a noteworthy trend in the modern Congress. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) nearly wiped them out through House rules changes in 1995, arguing they lacked financial transparency and often used taxpayer dollars for members’ political gain. In recent years, however, caucuses have come back with a vengeance. In less than 20 years, their numbers have ballooned from under 200 in the 106th Congress (1999-2000) to 800 in the 114th Congress (2015-2016), according to a 2017 Congressional Research Service report.

Perhaps the concerns Speaker Gingrich identified more than 20 years ago are still pertinent today. However, at a time when much of our politics is gripped by hyper-partisanship, we should be encouraging forums where members can work across the aisle on a diverse set of policies and issues. I learned through my own experience working on Capitol Hill how congressional caucuses can cultivate fertile ground for bipartisan policymaking. In fact, research shows that caucuses increase bipartisan collaboration in a variety of policy areas.

Jennifer Victor, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University is an expert on congressional caucuses and recently presented a 2017 paper at the Midwest Political Science Association meeting with some intriguing results. Victor’s research demonstrates that when members of Congress of one party are exposed to partisans from another (in the caucus setting) it enhances bipartisanship. She writes, “The findings here are mixed, but show more support for the claim that exposure …(to) caucuses leads to more bipartisan cooperation.”

In other words, the research indicates these bipartisan institutions have become a sort of oasis for members to meet, discuss, and strategize about legislation and policy outside the often heated and confrontational environments of committees and floor debates.

Given their burgeoning numbers and their potential to bridge the partisan divide, caucuses deserve more attention. For example, outside stakeholders and interest groups attempting to educate Congress about issues and promote bipartisan coalitions should view them as useful allies. There are few better environments to convene and inform lawmakers from both sides of the aisle about issues where the members have self-selected into a group and voluntarily indicated a high degree of interest.

Additionally, congressional leaders, looking for ready-made bipartisan coalitions to advance and defeat legislation should also tap into existing caucuses. The Reliable Energy, Renewable Energy, and Energy Efficiency Caucuses are three separate bipartisan groups of lawmakers ready to roll up their sleeves and work on the next energy bill. The Life Sciences Caucus (Coalition for the Life Sciences) represented a bipartisan group eager to help advance the landmark 21st Century Cures Act last Congress.

Caucuses also provide members who are not on committees of jurisdiction with an outlet to invest time on subjects of political relevance to their district. If farming issues are important to the folks back home, but you are not on the Agriculture Committee, join one of several agriculture related caucuses. Or say your district includes immigrants or others of ethnic heritage from a particular part of the world – join a caucus focused on a country or ethnic group.

No, the Rugby Caucus will not fix partisan polarization in Congress. Yet the proliferation of these member-led groups creates some needed opportunities for lawmakers and outside interests in today’s rough and tumble political world. Too often these days, the House and Senate floors and committee deliberations become arenas for the two parties to address the interests of their base constituencies and stage ideological fights. Finding common ground, however, requires a space to listen, learn and deliberate. Politics, like Rugby, is a contact sport these days. Caucuses have become a place to bring some sportsmanship and achievement back into the game.

Gary Andres was the Majority Staff Director for the House Energy and Commerce Committee from 2011-2017. He also worked in the Office of Legislative Affairs for Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He is currently the Senior Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. The views expressed are his own.