Got an issue? Congress has your caucus

You know that Congress is hard at work on big-picture issues like the budget, healthcare and the war in Iraq. But did you know they’re also extremely interested in bow-hunting? And shellfish? And being friends with Portugal?

Perhaps you have not perused the expansive list of congressional caucuses recently. There are more than 200 congressional member organizations — the formal name for caucuses, conferences and task forces formed among members — according to the latest Wikipedia tally. The groups are so fluid in their creation and dissolution that the House does not have any master list.

Not to worry, many lawmakers list their caucus affiliations on their Web pages. Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) is co-chairman of the Congressional Wind Hazard Reduction Caucus, which he co-founded in 1999. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) co-chairs the Congressional Global Road Safety Caucus, while Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.) co-chairs three caucuses (on water, wine and Croatia) in addition to his membership in 11 others.

Ad hoc coalitions of members have existed since time, at least congressional time, began. One early example: the Congressional Temperance Society, formed in 1842. First formed as party caucuses, these groups now serve a number of functions. In a crowd of 535, congressmen can associate with colleagues who share their ethnic background (Asian Pacific American Caucus), their constituency (Congressional Soybean Caucus) or even their old job (Congressional Former Mayors Caucus.)

They can also identify with other likeminded colleagues, within their parties and across the aisle. That is why there’s the Center Aisle Caucus, the Progressive Caucus, the Centrist Coalition, the Blue Dog Coalition, the Results Caucus and the New Democrat Coalition. (To our knowledge, there is no Old Democrat Coalition in Congress.)

“People like to put tags on one another,” says Scott Ainsworth, an associate professor of political science at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs.

But do we really need 200 tags?

 “Although that’s a lot of caucuses, there are a lot of issues.” says Susan Webb Hammond, a political science professor at American University and author of Congressional Caucuses in National Policy Making. “There just may be issues that have come down the pike that weren’t there before.”

Such as intellectual-property promotion and piracy prevention? Or electronic warfare?

Caucuses are meant to provide a forum for issues and legislative agendas. And while the first such groups were party caucuses, like the Democratic Study Group, founded in 1959, issue-oriented caucuses soon emerged, says Hammond. Those issue-oriented caucuses, many of them bipartisan, eventually begat specialized issue caucuses.

Very specialized issue caucuses.

And so while there is still a Congressional Transit Caucus, transit aficionados can now find membership in the Intelligent Transportation Caucus, the Passenger Rail Caucus, the Scenic Byways Caucus and the super-specialized Interstate 69 Caucus.

Interested in technology? Take your pick between the nanotechnology caucus, the biotechnology caucus, the wireless caucus and the modeling and simulation training caucus. If you are in a more partisan mood, there is the Democratic Leader’s High Technology Advisory Group or its GOP counterpart, the House Republican High Technology Working Group.

And just because many caucuses are bipartisan, that does not mean they are not polarizing. For any caucus established to say the sky is blue, there is always someone ready to form a congressional task force on gray skies. The Bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus would be incomplete without its yang, the Congressional Bipartisan Pro-Choice Caucus. There is the Victory in Iraq Caucus and the Out of Iraq Caucus (which does not specify its stance on victory or defeat in its title).

With so many caucuses to choose from, there should be something for everyone. But if not, a new caucus is always just a founder away. Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) has founded five caucuses in the 10 years since he has been in Congress. He is also a member of … how many?

“I don’t know,” Capuano says with a confused laugh.

Sixty, according to his House website.

The congressman formed a caucus on North Korea, he says, because he was not on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and when he and others sought specific information on the country, there was little available. In a similar manner, he also formed the Caucus on Sudan with the hope of not only gathering more information, but also increasing awareness on the Darfur crisis among his colleagues.

By contrast, Senate caucuses numbers are comparatively few, numbering about 25 as opposed to the House’s 200-plus, and tend to be general-constituency or industry coalitions, such as the Senate Auto Caucus and Senate Beef Caucus.

Why so few compared to their House counterparts?

“It’s partly because their states are more heterogeneous,” says Ainsworth. “You have to be more judicious.” After all, a senator from such an agriculturally diverse state as California would not want to join a tomato caucus, lest he attract the ire of a yam caucus for not being a member. But the lack of specialty caucuses may be more philosophical than political, he notes.

“Senators don’t think of themselves as specialists, they think of themselves as experts on the world,” Ainsworth says.

That may explain why the one caucus officially recognized by the chamber is the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.

Of the multitude of congressional caucuses, some carry more household name recognition than others. Most people have probably heard of an institution like the Congressional Black Caucus, but the Congressional Croatian Caucus does not have quite the same high profile. (Sorry, Congressman Radanovich.)

And then there are those caucuses with cryptic or confusing names. The Building a Better America Caucus promotes quality growth in the brick-and-mortar-buildings sort of way. The Washington Waste Watchers caucus is spelled w-a-s-t-e, as in fiscal waste, not the excess inches that may be growing around Washingtonian bellies. 

“It has to do with spending and making sure that spending is in check,” says Chris Jackson, press secretary for waste-watcher Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.). Jackson says confusion can often occur: “Every once in a while he’ll slip up and it will come out sounding like ‘Washington Weight Watchers.’ ”

Of course, being a member of multiple caucuses does not have the same time obligations as a committee. There is an ebb and flow of activity, and periods of dormancy. Some fade away over time; others have disbanded.

“I look forward to the day the Sudan caucus is no longer necessary,” Capuano says.

Capuano is also a member of the Congressional Cancer Caucus, although he says he has not yet been courted by the 2015 Caucus, which is specifically committed to ending cancer death and suffering by that year.

“It’s not very difficult to be against cancer,” he says.