FRESHMAN MEMBERS OF CONGRESS often draw parallels to the feeling of the first few weeks and months in D.C. to how they felt when they walked into their first high school class or at tended freshman orientation for college. Perplexed by the complicated systems of the Hill and overwhelmed by the aura of senior members, these novel Representatives and Senators diligently work to stay afloat in their new environment.
One of the most complex aspects of the legislative process for the "frosh" to learn about is Congressional Member Organizations, commonly known as caucuses. Congressional Caucuses exist as the "clubs" of Congress and extend from one legislative session to the next. Although caucuses do not hold any binding force over Members of Congress or the Committee process, they can play a vital role in a Member's work in Congress. More importantly to organizations like NRPA, Congressional Caucuses can play an instrumental role in drawing attention to an issue, advancing a legislative measure through committee, or helping to garner the votes needed to ultimately pass a bill.
Approximately 365 Congressional Member Organizations are currently registered with the House Committee on House Administration, which is the ruling body for caucuses. Each caucus can contain hundreds to just a handful of members. The largest caucuses are the party conferences that are strictly partisan and consist of all the members of one political party of each house. The smaller caucuses are typically the interest group, racial, ethnic, and ideological organizations that may contain members from both parties and each house.
Caucuses form to allow Members of Congress to pursue certain legislative goals. Members can join any caucuses they choose given that they fit the criteria for that organization. The majority of caucuses are interest or issue-area related, and they cover a vast array of interesting and sometimes surprising topics, such as the Congressional Contaminated Drywall Caucus or the Congressional Bourbon Caucus.
Ideological caucuses allow like-minded members of each party to group together and gain a central consensus, such as the Blue Dog Coalition, which is a caucus for conservative Democrats. Racial and ethnic caucuses provide important forums for Members of Congress of the same race or ethnicity. The Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Conference are among the two most well known and influential ethnic caucuses. The tenure of a caucus does not always correlate to increased legislative pull. Some of the youngest caucuses are among the most organized and dominant forces, and are many times led by energetic freshman Members who view caucuses as a method for enhancing their reputation. For example, the Congressional Tea Party Caucus was formed in July 2010 by Presidential hopeful and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. In March 2011, 51 new caucuses were formed, including the Congressional Gulf Coast Caucus that was created to find ways to boost the economy and environment in the Gulf Coast states adversely affected by the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Just over a year later, the Gulf Coast Caucus was instrumental in the passage of The RESTORE Act (acronym for The Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities, and Revived Economy of the Gulf Coast Act of 2011), which made it into the larger surface transportation reauthorization bill (P.L. 112-141).
Members of Congress often join or create caucuses that relate closest to their personal expertise and the most important issues concerning them and their constituents. …