Got a Hobby or General Interest? There’s a Congressional Caucus for That.

From bourbon to battlefields to men’s health, members of Congress have an informal group for just about everything.

CLERMONT, KY - JANUARY 13: Bottles of Jim Beam Bourbon are displayed for sale inside the gift shop at the Jim Beam Bourbon Distillery on January 13, 2014 in Clermont, Kentucky.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
April 18, 2014, 1 a.m.

Read­ing through lists of caucuses that mem­bers of Con­gress be­long to, it’s hard not to think of a series of early com­mer­cials for iPhone apps. Like boat­ing? There’s a caucus for that. Are you a former Girl Scout? There’s a caucus for that. Con­cerned about con­tam­in­ated dry­wall? Yep, there’s a caucus for that, too.

Con­gres­sion­al caucuses, which fall un­der the broad­er la­bel of “con­gres­sion­al mem­ber or­gan­iz­a­tions,” run the gamut of the ser­i­ous and the ser­i­ously power­ful (see: the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus and the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee, among oth­ers) to the bizarre and niche (the Con­gres­sion­al Gam­ing Caucus, the Con­gres­sion­al Ce­ment Caucus, and the Re­cord­ing Arts and Sci­ences Con­gres­sion­al Caucus, for ex­ample).

The num­ber of con­gres­sion­al caucuses and CMOs (which are not ne­ces­sar­ily re­gistered with the House Ad­min­is­tra­tion Com­mit­tee or its Sen­ate coun­ter­part) has ex­ploded over the last few dec­ades. In 1993, there were just over 100. In the last Con­gress, there were 694, ac­cord­ing to the Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice. That’s more than one caucus for every mem­ber of Con­gress.

“The num­ber of CMOs grows be­cause the world does not stand still,” Gregory Ab­bott, the Demo­crat­ic press sec­ret­ary for the House Ad­min­is­tra­tion Com­mit­tee, said in an email. “They will con­tin­ue to pro­lif­er­ate be­cause the num­ber of is­sues with policy im­plic­a­tions is ever in­creas­ing. The wide vari­ety of CMOs speaks to the broad and con­tinu­ally ex­pand­ing uni­verse of is­sues that af­fect mem­bers and their con­stitu­ents.”

Odd caucuses are noth­ing new. In 1949, more than a dozen House Re­pub­lic­ans formed the Chow­der and March­ing So­ci­ety in op­pos­i­tion to vet­er­ans bo­nuses that they felt would cost the gov­ern­ment too much, which even­tu­ally grew in­to a le­gis­lat­ive think tank of sorts for the party. 

The pro­lif­er­a­tion of caucus groups in re­cent years has led to the form­a­tion of some groups that wouldn’t typ­ic­ally be as­so­ci­ated with le­gis­lat­ive work. In 2013, Reps. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., and Tulsi Gab­bard, D-Hawaii, formed the Con­gres­sion­al Fu­ture Caucus, ded­ic­ated to all things mil­len­ni­al. 

Today, the Con­gres­sion­al Fu­ture Caucus is hardly alone. There’s also a Con­gres­sion­al Soc­cer Caucus. Then there’s the Con­gres­sion­al Bour­bon Caucus, chaired by two House mem­bers from — nat­ur­ally — Ken­tucky, Demo­crat John Yar­muth and Re­pub­lic­an Brett Gu­thrie. Of course, neither of the Bour­bon Caucus co­chairs sits on the Con­gres­sion­al Kid­ney Caucus.

There’s also the Con­gres­sion­al Bike Caucus, headed by none oth­er than Port­land, Ore.-based Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Demo­crat who has a pen­chant for wear­ing neon-colored bi­cycle pins on his lapel. His col­league, Rep. Peter De­Fazio, D-Ore., co­chairs the Con­gres­sion­al Small Brew­ers Caucus along­side Rep. Jim Ger­lach, R-Pa.

The Ci­vil­ity Caucus, which seems out of place in mod­ern Wash­ing­ton, was re­tooled in the af­ter­math of the Tuc­son, Ar­iz., shoot­ings to pro­mote kind­li­er dis­course between mem­bers of both parties and do away with the kind of vit­ri­ol that can take over com­mit­tee hear­ings and floor speeches.

A ma­jor­ity of caucuses are de­voted to U.S. re­la­tions with in­di­vidu­al for­eign coun­tries (for ex­ample, the Con­gres­sion­al Azerbaijan Caucus and the Con­gres­sion­al Friends of Liecht­en­stein Caucus). An­oth­er ma­jor chunk of the groups are ded­ic­ated to a par­tic­u­lar dis­ease or med­ic­al is­sue, in­clud­ing Par­kin­son’s, cyst­ic fibrosis, Down syn­drome, brain in­jury, and dys­lex­ia. An­oth­er eight caucuses are de­voted to food and drink, ran­ging from the afore­men­tioned Bour­bon Caucus to the Con­gres­sion­al Caucus on Wild Sal­mon, the Con­gres­sion­al Wine Caucus, and the Con­gres­sion­al Rice Caucus. All of which, pre­sum­ably, oc­ca­sion­ally butt heads with the Con­gres­sion­al Food Safety Caucus — here’s look­ing at you, Con­gres­sion­al Shell­fish Caucus.

And there is some over­lap as well. In­com­ing fresh­men mem­bers should learn early to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between the the Con­gres­sion­al His­pan­ic Caucus and the Con­gres­sion­al His­pan­ic Con­fer­ence, which are run by Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans, re­spect­ively.

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On av­er­age, mem­bers of the House be­long to 34 of these caucuses, ac­cord­ing to Con­gres­sion­al Re­search Ser­vice data, while sen­at­ors typ­ic­ally be­long to about 18 of them (there are far few­er caucuses in the Sen­ate than in the House). Of course, some mem­bers, like over­achiev­ing high school stu­dents seek­ing an ad­vant­age on col­lege ap­plic­a­tions, be­long to many more caucuses. At least one House mem­ber signed up for 132 of them in the last Con­gress.

In fact, many con­gres­sion­al caucuses wouldn’t be out of place on a cam­pus sign-up sheet. There are groups for the jocks (the Con­gres­sion­al Hockey Caucus, the Con­gres­sion­al Col­legi­ate Sports Caucus); the nerds (the Con­gres­sion­al Sci­ence, Tech­no­logy, En­gin­eer­ing, and Math­em­at­ics Edu­ca­tion Caucus, the Con­gres­sion­al Mod­el­ing and Sim­u­la­tion Caucus, the Con­gres­sion­al Al­lergy and Asthma Caucus); the lit­er­ary magazine types (the Con­gres­sion­al Hu­man­it­ies Caucus); the frat boys (the Con­gres­sion­al Fraternal Caucus — which lit­er­ally fo­cuses on Greek life); the rich kids (the Con­gres­sion­al Boat­ing Caucus, the Con­gres­sion­al Horse Caucus); the world trav­el­ers (the Amer­ic­ans Abroad Caucus, the Con­gres­sion­al French Caucus); and the do-gooders (the Con­gres­sion­al Anti-Bul­ly­ing Caucus, the Con­gres­sion­al Scout­ing Caucus).

Des­pite the ex­pan­sion of con­gres­sion­al caucuses, the bod­ies have little real au­thor­ity. They can­not hold hear­ings or mark-ups, they have no au­thor­ity over le­gis­la­tion, and they can’t even hire their own staffs — mem­bers of­ten loan staffers from their own of­fices in­stead. In­stead, the groups provide op­por­tun­it­ies for mem­bers of Con­gress with sim­il­ar in­terests to get to­geth­er and dis­cuss is­sues. They are the policy know­ledge bases from which, in many cases, ac­tu­al le­gis­la­tion may even­tu­ally grow.

“Con­gres­sion­al caucuses are an im­port­ant way to in­crease aware­ness of prin­cip­al is­sues and identi­fy le­gis­lat­ive pri­or­it­ies,” Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., said on the House floor in 2012 while in­tro­du­cing the Con­gres­sion­al Pea­nut Caucus.

With so many CMOs in the mod­ern mix — and mem­bers’ time already tied up with floor votes, com­mit­tee hear­ings, and work back in their own dis­tricts — it’s hard to ima­gine that every caucus re­ceives suf­fi­cient at­ten­tion from its mem­ber­ship, par­tic­u­larly from those who are already on the rosters of an­oth­er 131 caucuses. “Some caucuses are very act­ive,” Ab­bott said, “while oth­ers meet rarely.”

Even when some caucuses fall in­to the dustheap, more come to take their place. No Con­gress has ever had few­er caucuses than its pre­de­cessor and the growth shows no sign of slow­ing down. One nev­er knows what group will form next — but hey, Rep. Jared Pol­is, there’s still no Con­gres­sion­al Bit­coin Caucus.

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