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
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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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