Informal Congressional Caucuses & The Policy Process
Informal congressional caucuses, sometimes known as Member organizations or groups, are voluntary associations of House or Senate members who share particular policy aims. Despite being outside of the formal political structure, such groups seek to influence the policy process on a wide range of issues, often with some success.
The growth in popularity of caucus groups is mostly a phenomenon of recent times. Although caucuses have existed since 1959, they proliferated rapidly in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, and again in 1995. Today there are 173 Congressional caucuses, the largest number to be active at any time. Most of these (107) are House caucuses; a minority (25) are in the Senate; and the rest (41) are bicameral.
These statistics reveal an important truth: members of Congress are interested in policy, noted Donald R. Wolfensberger, the organizer of the meeting. According to a popular stereotype, he said, Congressional members spend most of their time catering to constituents' needs, with an eye to reelection; but this is clearly not the case. Further, the growth in bipartisan caucuses means that Congressional members do not think only along partisan lines, as is often alleged. Wolfensberger, former chief of staff for the House Rules Committee, is now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Government professor Susan Webb Hammond said that, according to the findings of her comprehensive study of caucuses and their impact on policy, the existence of caucuses makes sense. Today's Congressional members are being asked to address many complicated issues cutting across traditional party lines - for instance, issues of biotechnology, the need for a balanced budget, and family and child welfare. Caucuses enable members to consider these issues - and what should be done about them - as a whole and are thus a "logical, adaptive response" to the inadequacies of the formal political structure. Caucuses also make sense in that they offer the additional benefits of allowing members of Congress to gain expertise on particular issues, test their wings in leadership roles, and perhaps increase their visibility outside of Congress, Hammond said.
Hammond's study identified three main types of caucuses: those organized around party lines, those organized around shared policy interests, and "constituency caucuses." All three types, said Hammond, tend to focus on agenda setting. Members of a particular caucus will behave like a pre-committee, initiating contact between Congress and the external environment, identifying emerging problems, and defining the parameters of the responses Congress can make.
How successful are the caucuses at influencing policy? Hammond said she was "delightfully surprised" to see that caucus membership has an independent effect on floor votes "at a statistically significant level."
Hammond's three types of Congressional caucuses were well represented at the meeting. We heard from Ed Lorenzen, special policy assistant to Representative Charles Stenholm (D-Tex.), a founder of the Blue Dog Coalition. The Blue Dogs are a classic example of a party caucus. Today consisting of 24 conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives, the group was originally formed when the Democrats lost control of the House in 1994, as a kind of support group for surviving Democrats. It quickly evolved into a forum for conservative Democrats to achieve their policy goals. In that capacity, the Blue Dogs have already experienced noteworthy success in getting the House to adopt their their proposals on welfare reform and on the balanced budget, Lorenson said.
Both Andrew Bernstein and Erin Prangley work for members of Congress who participate in caucuses set up for those with like-minded policy interests. Bernstein is a legislative assistant to Representative Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who co-chairs the arts caucus, which aims to foster a dialogue on the needs of cultural communities in the U.S. Bernstein said that the group serves primarily as an information clearinghouse for members of Congress, furnishing them with talking points on arts legislation and attempting to clear up misinformation. Before the Republicans took over the House in 1994, the arts caucus was better funded, hence more active; Bernstein said that he regrets the passing of this era.
Erin Prangley is a legislative assistant to Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the current chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues. The women's caucus is bipartisan, and according to Prangley, Norton is responsible for getting many Republican women to join. The caucus meets to decide on "concrete principles" that need to be included in legislation affecting the welfare of women and children: i.e., bills covering pay equity, women in the military, childcare, pension rights, family leave, pregnancy discrimination, women's healthcare, violence against women, and related issues. The hurdle for women's legislation is higher, explained Prangley, than for other kinds of legislation in terms of getting it to the House floor; once on the floor, it usually gets passed. The women's caucus tries to get particular bills over this hurdle by meeting with the Speaker of the House and other influential parties and attempting to persuade them to include on the legislative agenda. (Using Hammond's classifications, the activities of the women's caucus can be compared with those of caucuses focusing on the interests of Hispanics, African-Americans, Vietnam veterans, and other minority groups.)
Finally, we heard from Karen Buttaro, legislative counsel to Representative Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who chairs the Congressional Steel Caucus. This illustrates Hammond's "constituency caucus" as it is organized around an industry of importance to quite a few Congressional members' constituencies. The steel caucus was established in 1979 to look out for the interests of the U.S. steel industry. In the 1980s the caucus lobbied for restricting steel imports so that the industry could restructure. It continues to take actions toward maintaining the American steel industry, for instance in response to the recent steel-import crisis that came in the wake of Asia's economic troubles.