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Caucuses Sprout for Special Issues

If you want to know what’s on the agenda of the House Frozen Food Caucus, the best place to ask might be the American Frozen Food Institute, the trade association with the similar moniker.

Indeed, in 2003, the trade group claimed credit for creating the Congressional caucus as part of its apparatus to “effectively represent frozen food companies’ interests on Capitol Hill.”

The bevy of Congressional caucuses have long been a punch line for commentators — why, after all, does America need a House Adopt a Country Caucus or a bicameral, bipartisan Congressional Songwriter’s Caucus? But the caucuses must be providing a benefit to somebody, because they are proliferating at a remarkable rate.

According to Congressional Research Service reports, the number of caucuses in Congress rose from about 185 in 1999 to just more than 400 at the end of last year.

Caucuses provide an easy opportunity for a Member of Congress to indicate concern about an issue that is important to constituents, even if the Member does not have direct jurisdiction through a seat on the appropriate committees. For example, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) does not sit on an aerospace committee, but he co-chairs the House Aerospace Caucus to advocate for NASA’s Glenn Research Center, a key economic interest for his Cleveland district.

But in some cases, a caucus serves as the “inside Congress” lobbying wing of an outside advocacy effort.

For example: The AFFI in 2003 said it had “commissioned a renowned scientist to author a white paper on the food safety benefits of the freezing process.” (AFFI now maintains that it promoted but did not fund the research.) The research paper was published in January 2004 in the International Journal of Food Microbiology. Four months later, the co-chairmen of the Frozen Food Caucus, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and then-Rep. Butch Otter (R-Idaho), sent a letter to the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration advocating additional research into the use of freezing technology, citing the microbiology journal article.

Last year Peterson and his new co-chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), sent a letter to appropriators supporting what the industry publication Frozen Food Digest called “AFFI’s language” to increase funding for frozen food research. The 2006 agriculture appropriations bill included language directing the USDA to support the research.

The industry’s relationship with the caucus is so snug that Peterson, when he became the co-chairman in 2004, issued a press release saying he was “honored by the invitation from The American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) to serve as co-chairman for the Frozen Food Caucus.”

The caucus also serves as the industry’s entree into the halls of Congress itself. The caucus chairmen serve as honorary hosts for a more-or-less annual event called the Frozen Food Filibuster inside a Congressional office building, where AFFI member companies cook up samples of their products and mingle with Members, staffers and anyone else drawn by the scent of free grub.

Under new House lobbying rules, the Frozen Food Filibuster still would be allowed, because it is a “widely attended event,” with AFFI members from a variety of companies arriving from around the country to serve their foods, and an open-door feeding policy.

AFFI spokesman Chris Krese said the institute “has enjoyed a fantastic relationship” with the caucus “from discussions about their inception through today.” The institute’s role is to serve “as an information clearinghouse and source of expert opinion regarding issues related to the frozen food industry,” particularly for Members of Congress who have large frozen food facilities in their districts. But Krese denies that the industry or the caucus dictates the actions of the Members. “It makes sense that these Members of Congress would take these actions as part of their daily interactions with their constituents,” he said.

Peterson — now the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee — said caucuses in general don’t do very much, and the Frozen Food Caucus is no exception.

“People set these things up so they can say they are doing something even if they are not really doing anything,” Peterson said. “It’s just kind of a trend. … They have a caucus for everything you can think of.”

Paul Miller, former president of the American League of Lobbyists, said that when Members of Congress sign up for a caucus, they self-identify as targets for lobbying efforts on that topic. This provides an enormous time savings for a lobbyist. “It saves me from having to print up 435 copies of something,” Miller said. “I can just target those Members,” and ask them to carry the message to others in Congress.

David Miller, executive director of the New York State chapter of the Audubon Society, said the Long Island Sound Caucus co-chaired by Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) has become a lobbying vehicle for groups trying to preserve and protect the sound. “When we go to them we can get them to take the message to other Members in a much more official capacity than we can as Audubon alone,” David Miller said. “There is no real legal or committee status to this but it provides that networking opportunity that you don’t have as an outside party.” Even without legislative authority or dedicated funding, the Long Island Sound Caucus has held field hearings in the region to discuss issues important to the sound.

The House Administration Committee handbook for Members states that “Neither [caucuses] nor individual Members may accept goods, funds, or services from private organizations or individuals to support the” caucus, but caucuses offer a variety of benefits for Members of Congress. For starters, if there are 400 caucuses, “it allows 400 Members to be called ‘Mr. Chairman,’” said Peter Farnham, public affairs director for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

In 2003, Farnham wrote an article on caucuses for a trade publication for association executives, suggesting that “if no currently existing caucuses exactly match your association’s legislative and policy interests, consider approaching a Congressional ally about establishing one that does.”

Brian Berry, a senior vice president at Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates who has worked with several Congressional caucuses, said they are particularly appealing “for younger Members who still might have tight districts and might have won by six [percent] or eight percent.” For these Members, “the more I can get involved in and the more legislation I can get involved in, the more I can say I am doing for my constituents back home.”

Andrew House, Nunes’ communications director, said a group like the Frozen Food Caucus “benefits the industries that are represented by the issues and it benefits Members of Congress who are working to advance the interests of their communities — and who need support of industry to get the word out.”

A caucus is “a way for Members of Congress to identify themselves with issues that are of interest to their constituents,” House said, pointing out that Nunes also is active in the Dairy Farmers Caucus, which is a key industry in his district. But being involved in an industry caucus does not mean doing the bidding of an industry group, House said. “There is no undue influence. We value the advice and counsel of experts throughout the whole spectrum of the U.S. industry.”

Israel, whose Web site lists 36 caucuses and task forces of which he is a member, said caucuses “can give you a profile on an issue which you may not be involved in. If you are not on a committee of jurisdiction it is a good way to exert some influence.” He said Members generally join a caucus because of a request from a constituent. If an issue is of interest to constituents, Israel said, it makes sense to join the caucus to stay informed of developments on that issue.

Craig Holman, a campaign finance lobbyist for Public Citizen, said Members of Congress “achieve power and persuasion in the halls of Congress by creating coalitions — the purpose of caucuses is really to [adopt] the principles of lobbying in order that individual Members can exert more influence in Congress themselves.” Holman sees no problem with that practice if it involves Members trying to build their own power centers. But “once it becomes something that’s built up and paid for by an outside lobbying industry, I find that very troubling,” Holman said. “It worries me that outside lobbying groups are setting up the lobbying caucuses.”

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