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Estuaries? Pickleball? Rum? There’s a congressional caucus for practically everything

The number of formal and informal groups now totals more than 800

Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., a former amateur car racer, co-chairs both the Congressional Motorsports and Congressional Automotive Performance and Motorsports caucuses.
Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., a former amateur car racer, co-chairs both the Congressional Motorsports and Congressional Automotive Performance and Motorsports caucuses. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

No matter the topic, Congress has a caucus — or two, or three, or more — for you. 

Throwing a party? Why not invite the Congressional Bourbon Caucus, Congressional Cigar Caucus, Congressional Rum Caucus, Congressional Wine Caucus, and the Small Brewers Caucus? 

Looking for some friendly competition? Sign up for the Collegiate Sports Caucus, Hockey Caucus, Olympic and Paralympic Caucus, Soccer Caucus, or the Sportsmen’s Caucus. (Sadly, the Rugby Caucus appears to be defunct, but the new Pickleball Caucus is probably a better fit, as the average member qualifies for an AARP card.)

Caucuses come in every shape, size, and subject matter. Many are focused on just a single, sometimes obscure, issue — like the Congressional American 250 Caucus that’s helping plan the nation’s upcoming semisesquicentennial — while others may be an intraparty faction trying to drag its colleagues one way or another — like the lefties in Congressional Progressive Caucus or the right-wingers in the Republican Study Committee. 

They don’t just cover all things domestic. The Balkan caucuses are predictably balkanized: There’s the Albanian Issues Caucus, Romania Caucus, Congressional Macedonian Caucus, Congressional Moldova Caucus, Congressional Serbian Caucus, a Bulgaria Caucus — but not the Baltics, as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are lumped together in a single caucus. And while there is no Caucasus Caucus, there is a Congressional Georgia Caucus.

Still, the caucus is a distinctly American affair (although there are similar “inter groups” in the European Parliament and “all party groups” in the British House of Commons). The term first appeared in writing at the end of the French and Indian War. Contemporary writers said it was used frequently in Boston, leading some to theorize it came from the Caucus Club of Boston, a social and political club that probably got its own name from the Greek word for drinking cup; others think it comes from the Algonquian word “caucauasu,” meaning counselor or elder.

All together — counting registered member organizations, informal working groups, and unofficial task forces — Congress is home to approximately 820 caucuses.

We need to say “approximately” because there is no official list of every ad hoc group of lawmakers that calls themselves a caucus — that figure comes from a recent Congressional Research Service report that tallied up all the caucuses listed in Leadership Connect (nee the Congressional Yellow Book) during the prior, 117th Congress; Roll Call’s own count in June for the current 118th found 807 caucuses. 

Of those 807, only 376 have filed the necessary paperwork (really just an email) with the House Administration Committee so far this year to be listed formally as a Congressional Member Organization.

Among them are the little known Congressional Museum Ships Caucus and the Congressional Caucus on Directed Energy, but not the House Freedom Caucus — even though it’s one of the most active and best known congressional groups, the Freedom Caucus isn’t registered as a CMO.

There are so many caucuses, they can seem duplicative at times. There’s a Congressional Motorsports Caucus and a Congressional Automotive Performance and Motorsports Caucus, and both are co-chaired by Florida Republican Bill Posey, a former amateur car racer and racetrack owner. While the two groups may look like the same make and model — they even share a website — their policy issues under the hood are completely different, said Rick Podliska, a Posey aide.

The Motorsports Caucus focuses on the professional circuits, whereas the Automotive Performance Caucus is a group for the hobbyists whose tinkering around with their own cars can sometimes run afoul of EPA regulations. “We found out a lot of the motorsports guys couldn’t also play in the same sandbox,” said Podliska.

Like many of the caucuses in Congress, these two gearhead groups only get together a few times a year for issue briefings. A lot of caucuses don’t even do that — they’re little more than glorified email lists that let staffers share news related to the topic. A few, though, are real centers of political power. It’s difficult to imagine a Democrat ascending to a leadership position without the support of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Posey is also co-chair of the Congressional Florida Ports Caucus and the Congressional Estuary Caucus, which may seem like a lot, but pales in comparison to the 13 co-chaired by South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, the most of any Republican, and the 15 co-chaired by Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, the most overall.

The Gingrich effect

While both chambers have their caucuses, it’s the House that’s home to the overwhelming majority of them: 648 by CQ Roll Call’s count, plus another 80 joint groups. That works out to around 1.5 caucuses per representative, but most join way more than that: According to a forthcoming George Mason University paper, members joined 40 caucuses on average during the 115th Congress.

Why so many? As is so often the case when the House’s modus operandi befuddles, it all goes back to Newt Gingrich’s speakership. 

Before then, the House was home to a few dozen official Legislative Service Organizations, plus a bunch of less-formal groups. Republicans accused Democrats — with good reason — of using them to slip by House lobbying and office budgetary rules. Gingrich abolished LSOs and replaced them with CMOs as part of a suite of institutional overhauls. The change meant the caucuses were kicked out of their House office spaces, members could no longer use their office funds to support CMOs, and CMOs could no longer accept gifts from private parties.

The new rules were supposed to chop caucuses down to size, but decapitating the LSOs led to the Hydra-like sprouting of CMOs. “[Republicans] basically tried to regulate them out of existence,” said Jennifer Victor, a political science professor at George Mason University. “But it created a situation where you could run them in kind of an underground fashion.”

Of course, it’s not all Gingrich’s fault. Members have bunched together outside of party frameworks in informal groups with catchy names — like the War Hawks and the Invisibles — since the Madison administration. But while there were only 30 registered LSOs and 63 informal groups as of 1990, the number of caucuses has steadily risen since 1995, driven by the creation of narrowly focused, bipartisan groups. 

Along with moves that diluted the power of committee chairs, hobbling the caucuses helped Gingrich centralize power in the House. That only increased members’ desire for information independent of leadership. At the same time, Gingrich shortened the House work week and encouraged Republicans to head back home to their districts whenever possible, reducing the ability for members to get to know one another, especially across party lines.

Caucuses caught fire after the Contract with America reforms, Victor said, because lawmaking is basically just a series of collective action problems that they help solve. 

“Caucuses create this sort of weak-tie — to use the sociologists’ term — form of attachment,” Victor said. While the individual members of a caucus might barely even recognize one another, “added together they create this fairly robust, resilient network of relationships that can be quite advantageous.”

“It also provides a shortcut for [new] members… to communicate that they’re a part of something, and also to make themselves proximate to more powerful members,” added Molly Izer, a student who co-authored the forthcoming GMU paper with Victor.

“It’s more of a posturing [and] connection type thing.”

And it didn’t hurt that the rule changes that weakened caucuses also made them cheaper to start up and join. “There are no barriers to creation,” Victor said.

The Senate isn’t as caucus crazy because those weak-tie issues aren’t as prevalent in a 100-person body where members serve on more committees and have six years between elections to get to know one another. “My hot take on that is that the Senate faces fewer collective action problems than the House does,” Victor said.

Rule changes in the House only partially explain why caucuses spread like kudzu, said Steven S. Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “The other part was the proliferation of interest groups with representation in Washington,” he said. 

As more trade groups set up shop on K Street, they nudged lawmakers to form complementary caucuses, allowing members to signal to lobbyists a willingness to listen to industry concerns and accept corporate campaign donations. That relationship is reflected online, where some caucuses maintain their own websites, but others don’t. If you google the “Composite Caucus” — a group focused on the advanced materials industry — the top result is the American Composites Manufacturers Association’s website.

To be fair, many members care about particular industry or trade groups because they’re major employers in their district. Caucus membership allows members to show that they care about the issues that matter most to their constituents — especially when, as is so often the case in the House, a member can’t get on a committee with jurisdiction over those topics. 

“As Washington gets more partisan, members realize that Representative elections turn now on their party affiliation more than it ever has in their lifetime and there really isn’t a whole lot they can do to break away from that,” Stevens said. “These one-issue caucus affiliations that show they are more than just a Republican or more than just a Democrat.”

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