Congress Has a Caucus for Everything

If you have an interest, legislators have a group for it. Even bourbon and beer brewing.
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John Sommers II/Reuters

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, Representatives 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, Oregon-based Representative Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat who has a penchant for wearing neon-colored bicycle pins on his lapel. His colleague, Representative Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., cochairs the Congressional Small Brewers Caucus alongside Representative Jim Gerlach, R-Pa.

The Civility Caucus, which seems out of place in modern Washington, was retooled in the aftermath of the Tucson, Arizona, 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.

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," Representative 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, Representative Jared Polis, there's still no Congressional Bitcoin Caucus.

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Sarah Mimms is a staff writer for National Journal Hotline.

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