CongressLine by The Congressional College Caucuses and Boards

In a previous article about newspapers on Capitol Hill, I noted that there was a college-like feel to Congress. The college parallels can be seen all over the Capitol.

There is a very clearly defined campus, with gates and fences to keep out non-students when necessary. There is a campus (Capitol) police force whose primary role is to look out for the students and treat them deferentially, just like most college police. There are sports programs, two softball leagues and an annual baseball game at the stadium (RFK Stadium) on Capitol Hill that was built by Congress in the 1960s. There are college plumbers, gardeners, and metal workers. There are dining halls and many members share apartments, much like dorm or fraternity houses. There is a specific term, with holiday breaks and two semesters (each session of a Congress is one year).

The student body is clearly defined. You are either a student (member or Senator) or you are not. Much like a college, you are either faculty or student or you are not, meaning not very high on the prestige ladder. There is even town vs. gown tension between the neighboring community and the august omni-competent Congress. The Congressional student body is typical of a national college, with students from Maine to Guam, all arriving for specific terms of study. A congressperson can stroll from the Library of Congress across the street from the Capitol and be serenaded by the Senator Robert A Taft Memorial Carillon, just like any student may stroll across a college campus.

One interesting college-like element are the clubs. In Congress they are called caucuses and there are many of them. With only a couple of notable exceptions, anyone can join these caucuses and they span the entire spectrum of interests of Congressional under-graduates.

There are more than four hundred different, relatively informal, groups that gather together for any type of interest. The exact number of these groups is not easy to determine, as many are not officially recognized. They meet and study on everything. Some of these groups are merely groups of Members and Senators who are just interested in something – such as the Fitness Caucus or the Sea and Snowboard or Soccer Caucuses. Others are international in orientation – such as the Israel, Morocco, Bulgaria, Canada or the Cote d’Ivoire Caucuses. Many are health oriented – such as the Autism, Kidney, Mental Health and Vision Caucuses. Some are industry specific – such as the Frozen Foods, Sugar and Aviation and Space Caucuses.

These groups are created for many different reasons; sometimes they are the brainchild of an individual member with a passion for the topic. The international ones are the result of the mulit-ethnic nature of the country, especially by region. The Norway Caucus, of course is made up of mostly Minnesota and North Dakota members, for example. Industry ones are created for similar reasons too, especially for states and districts that have a high concentration of a specific industry, such as the Automotive Caucus (mostly Michiganders). Members who have had a specific experience with a specific health condition created many of the health ones. For the most part they are notably bi-partisan groups and usually will sponsor and cosponsor some form of legislation in each Congress on the topic. Sort of like a college group which at least needs to sponsor one party each year. They sometimes will write letters to the administration on the topic. Caucus membership is often touted in congressional biographies.

Caucuses are normally fairly invisible on Capitol Hill, with a few exceptions. The most prominent and powerful caucus, outside the full party caucuses, is the Congressional Black Caucus, made up entirely of Democrats and forbidding any non-black members. The Hispanic Caucus is more bi-partisan and is also quite influential.

Informal Congressional groups are an important part of Congress, despite their relative obscurity and wide diversity of interests. They are quiet way of mobilizing support on a topic. Most savvy lobbyists make sure there is a corresponding caucus on their issue as it provides another means of presenting their issues to Congress, in a friendly way. If there is an association in Washington, DC, there is probably a corresponding Congressional Caucus too.

For the past 200 years, Congress has created hundreds of other, more official, Commissions, Boards and Task Forces. These boards are usually of institutions that have been created by Congress, while others are planning organizations on specific issues. On occasion, the Commissions will expire and go away, with others just remaining for perpetuity. These Commissions are different from Caucuses in that they do not normally consist of Congressional members, but are individuals selected by Congressional leadership. A worthy constituent of the Majority or Minority Leader may get an appointment to a commission or board, but in most cases these Boards and Commissions are made up of people who are relevant to the field. The Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center, the military service academies and scholarship boards are typical examples. Many are institutional trustees, others are planning groups such as the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission or the National Capitol Planning Commission, and others are memorial commissions, such as the Eisenhower Memorial or James Madison Fellowship. Congress, its leadership or its committees are usually allotted a set number of seats on the outside boards and commissions. There are also many interparliamentary groups with other countries, such as Canada and Russia, that are made up of members of the parliaments of both countries, and are a frequent reason for official Congressional travel. There are also boards for the internal operation of Congress – such as the Congressional Page Board.

Just perusing through the pages listing these organizations clearly shows an important part of the policy making process. Usually it starts with an informal group of interested people. Then perhaps it becomes a full-fledged study group, or an institution is created to address the problem (and a board is needed to oversee it). Policymaking can be complex and time-consuming. Informal groups can keep the fire lit under the topic as it negotiates the process. Boards and Commissions provide a means for oversight on an issue after an issue or institution has gone through the legislative process. They are all an important vehicles for learning about an issue, just like a college.

Unlike the Executive or Judicial branches, Congress is by definition a transitory institution. It is made up of people from all over the country whose life is not necessarily based in Washington, DC. Legally, they have to be residents of somewhere else. Their jobs are dependent on voters elsewhere. It creates some very provincial outlooks in some cases, but then again that is the outlook of many of their constituents. In previous centuries this was even more apparent. One can picture Abraham Lincoln, riding into Washington as an Illinois representative, living in a rooming house, then leaving at the end of the Congressional term. His world was Illinois, not Washington, DC. This is still the case with many members of Congress. Sometimes members, especially if there terms have been very, very long will begin to identify more with Washington, DC, than from where they originally came. This sometimes doesn’t sit well with voters back home.

There are a few Members and Senators who are very visible national players, sort of BMOCs in this college, but the vast majority you would not recognize and they are usually happy to go home when recess starts.

When Congress leaves for a recess, the Capitol complex is a very quiet place. The Pentagon or the Department of Commerce is always busy, but Congress comes and goes. The Congressional Record is printed only when Congress is in session, but the Federal Register (administrative rulemaking) is printed every single non-holiday workday.

The various groups that Members and Senators assemble in Congress, formally and informally, are natural for such a transitory place. They serve a role in members’ jobs as legislators who have to legislate on a wide variety of topics, from education to global warming. College groups are created for the same reason. Colleges and Congress have a lot in common.

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