What’s the Point of Congressional Caucuses?


The Congressional Bourbon Caucus.  The Congressional Peanut Caucus.  The Congressional Rodeo Caucus.  It seems like there’s a congressional caucus for every type of issue or policy.  What exactly are congressional caucuses, and do they have any impact on the policymaking process?

All About Congressional Caucuses

Officially known as congressional member organizations, congressional caucuses are voluntary associations consisting of Representatives and Senators who share specific policy goals or interests.  These groups run the gamut of more serious and powerful organizations, such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the Republican Study Group, to ones with a more offbeat or narrow focus, such as the Congressional Bowhunting and Archery Caucus, and the Congressional Candy Caucus.  Importantly, these congressional member organizations are not to be confused with party caucuses and conferences, which are the House Democratic Caucus, House Republican Conference, Senate Democratic Caucus and Senate Republican Conference.

Congressional caucuses date back to the early 1800s and have grown in number in recent years.  There are currently 460 caucuses in the 117th Congress, compared to only 100 member organizations in 1993.   Any caucus that includes House members must register with the House Committee on House Administration and follow certain rules, which include the following:

  • Caucuses cannot use franking privileges (free mail privileges), although individual members may use official resources for communication related to a caucus.
  • At least one officer or chair of a congressional member organization must be a House member.
  • Members can use personal funds to support a caucus but are not allowed to accept goods or services from private organizations to support a caucus.

The Senate does not have any separate guidelines or regulations for Senators who participate in caucuses and are just subject to follow the Rules of the Senate and the Senate Code of Official Conduct,

Types of Caucuses

Congressional caucuses can fall into one of three categories depending on their constituency and interests.

  • Ideological Caucuses.  Caucuses based around an ideology can represent certain ideological views within a particular party.  In America’s two-party system, each party tends to have a wide ideological spectrum or a “big tent,” meaning there is room within a party for members with more specific ideologies to gather.  All ideological caucuses are in the House, and current examples on the Democratic side include the Blue Dog Coalition, the New Democrat Coalition, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.  Republican examples of ideological caucuses include the Tuesday Group, the Republican Study Committee, and the Freedom Caucus.  One group, the Problem Solvers Caucus, contains House members of both parties that seek bipartisan collaboration on key issues.
  • National Constituency Caucuses.  Some caucuses advocate the interests of specific groups of constituents, such as women, racial or ethnic groups, and veterans.   Examples include the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Conference, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and the Servicewomen and Women Veterans Caucus.
  • Interest Group Caucuses.  The most common caucuses consist of members with a shared policy or interest.  Examples of these generally bipartisan caucuses include the Congressional Bike Caucus, the Congressional Coal Caucus, the Congressional Dairy Farmer Caucus,  Congressional Fire Services Caucus, and the Congressional Cyber Security Caucus.  A number of interest group caucuses focus on medical issues or diseases, such as the Congressional Cystic Fibrosis Caucus, the Congressional Telehealth Caucus, the Congressional Lupus Caucus, and the Rare Disease Caucus.

Do Caucuses Matter?

On paper, caucuses have no real authority.  Unlike committees, caucuses lack the ability to markup bills or hire their own staff, for instance.  However, they do serve a function by providing a way for like-minded Representatives and Senators with mutual interests and goals to get to know one another.  Through these relationships and associations, caucuses members often work together to develop specific ideas that can become legislation.  During the 115th Congress and 116th Congress, members of the Problems Solvers Caucus periodically released proposals and legislation on important issues where caucus members believed Democrats and Republicans could find common ground.  For example, some of the Problem Solvers Caucus’s ideas eventually became law, including a proposal to repeal the medical device tax. At the moment, the Problem Solvers Caucus has been active during the 117th Congress around the bipartisan infrastructure framework.

Additionally, caucuses formed around diseases and medical issues are particularly active on creating health care legislation.  For instance, Reps. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Tom Reed (R-NY), who co-chair the Congressional Diabetes Caucus, have introduced legislation to address high insulin prices and expand diabetes prevention programs.  Additionally, members of the Congressional Telehealth Caucus have introduced legislation to ensure some telehealth services temporarily expanded under the COVID-19 public health emergency are made permanent.

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