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. 

Will August Recess Be Canceled This Year?

Summer has arrived, and once again, some members of Congress are calling for August recess to be scrapped.  Does this mean lawmakers will be working through the summer on infrastructure and other high-priority legislative items, or are calls to keep members of Congress in Washington throughout August nothing but noise? 

The History of August Recess 

The practice of lawmakers leaving town in August goes back to 1970, when Congress enacted the Legislative Restoration Act.  The law created a mandatory five-week break for lawmakers beginning in the first week of August and concluding after Labor Day, partly in response to the growing length of legislative sessions.  From the late 19th Century to the 1930s, Congress convened only five or six months out of the year.  By the 1950s, however, Senators and Representatives found themselves in Washington most of the year, prompting calls to “modernize Congress” and give lawmakers a break.  At the time the Legislative Restoration Act was passed, Congress had many younger members with children who sought a more predictable legislative schedule with time set aside to spend with family.

August Recess Isn’t Really Recess

Just because Representatives and Senators aren’t in Washington to convene hearings or cast votes doesn’t meaning August is essentially a month-long vacation.  What’s commonly referred to as “recess” is really a “district work period” according to the House and a “state work period” in the Senate.  It should be noted that state and district work periods are not limited to August and occur throughout the year, although in shorter durations and scheduled closer to federal holidays.  While members are Congress do take advantage of August for some R&R, most of their month is spent engaged in the following activities:

  • Meeting with constituents.  Members of Congress consider connecting with voters to be the most important way to spend their time when outside of Washington.  Specific activities include having meetings in in their local offices; visiting schools, hospitals, and businesses; hosting townhalls; and taking interviews with local media.  Representatives and Senators also use work periods to reconnect with state and district staff who facilitate valuable constituent services.
  • CODELs.  Shorthand for “Congressional Delegation,” CODELs are privately funded trips that members take in their official capacities as lawmakers, often overseas. 
  • Campaigning and fundraising.  The month of August is often used by members to connect face-to-face with donors and supporters.  But these activities are conducted on their own time since political activities are not allowed under congressional rules.  

The Push for Canceling the August State/District Work Period in 2021

This year, some Senate Democrats including Sens. Chris Van Hollen (MD), Jeff Merkley (OR), Ed Markey (MA), and Richard Blumenthal (CT) are leading the charge for continuing legislative business through at least part of August.  Their justification for shortening or eliminating this year’s August state/district work period is to provide more time for Democratic lawmakers to advance their legislative goals.  With August less than a month away, congressional Democrats are already behind on several priorities, including passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill, a reconciliation package, police reform, immigration reform, and gun violence legislation.  Regardless, prospects for even cutting back the month-long break from Washington appear dim at this point.  Some members of the Senate Democratic leadership don’t seem keen on the idea, with Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) publicly throwing cold water on the idea.  However, Durbin did acknowledge that Senate Democrats have a lot of unfinished legislative business to attend to.   

Pros and Cons

Canceling or at least reducing recess has some legislative benefits for Democrats, as it would give members more time to work on bills, offer amendments, and debate.  Outside of legislative goals, working through August in Washington would provide Senate Democrats more time to confirm the Biden Administration’s executive and judicial nominees.  But there are plenty of reasons to keep the month-long state and district work period in 2021, too. 

As discussed, this period provides valuable opportunities for members to connect in-person with constituents through meetings, town halls, and other events.  This is especially valuable for members who live far away from Washington, DC and are limited in how they can utilize their weekends due to travel times.  And given that midterm elections tend to be unfavorable to the party that won the White House two years prior, Democrats would be wise to use August 2021 to connect with voters.

August Recess Has Been Canceled Before…

If Senate Democratic leadership opt to cancel August’s state work period this year, it wouldn’t be the first time Congress eschewed its month-long summer break from Washington. 

…But It’s Still Rare for Recess to Be Canceled

However, instances of lawmakers actually canceling or drawing back on August state/district work periods appear to be the exception, not the rule.  Nearly every year, at least one lawmaker appears to make the case for Representatives and/or Senators to continue working through the eighth month of the year in Washington.

When Congress does cut short its month-long summer break, it’s generally to deal with a major crisis, such as a global pandemic or a natural disaster.  In most cases, calls to waive August recess are mostly forgotten, mainly because a one-month stretch to connect with voters is simply too valuable for Representatives and Senators to forgo.  While Senate Democrats might find themselves under pressure to make progress on various legislative goals this summer, they’re most likely to find themselves outside of Washington come next month.

Should Hill Staffers Be Paid More?

On June 29, House appropriators signed off on a report to look into whether Members of Congress deserve a pay raise.   Does that mean their staff should get a pay raise, too? 

In Washington, DC, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,630.  That’s a tough pill to swallow if you’re a young congressional staffer barely making over $30,000 a year.  The cost of living in the Washington, DC metropolitan area has soared in recent years while salaries for Hill staffers have barely budged, contributing to what some have observed as high turnover and low diversity among congressional staff. 

How Staff Are Paid

Each Member of the House of Representatives receives a Members’ Representational Allowance (MRA), which supports Representatives in their official duties.  The MRA is funded through the House “Salaries and Expenses” account in the annual Legislative Branch appropriations bill.  It is calculated into three components: personnel, official office expenses, and official (franked) mail.  Each component is combined into a single MRA reauthorization that can be used to pay for any type of expense, such as staff or travel.  While the personnel amount is the same for each member, official office and franked mail expenses vary depending on the distance between the Representative’s district and Washington, DC.  Each Representative may use the MRA to employ no more than 18 permanent employees, an amount that been unchanged since 1975.   Members are permitted to distribute staff salaries as they see fit and usually  interns and entry-level staff receive the lowest compensation, while senior staff receive higher salaries.  For many House staffers, maximum salaries have been unchanged since 2009.

Similar to their counterparts in the House, Members of the Senate receive a Senators’ Official Personnel and Office Expense Account (SOPOEA) to assist in official duties that is funded through the “Contingent Expenses of the Senate” account in the annual Legislative Branch appropriations bill.  The SOPOEA also consists of three categories (administrative and clerical assistance, legislative assistance, and official office expense) that are combined and may be used for any official expense, including staff salaries.  Typically, salaries for Senate staffers are higher than those for House staffers.  The SOPOEA saw a decrease in funding from FY 2010 to FY 2014 and remained the same from FY 2014 to FY 2017 before seeing a small increase in FY 2018.

Below is a chart listing average salaries for key House and Senate staff positions.

Chief of Staff$153,302$170,278
Press Secretary$62,515$75,842
Legislative Director$89,589$141,886
Legislative Counsel$70,871$95,611
Legislative Assistant$56,741$80,594
Legislative Correspondent$45,457$49,221
Staff Assistant$41,961$42,814

Again, these figures are averages, and actual salaries can vary widely between congressional offices.  In the House, for example, staff assistants surveyed made between $29,000 and $67,333 per year as of 2019.  Additionally, not all House and Senate staffers receive their salaries from MRAs and SOPOEAs respectively, as the Legislative Branch appropriations bill provides separate funding accounts for both leadership and committee staff.  In the House and Senate, leadership offices are funded as individual line items, such as the Office of the Speaker and the Offices of the [Senate] Majority and Minority Leaders.  Additionally, House committees are funded under a “Committee Employees” account, while the Senate has separate accounts for the Appropriations Committee, Conference Committees, and Policy Committees. 

The Impact on Staffers

While salaries for congressional staff have barely changed over the past decade, financial pressures on Hill staffers have grown considerably.  In addition to the National Capital Region’s skyrocketing housing costs, many staffers are seeing more and more of their hard-earned dollars go towards paying off student loan debt to cover rising college tuition.  High childcare costs in the Washington, DC area are an additional financial burden on staffers who are parents of young children.

All these pressures have implications for the congressional workforce, including:

  • High turnover.  Many staffers find salaries on Capitol Hill to be unsustainably low, leaving them to seek out better paying positions in the private sector, especially with lobbying firms, law firms, consulting firms, and trade associations.  Many staffers also seek higher paying positions in the executive branch.  High turnover also limits the ability of congressional offices to retain institutional knowledge, as staffers who gain expertise in a particular policy take what they’ve learned off the Hill.
  • Lack of diversity.  Staffers from more affluent backgrounds are better able to afford the Washington, DC area’s high cost of living, while staffers from lower-income backgrounds may eschew continued service on Capitol Hill out of economic necessity.   

Despite salary concerns, staff may find that there are certain benefits to working on the Hill. For instance, staff may have access to a student loan repayment program that provides up to $10,000 in assistance per year, similar to a program for executive branch employees.  The loan repayment program comes with a number of caveats, however,  only federal student loans are applicable, and staffers participating in the program must stay in their offices for at least a year.  Additionally, individual offices may have their own policies on loan repayment, like giving all staff members a set amount of money or using a sliding scale based on tenure or income.  Furthermore, the more staff an office has, the fewer dollars it is able individually offer for loan repayment.

Staff also have access to childcare centers affiliated with the House, Senate, Library of Congress, and Government Accountability Office.  However, these childcare centers have very long waitlists.

It should be noted that people do not pursue jobs on Capitol Hill only because of the pay.  Being a congressional staffer is highly desirable due to the unique experience the position offers, and it’s not uncommon for vacancies for entry- and junior-level positions in the House or Senate to attract dozens or hundreds of qualified applicants.  Working on the Hill can be seen as a steppingstone to a more lucrative positions in the private sector or the Executive Branch.  Despite the strong desirability of congressional jobs, low salaries are still likely to contribute to high turnover, as the average tenure for a Capitol Hill staffer is just over three years.

What’s Being Done?

Fortunately, concerns over staff salaries have yielded some changes.  By 2019, paid internships once again became a reality for many House and Senate offices after cuts to MRAs and SOPOEAs in 2011 forced offices to make many internships unpaid  as a cost-cutting measure.  Thanks to the  FY 2019 Legislative Branch appropriations bill, each individual House office has a pool of $20,000 it can spend on intern compensation annually, while the amount offered to Senate offices depends on state size.  The reintroduction of paid internships to Capitol Hill was part of a multi-year effort to allow individuals from a more diverse range of socioeconomic backgrounds to be introduced to a career in public service.   However, workforce diversity issues remain a concern.  According to a report issued in May 2021, most interns on Capitol Hill were white and had attended private universities. 

Some Members have taken it upon themselves to pay staff more.  In 2019, then-freshman Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) announced that all of her staff would be a paid a minimum of $52,000 to handle high living expenses in the Washington, DC area.  To make this high minimum salary possible, Ocasio-Cortez capped salaries for senior positions in her office at $80,000.  Other House offices have yet to adopt Ocasio-Cortez’s compensation model, possibly out of concern that lower salaries for senior positions could make it more challenging to attract top talent.  However, the New York Congresswoman may be in a better position to attract high-quality senior staff due to her status has a high-profile Representative.

Recently, House Democratic leaders have been making a more substantive push to boost staff salaries.  In April 2021, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) sent a letter to top Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee requesting a 20% increase in the MRA.  In their letter, Hoyer and Jeffries say higher salaries would allow House offices to compete with better-paying private sector employers for top talent and allow current staff a better shot at achieving economic security in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. 

Additionally, in May 2021, Hoyer and Jeffries teamed up with House Administration Committee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) to study whether expanded benefits should be included in the FY 2022 Legislative Branch appropriations bill to further boost staff recruitment and retention efforts. Some of the benefits under consideration include reimbursement for adoption or fertility treatment, first-time homebuyer assistance, and a 529 college savings plan.

What Will Happen Next?

It seems that calls to increase staffer pay are finally being heard, at least in the House.  On June 29, the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee favorably report its  FY 2022 appropriations bill, which contains a 21% increase to the MRA, as well as a boost to the paid internship program.  This might prove to be the first step in ushering in higher pay for Hill staffers.  On the Senate side, there doesn’t appear to be much momentum to increase staff salaries, which are still somewhat higher than they are in the House.  Some members may be concerned about the optics of raising the MRA, as it could lead to criticism that congressional staffers are getting a pay boost at the expense of taxpayers.  Still, if a desire to address the high cost-of-living in the DC area and increase diversity was enough to provide funding for interns, it might be enough to provide a much-needed pay raise for Hill staffers.

5 Things to Know about In-Person Advocacy

Will we get back to in-person meetings on Capitol Hill?  When??  How?  COVID-19 is still around, even as the country’s mood is lightening about the overall impact of the virus.  And the safety and security of lawmakers and staff are of top-of-mind after the deadly January 6 riot and April 2 attempt at breaching the Capitol grounds.  Let’s explore  when in-person meetings might return and what those meetings could look like.

It is happening?

By and large, in-person advocacy isn’t happening, at least not on the Hill.  Since March 2020, advocacy has shifted online to videoconferencing like Zoom and telephone calls.  However, that doesn’t mean Members haven’t been yearning for a return to normal.  On March 10, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) requesting a timeline on when certain in-person activities can restart, including allowing visitors in House office buildings.  While Pelosi has not officially responded to the letter, many Democrats say it’s premature to relax restrictions, partially due to the fact that a number of Republican lawmakers have yet to be vaccinated.   

Any decision on when to loosen restrictions will ultimately be up to Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, in consultation with the Office of the Attending Physician (OAP).  While the Capitol complex and adjacent congressional office buildings are exempt from public health guidelines from the Government of the District of Columbia, leadership and the OAP are using local COVID-19 health guidances to inform decisions.  These guidelines were last updated February 23 and include masking, de-densifying Hill offices, staggered schedules, and teleworking.

What is open?

Presently, both the House and Senate office buildings are only open to Members, staff, and credentialed press, and while official business visitors are permitted in congressional offices, they must always require staff escorts.  House staff may only escort a maximum of nine visitors at a time, while Senate staff are limited to 15 visitors.  However, this does not mean that advocates have regular, unfettered access to congressional offices. 

What about off the Hill?

Over the past few weeks, some lawmakers and staff, mostly Republicans, have resumed some degree of in-person activities, including fundraising dinners, due to relaxations in local restrictions on event sizes as well as new CDC guidelines that allow small groups of vaccinated individuals to gather in-person.  Republicans are also hosting fundraising trips around the country.  Lobbyists and advocates are also interacting in-person with legislators instates and congressional districts where COVID-19 restrictions have been loosened more considerably. 

When will things get back to normal?

Anecdotally, some congressional staff and lobbyists are saying in-person meetings may not be permitted on Capitol Hill until 2022.  Whether this happens sooner or later depends on countless factors, including the pace of vaccinations, level of vaccination hesitancy, local restrictions in DC, and to what extent any COVID-19 variants impact the effectiveness of current vaccines. 

What will change permanently?

With most details about the future of in-person meetings on the Hill being speculative, one likelihood is the continued use of videoconferencing technology that can complement in-person meetings.  During the pandemic, teleconferencing has been used to great effect to connect advocates who normally wouldn’t be able to make a trip to Washington with lawmakers and staff, which leaves open the possibility for a “hybrid” approach that incorporates building relationships both in-person and virtually.

Furthermore, the aftermath of the January 6 riot on Capitol could serve as the basis for other permanent changes.  Even after the pandemic ends, some congressional staff and lobbyists feel that certain security measures could stick around, meaning limits on in-person meetings could persist.  For instance, limits on group sizes could continue, which would certainly impact large-scale fly-ins.  At the moment, however, both Members of Congress and lobbyists are more focused on removing physical barriers such as fencing and razor wire from the perimeter of the Capitol complex.  On March 15, for example, the National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics sent a letter to the Speaker urging the removal of all physical barriers by July 1.