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Congressional Caucuses Help Our Cause

2012-08-01, Department, by Leslie Mozingo

Members of Congress often ally behind a common belief or issue, and you can use their organized support to get congressional leverage for issues affecting your agency.

Freshman Members of Congress often draw parallels to the feeling of the first few weeks and months in D.C. to how they felt when they walked into their first high school class or attended freshman orientation for college. Perplexed by the complicated systems of the Hill and overwhelmed by the aura of senior members, these novel Representatives and Senators diligently work to stay afloat in their new environment.

One of the most complex aspects of the legislative process for the “frosh” to learn about is Congressional Member Organizations, commonly known as caucuses. Congressional Caucuses exist as the “clubs” of Congress and extend from one legislative session to the next. Although caucuses do not hold any binding force over Members of Congress or the Committee process, they can play a vital role in a Member’s work in Congress. More importantly to organizations like NRPA, Congressional Caucuses can play an instrumental role in drawing attention to an issue, advancing a legislative measure through committee, or helping to garner the votes needed to ultimately pass a bill.

Approximately 365 Congressional Member Organizations are currently registered with the House Committee on House Administration, which is the ruling body for caucuses. Each caucus can contain hundreds to just a handful of members. The largest caucuses are the party conferences that are strictly partisan and consist of all the members of one political party of each house. The smaller caucuses are typically the interest group, racial, ethnic, and ideological organizations that may contain members from both parties and each house.

Caucuses form to allow Members of Congress to pursue certain legislative goals. Members can join any caucuses they choose given that they fit the criteria for that organization. The majority of caucuses are interest or issue-area related, and they cover a vast array of interesting and sometimes surprising topics, such as the Congressional Contaminated Drywall Caucus or the Congressional Bourbon Caucus.

Ideological caucuses allow like-minded members of each party to group together and gain a central consensus, such as the Blue Dog Coalition, which is a caucus for conservative Democrats. Racial and ethnic caucuses provide important forums for Members of Congress of the same race or ethnicity. The Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Conference are among the two most well-known and influential ethnic caucuses. The tenure of a caucus does not always correlate to increased legislative pull. Some of the youngest caucuses are among the most organized and dominant forces, and are many times led by energetic freshman Members who view caucuses as a method for enhancing their reputation. For example, the Congressional Tea Party Caucus was formed in July 2010 by Presidential hopeful and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. In March 2011, 51 new caucuses were formed, including the Congressional Gulf Coast Caucus that was created to find ways to boost the economy and environment in the Gulf Coast states adversely affected by the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Just over a year later, the Gulf Coast Caucus was instrumental in the passage of The RESTORE Act (acronym for The Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived Economy of the Gulf Coast Act of 2011), which made it into the larger surface transportation reauthorization bill (P.L. 112-141).

Members of Congress often join or create caucuses that relate closest to their personal expertise and the most important issues concerning them and their constituents. Caucuses have proven to be a method for elected officials to succinctly explain what issues they have focused on while in the Capitol.  Additionally, caucuses often act as the training grounds for the future leaders of parties and committees. Caucuses remain important to Members of Congress because Congressional Member Organizations provide an efficient way to garner support for common legislative objectives and create consensus among racial, ethnic, and ideological groups. Without these “congressional clubs,” Members of Congress would have a significantly more difficult task when organizing into groups and achieving legislative goals.

Therefore, advocacy groups often turn to these caucuses for help when building support for, or opposition to, certain legislation. NRPA members should take the time to find out which caucuses their congressional delegation members serve on and incorporate that knowledge into their talking points when contacting those congressional offices. When responding to a call for action from NRPA, knowing which of your Members of Congress are part of, or even better are chair or founder of, a related caucus will help direct the focus to the right people at the right time.

Several caucuses presumably share in most or at least part of NRPA’s legislative goals. For example, the Congressional National Parks Caucus, the Congressional Bike Caucus, the Congressional Land Conservation Caucus, the Congressional Trails Caucus, and the Congressional Caucus on Youth Sports are some of the roughly dozen caucuses with park and recreation ties. Some of them are better known, well organized and far more active than others. Congressman Mike McIntyre (D-NC), founder and co-chair of the Youth Sports Caucus, works tirelessly to promote the caucus and its goals. While motivating park and recreation advocates the morning of Capitol Hill Day during this year’s Legislative Forum, Congressman McIntyre described the Youth Sports Legislative Agenda (112th Congress), entitled “F.A.N.S. for Youth Sports,” which represents the four main pillars of the agenda: fitness, access, nutrition, and safety. As part of that agenda, the Youth Sports Caucus called for a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on youth and sports. The study found that youth sports play a unique role in promoting physical health, academic success, and prosocial behavior. The Youth Sports Caucus’ Legislative Agenda also included support for the Urban Revitalization and Livable Communities Act, as well as the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The inclusion of these issues on the Caucus agenda has helped draw attention to the importance of these issues and further educate Members of Congress.

Because caucuses do play an instrumental role in the legislative process, it is important that we work to get NRPA’s issues included in as many caucus agendas as possible. We encourage NRPA members to learn about the caucuses on which your Member sits, as well as the legislative agendas for those caucuses. Be willing to talk to your Member of Congress about his or her involvement in the caucus, and when the topic area of the caucus lends itself to supporting NRPA issues, don’t hesitate to ask your Member of Congress to champion an effort to have the issue added to the caucus’ agenda.

For more information on parks and recreation or conservation-related caucuses, visit www.nrpa.org/caucuses.

Leslie Mozingo, a partner at The Ferguson Group, is NRPA’s outside lobbyist. Kyle Leopard and Max Raeder contributed to this article.  

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