Tea Party Caucus joins long, occasionally weird list of congressional groups

The Tea Party Caucus is the newest Congressional Member Organization on Capitol Hill. These groups focus on a range of important legislative issues, from highways to ... hockey?

Alex Brandon/AP
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota speaks at a news conference Wednesday. She created the Tea Party Caucus this week to promote synergy between the movement and legislators.

What do the “tea party” movement, babies, algae energy, and motorcycles have in common?

They all contain the letter “e,” you say? That’s interesting, but this is not the Daily Jumble. We’re getting at something more substantive. Here’s a hint: It involves Capitol Hill.

All right, we’ll just tell you – they all have their own official US congressional caucuses. As do hydropower, the I-73/74 corridor, hockey, progressives, and zoos.

The Tea Party Caucus is the newcomer here. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota announced its formation at a July 21 Washington press conference. “We decided to form a Tea Party Caucus for one very important reason, to listen to the concerns of the tea party,” Representative Bachmann said.

Caucuses are informal member organizations of Congress. Lawmakers don’t have to take an oath to join. There are no applications or elections. You just show up – if the caucus has meetings. Many don’t. For these, communications means one aide texting another on a BlackBerry.

At any one time, Congress typically has around 300 caucuses (technically, they’re known as Congressional Member Organizations) registered with the House Committee on Administration. They form and disband with regularity. Some have the brief life of a one-hit wonder. Others endure, like Madonna.

They don’t get US-supplied office space, or allocated funds. Members can detail their own staff members to work on caucus business, though, and support them with their own money.

They’re a useful type of political organization, in that they have more flexibility than the rigid committee structure, and members can use them to pursue specific policy goals. They can meet with like-minded colleagues, plot strategy, and draft legislation. Some, such as the Northern Border Caucus, are organized on geographic lines. Others, such as the Republican Study Committee, are political in nature. Most are issue-based or economic in scope. We’re looking at you, Congressional Furnishings Caucus.

Are they effective? That depends on the force of personality behind them. Some are hyperactive, generating “Dear Colleague” letters by the dozens in an effort to promote, say, global road safety or curbs on contaminated drywall. Others are inert, formed only so members can tell their constituents they’ve joined.

“They make for good letterhead material,” wrote Don Wolfensberger, head of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center, in a 2009 essay on the subject.


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