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If there's a cause, there's a caucus on Capitol Hill

There's the Wine Caucus, the Soccer Caucus, the Frozen Food Caucus. And more are popping up all the time. The groups are one thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on.

February 14, 2010|By Richard Simon

Reporting from Washington — Congress isn't divided solely along party lines. Sometimes, it's split by food group.

Consider the Shellfish Caucus, the Beef Caucus, the Peanut Caucus, and for those who like their legislation additive-free, the Organic Caucus.

They belong to the eclectic buffet of about 300 congressional caucuses -- little posses that bring together otherwise often bitterly partisan lawmakers to promote pet causes from A (the Algae Energy Caucus) to Z (the Zero Capital Gains Tax Caucus).

"Somebody mentioned the Wine Caucus to me, and I said, 'Why isn't there a Bourbon Caucus?' " said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.).

Getting into the spirit pervading Capitol Hill, he founded the Bourbon Caucus. Yarmuth assures that the caucus, comprising Democrats and Republicans, does not exist to scare up free samples, but to address serious business, such as trade issues vital to one of his state's most important products.

In recent years, as members of Congress have found it harder and harder to get along, caucuses have proliferated, providing a way for lawmakers to bond -- clearly a goal of the Cement Caucus. Though some caucuses, such as the Black and Hispanic caucuses, go back decades, new ones seem to pop up all the time.

Just last month six representatives -- three Democrats and three Republicans -- teamed up to create the Coal Caucus, whose membership has since grown to 54.

"It's gotten harder for people on the Hill to talk with each other. The old days of slugging it out on the floor and sharing a bourbon and branch water later are gone," said Donald F. Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. "If a member of Congress can find a fellow Norwegian or soccer lover, there's at least a decent chance they can talk without fighting."

Which no doubt explains the Soccer Caucus and Friends of Norway Caucus.

The groups, more common in the House than Senate, are one of the lesser-known ways lawmakers advance issues they, their constituents or politically important interest groups care passionately about.

Don Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has joked that caucuses sprout like mushrooms. Indeed, there was once a Mushroom Caucus.

"It's easy to make fun of them," Wolfensberger said. But he said they can serve as a "shadow Congress for the formal institution's failures to satisfy member goals."

"It is critically important that we raise awareness of the shellfish industry in Congress," said Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who founded the Shellfish Caucus in 2005.

The groups can be influential. The 60-member Automotive Caucus, almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, was active in efforts to rescue Detroit. The Bike Caucus, founded by an avid bicyclist, helped win passage of a tax benefit for bicycle commuting.

The 102-member Steel Caucus plans to hold a hearing, usually the role of congressional committees, to spotlight the role steel can play in revitalizing the economy.

"There are issues that many in Congress didn't know were issues until there was a caucus," said Ryan Loskarn, a former aide to the co-founder of the Songwriters Caucus, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).

It's true that some caucuses rarely meet or exist in name only. And if some sound like jokes, they are.

"When I came here I said, 'I'm going to start a Boot Caucus,' " said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), a former western-wear haberdasher.

Alas, the Boot Caucus never got off on the right foot. But McKeon did manage to launch the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Caucus.

The surfing Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), appropriately, belongs to the Surfing Caucus. It's largely a social club -- "We have a lot of offshore board meetings" -- but its three members once showed up on Capitol Hill with surfboards to generate a wave of support for clean-water legislation.

Some lawmakers proudly note their caucus connections. "I'm the co-chair of the Frozen Food Caucus," Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) boasted, "and the Dairy Caucus, the Portuguese Caucus and the Brazil Caucus."

Frozen Food Caucus?

"There's more frozen food shipped out of the San Joaquin Valley than anywhere else in the world," Nunes explained.

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), a founder of the Wine Caucus, said the caucus' gatherings draw lawmakers "who could go five years without talking to one another. Here is something that brings people together."

"I have forced myself to attend the Wine Caucus meetings," said Rohrabacher, somewhat in jest, "just to see that they were really doing what was right by the vintners of this country."

The Wine Caucus, with about 215 members, a few years ago helped secure federal funding to fight a grape-killing pest.

But cooperation has its limits. The Center Aisle Caucus, created to promote civility across the aisle that separates Republicans and Democrats on the House floor, has only about an eighth of the chamber's 435 members.

Critics say some lawmakers uses caucuses to pad their resumes -- "like high school students who join lots of clubs in order to impress college admissions officers," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) refuses to join any. "I don't know what good they do," he said.

It seems, however, that caucuses are here to stay -- and with increased importance.

Consider Thompson, who belongs to the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee and chairs an intelligence subcommittee on terrorism. Yet when he was introduced at a recent event, he was singled out as co-chairman of the Wine Caucus.

richard.simon@ latimes.com

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