Larson Crafts Policy Role for Caucus

Posted March 17, 2009 at 6:44pm

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) is trying to make a mark in his new leadership role, but it may not be a mark that resonates with everyone in his Caucus.

Two months into his new post, Larson is reframing the way the Caucus does business: Starting this week, he is using Caucus meetings to host a series of in-depth policy discussions on issues that go beyond the business of the week.

Larson kicked off the first of these discussions during the Monday evening Caucus meeting, which became an hours-long conversation on climate change policy and included presentations from invited experts.

Democratic Members said it is no secret that Larson’s effort to restructure the way the Caucus functions is an attempt to assert his relevance in leadership.

“John is trying to make a stake for a greater involvement of himself in the overall focus. That’s what he’s doing. I don’t begrudge him for it,— said one lawmaker with close ties to Larson.

An aide familiar with the plan said to expect “more and more of the Caucus meetings taking this shape.— Two more meetings will focus on climate change and, from there, another three will focus on health care reform as early as next week. Financial reform may also be a focus of policy talks with invited speakers, according to the aide.

Climate change is “part of the president’s agenda,— said the aide, and Larson wants to use Caucus meetings to educate Members on larger, more complicated policy issues before they reach the floor.

But some well-positioned House Democrats, who would only comment on the condition of anonymity, are already signaling that Larson’s trumped up policy plan may not be what Members want.

A senior Democratic aide said these sessions don’t appear to advance the goals of leadership. “[Monday] night’s meeting was premature … and I don’t know that the best way to help Members learn about [climate change] is by bringing experts in to argue amongst themselves.—

An aide who attended Monday’s meeting described the policy talk as “awful— and “useless,— saying that only about 10 Members were left when it finally wrapped up. The aide suggested that other leaders were unhappy the Caucus prematurely teed up the energy debate.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dismissed the idea that she was frustrated with Larson for bringing up energy issues so soon.

“No, no, no. … You have to have some lead on some of these issues,— Pelosi said. “Originally, a Caucus meeting was a caucus of the Members. It wasn’t a leadership vehicle, which we’re trying to get it back to be. What are the things they want to hear about? What do they want to tell us rather than just us making our announcements and having them discuss that? … Having them take the lead.—

But some Members appeared put off by being asked to take an active role in Caucus meetings that will run much longer and concentrate on issues not currently on the front burner.

One longtime Democratic lawmaker who missed Monday’s meeting laughed at the idea of attending an hours-long discussion on climate change policy. “Why? That’s like watching paint dry,— he said.

Others worried that, given lawmakers’ tight schedules, Larson’s strategy could have the unintended effect of lowering attendance in Caucus meetings, at a time when attendance has been strong.

“I don’t know that he should be billing these as Caucus meetings since Members feel obliged to go,— said one Democratic Member, who suggested that Larson set up separate policy talks for those who want to learn more about a given issue.

If Members feel like they have to attend Caucus meetings that entail hours-long discussions on issues not relevant to the week’s business, “They won’t know which ones to really be at so they won’t go to any,— said the lawmaker. “I fear a lot of drop-off.—

Not that it’s a bad idea to try to bring Members up to speed on looming policy issues, noted that lawmaker, but not within the context of the Caucus meetings.

Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.), chairman of the Financial Services Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Insurance and Government-Sponsored Enterprises, welcomed the policy discussions in Caucus meetings and said he is trying to organize similar briefings for his subcommittee.

He acknowledged that Members may complain about time constraints when asked to take part in policy discussions, but added, “You can never make them all happy.—

Indeed, others insisted that the policy discussions will make the Caucus meetings far more helpful to Members, many of whom don’t belong to committees that handle major legislation like climate change or health care.

“I like the fact that you’re trying to provide something substantive to the Members. The question is always going to be time constraints,— said Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas), a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Gonzalez asked when Larson would be able to update Members on key issues if not at the Monday night Caucus meetings. “John’s options are so limited. He picked probably the best time, after suspension votes when we first get back,— he said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, applauded Larson for “trying to get ahead of the curve— on issues that are on the horizon.

He dismissed the idea that holding more intensive policy discussions in Caucus meetings will keep people from coming.

Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) said it’s “a great idea— to allow Members to discuss the details of climate change legislation and said if Members don’t want to stick around for the whole discussion, they can leave.

“No one is forced to stay in those meetings,— said Crowley, who is vice chairman of the pro-business New Democrat Coalition. “Members are smart enough to know what’s being discussed and what’s on the agenda, and make their decisions about whether to go or not.—