The Taxpayer-Funded Caucus Is Still Thriving

Posted May 17, 2010 at 6:33pm

In January 1995, newly elected Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) abolished taxpayer-funded caucuses in the House of Representatives, arguing that they were essentially internal lobbying efforts for outside special interests.

Fifteen years later, the taxpayer-funded caucus still thrives in the House, though in a different, less public format.

In 2009, taxpayers paid salaries for full-time staff to run the Congressional Prayer Caucus, the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition (House and Senate), the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition and the Congressional Western Caucus, among others.

After Gingrich banished funded caucuses from the House, many of the organizations set up nonprofit groups on the outside to drive the caucus agenda. These groups have thrived, some acting as the de facto staff arm of the Congressional caucus.

For example, the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition has a shared staffer in both the House and the Senate and keeps close ties with the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a nonprofit housed in an office building near Union Station. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) is the co-chairman of the caucus, but a spokesman in his office referred a reporter’s call to the institute.

J. Thomas Wolfe, executive director of the institute, said his group provides briefings for the coalition members, arranges field hearings and even helps screen résumés when they hire new staff. Wolfe said the Senate staff position is vacant at the moment, and “I have been interviewing all week for that job.”

Women’s Policy Inc., a nonprofit group set up by the former staffers of the Congressional Women’s Caucus, organizes the bulk of the briefings for what is now known as the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues. Caucus members roll out their annual legislative agenda each year at a gala that serves as the major annual fundraising event for Women’s Policy Inc., and the State Department in 2007 issued a news release referring to the WPI as “a nonprofit organization that provides staff support for the caucus.”

But WPI Executive Director Cindy Hall said her group is very careful to point out that there is no direct link between the Congressional caucus and the nonprofit.

“We are not the caucus,” Hall said. While the WPI conducts briefings for the caucus, “They do some things on their own, too.” The Congressional caucus has no full-time staff, but the chairman and co-chairman have staff members who dedicate a portion of their time to caucus issues.

Like the Northeast-Midwest Institute, the WPI gets no Congressional money, and “members are not involved in fundraising,” Hall said. She regularly checks with the ethics committee and has WPI materials approved to make sure the group is complying with regulations that prohibit off-the-Hill groups from providing direct support to Congressional offices — and vice versa.

But for some of the other former caucuses, the relationship is more formal.

The Congressional Hunger Center, a nonprofit established after the demise of the Congressional Hunger Caucus, is now getting a $3-million-a-year appropriation from Congress to send fellows into the field to work on anti-hunger programs.

Likewise, two years ago the House passed legislation establishing the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission as an official agency of Congress. The commission was originally the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, founded by Lantos, the California Democrat who died in 2008. In 1994, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus had a staff of three and received more than $50,000 in dues from Members each quarter. The commission now has two full-time staff members attached to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

In compliance with the Gingrich reforms, none of the current caucuses has an office on Capitol Hill, even caucuses with dedicated staff of four or more people, such as the Congressional Black Caucus.

Before the Gingrich reforms, Members paid dues to the caucuses from their office accounts, and the caucus paid staff. In its quarterly public expense reports, the Clerk of the House included a section on the expenditures of “legislative service organizations” such as the California Democratic Congressional Delegation ($30,900 in salaries and $978 in travel and other expenses for the first three months of 1994).

The caucuses no longer report their staff or expenses separately. The staff simply appear as “shared staffers” in various office accounts, and the shared staffers receive paychecks from different offices each month, though occasionally an office reports in its disclosures that the person is paid for caucus services. For example, if you know which shared staffer to look for, you can determine that the California Democratic Congressional Delegation paid a full-time staff member $27,675 in the last three months of 2009, according to salary data compiled by the website LegiStorm. That staffer is housed in the office of Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), and it is impossible to tell what if any office expenses are attributable to the delegation instead of Lofgren’s personal office.

But Members of Congress also employ dozens of shared staffers who provide bookkeeping or information technology services, who are also listed in payroll records simply as “shared staff,” and there is nothing distinguishing these employees from full-time caucus staff.

Sarah Vanderbilt contributed to this report.