Editorial: Caucus Secrets

Banned in 1995, House Caucuses Still Exist — but Less Transparently

Posted May 18, 2010 at 4:50pm

In 1995, newly installed Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) took a scythe to the chamber’s personnel roster, eliminating its Office of Technology Assessment and 28 caucuses and cutting back on committee staffs and the Government Accountability Office (called the General Accounting Office at the time).

The number of House and joint House-Senate staff dropped from 16,939 to 15,215, and incoming Republicans took credit for saving $206 million a year — $5 million a year on the caucuses alone — evidence, they said, of fiscal responsibility.

GOP leaders also said that many of the caucuses — or legislative service organizations, as they were officially called — were taxpayer-subsidized arms of special interests, including both corporations and social policy groups.

As Roll Call reported this week, however, many of the supposedly eliminated caucuses have survived and continue to receive taxpayer support.

The problem is their staffing, operations and funding are much less transparent than they were in the old days.

The 1994 quarterly reports of the Clerk of the House contained the names of staff members of groups, their salaries and the Member office accounts that supported the caucuses. Groups included the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus, the Congressional Arts Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hunger Caucus and the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition.

Now, to find who is working for a caucus requires combing staffer by staffer through disbursement reports looking for evidence that he or she is a “shared employee” among several Members — and hoping that one of the Members reported what caucus the employee works for.

One of the top targets of the Republicans in 1995 was the Office of Technology Assessment. Some functions of that operation have been outsourced to a private think tank — leading some Members to call for its re-creation to equip the House with its own analyses of high-tech topics.

And as Roll Call reported, many of the caucuses have established nonprofit foundations, many with offices near Capitol Hill, some acting as de facto staff for the Congressional caucuses.

As an example, the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition has a shared staffer in both the House and Senate and has close ties with the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a nonprofit.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar is co-chairman of the caucus, but when the Minnesota Democrat’s spokesman was asked about its activities, he referred questions to the institute.

Members are forbidden to raise money for the caucus foundations, but lobbyists know full well who is a member of the related caucus and hence support its galas and outings to gain favor with Members. The special interest connection is alive and well.

We are not suggesting a return to the pre-Gingrich situation —or the full banning of caucuses. Members with common concerns have every right to coordinate their research and expression of interests.

But we definitely favor clearer reporting of staffing and costs.